Dolphin's dilemma
Date: 23-04-2000
Producer: Hein Ungerer
Presenter: Les Aupiais
Genre: Wildlife and Animals


This is a sight not many people get to see in real life - a large pod of common dolphins feeding just off Plettenberg Bay.

Dolphins in the wild are social animals and live in groups in the open ocean where they hunt and breed. Through the ages there has been a special affinity between man and dolphins. So much so that man eventually caught dolphins and tamed them - a situation that has caused many unforeseen and unintended problems for the captive animals.

Antics such as these have made dolphins very popular with the public. Since the 1960's, with the opening of the first dolphinariums in South Africa, the only contact many children and grown-ups had with dolphins was in situations like this... dolphins living in an oceanarium where they perform for an audience. At the end of each visit the audience gets to go home while the dolphins stay behind - in a place some people would say is a prison without bars.

We are outside Port Elizabeth's oceanarium. In the 1960's it was on the beach and there was only one hotel nearby. Forty years later, development has closed in ... and this construction site, on the last open stand in the area, is right next-door to the main dolphin pool. And the noise and pollution has given rise to renewed concerns for the health and well being of the animals at the oceanarium.

It's home to two bottlenose dolphins that used to be the centre of entertainment - they are now the centre of controversy. The dolphins, Dolly and Domino, are all that is left of around thirty dolphins that have, over the past three decades, been housed at Bayworld. The facility currently receives a grant from the Eastern Cape Provincial Government of around R600 000 per year. Both the remaining animals were born at the oceanarium.

Sylvia van Zyl: "Well obviously it's not ideal at all, which is why we are caught up in the controversy that we are at the moment; because, if we wish to continue our program, we need to bring in additional animals."

Sylvia Van Zyl is the curator of Bayworld in Port Elizabeth.

Sylvia: "The two that we have here at the moment are a mother and son, which is by no means an ideal combination. Their age difference is also significant. She's in her thirties, he's not quite ten yet. I mean, clearly she will in the foreseeable future come to the end of her lifespan - and we'll be sitting with one animal."

According to Sylvia, they have tried to source Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins from several other oceanariums throughout the world, but without success.

Les: "What about Durban - haven't they got dolphins there?"

Sylvia: "Yes they do, but they've got the Atlantic Ocean bottlenose dolphins, significantly bigger than our own."

And now a furore has erupted after Bayworld announced that they intend capturing four wild Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins. This plan has drawn strong criticism from a variety of people - ranging from animal activists to marine scientists.

Gordon Fairlie is the spokesperson for POD, an organisation working for the protection of South African dolphins.

Gordon Fairlie: "We agree two dolphins as a social grouping is very unhealthy. But in our opinion so is five, so is ten... So we firmly believe that catching another four dolphins and putting them in the pool with the remaining two is not going to improve their social condition.

Sylvia: "I also don't want to go and catch dolphins. It's the last thing I want to do, but, at the end of the day, we have not found any other way to sort out our little group here and making it functional - because it is dysfunctional at the moment."

We asked Gordon whether POD saw any role for a facility like Bayworld whatsoever.

Gordon: "The problem we have with the Bayworld is that for over 30 years they have had dolphins in captivity. Three years ago three dolphins died - one of them from old age, let's say, and the other two they had no idea why the dolphins died. The only answers that they got were when they did autopsies. So their scientific research over 30 years has practically gotten them nowhere."

Two hours' drive south of Port Elizabeth lies Plettenberg Bay, an area renowned for its dolphins and whales. People come from all over the world to see these marine mammals in their natural environment. So it's not surprising that the Centre for Dolphin Studies is based here.

Dr Debbie Young: "I was horrified by the fact that they would even contemplate catching wild dolphins and putting them into a concrete pool."

Dr Debbie Young, a marine mammal scientist specialising in dolphins, worked at Bayworld during the mid-nineties. Like Gordon, she's concerned that wild dolphins brought into the same pool could face a similar fate as the three that died there in 1995. Simo was one of the three.

Dr Young: "We then opened the stomach up and discovered that it was small stones, filter sand. He had plastic bags, feathers, tiles that he had picked off the side of the pool. He had peach pips, he had coins, he had metal washers, he had all kinds of little wooden beads and that kind of thing in his stomach."

Dr Vic Cockcroft, also a marine mammal scientist, is the Director of the Centre for Dolphin Studies. He worked at Bayworld for more than 20 years.

Dr Vic Cockroft: "Because there is very little enrichment of the animals' lives, the animals were tearing tiles off the wall and, because they were taking the tiles and the tiles were injuring them, I suggested that they put in a few round stones into the pool so that the animals could play with those. Unfortunately stones were put in the pool and they would disappear ... and more stones were put in the pool and they would disappear ... and more stones would be put in the pool. And nobody kept a record of just how many round stones were put in the pool."

In fact, the autopsy on Simo revealed that he had 42 kilograms of stones, sand and other foreign matter in his stomach; enough to make it very difficult for him to stay afloat.

Dr Young: "Overseas, they would do all sorts of things to enrich the environment of marine mammals. They would put water jets in, they would put bubble curtains in, they would put underwater reefs in - to stimulate the animals ... to make them less bored - to relieve the frustration of a captive environment, trying to make it as natural and as interesting as possible."

In other words, to simulate exactly where wild dolphins come from ... the open ocean. And this is also where they are caught. The capture process can have a high mortality rate and it is no wonder that even some of the most experienced capture outfits guarantee a 90-day replacement policy for dolphins that die.

This is footage from a documentary film called "A Fall From Freedom" produced by the Earth Island Institute. In this film nets are used to encircle the dolphins. They are then physically overpowered as they thrash and struggle to escape. One of the capturers explains.

Dolphin capturer: "It's a very violent procedure to capture a dolphin - that's the dirty little secret. And I have captured scores of dolphins. I can tell you first-hand it's a very violent procedure."

The captured dolphins are hauled aboard the capture boat still wrapped in the net - now helpless, out of their normal habitat... water. From here they are taken to their captive environment and probably never get to swim free again.

Another player in the dolphin game is the Department of Marine and Coastal Management. They are the government department that issues permits if you want to capture or keep a dolphin. The man who will ultimately decide on whether Bayworld gets a permit to capture wild dolphins is Dr Jeremy David.

Les: "You seem to have set quite tough hurdles for them. Why?"

Dr Jeremy David: "We could just have given the permit. There's nothing to say in the Act that we can't. We could have just said, 'Yes, sure - I'll recommend you get a permit'. But clearly, with the amount of controversy that there has been over this whole issue, that would not have been a wise thing to do."

One of the conditions Jeremy set was that an international expert would give the all clear for Bayworld.

Dr David: "I wanted to make sure that there were no come-backs or queries or questions. I wanted it to be completely clean and above board."

But it would appear as if exactly the opposite has now happened. Bayworld announced in a press release on 2nd March that the facility had been cleared "fully acceptable and in accordance with international standards" by an American veterinarian, Dr Jay Sweeney.

Although Sylvia van Zyl says that Dr Sweeney comes highly recommended, he seems surrounded by controversy.

Sylvia: "Dr Sweeney is not involved in capture operations at this time. He was in the earlier part of his career. He was involved in live capture and, because of that, he obviously has attracted a lot of flack from the anti captivity lobby."

But accusations that Dr Sweeney is, in fact, still involved in dolphin capture and brokering are surfacing.

Gordon: "He is not a marine mammal scientist. He is a cat and dog vet who makes his money out of brokering dolphins. He seeks out and he hunts ... he does what he's doing at the Bayworld oceanarium, basically. He gets involved, he does the inspection, he passes the inspection and then, lo and behold, he happens to be the same person that catches the dolphins and puts them in the oceanarium. He's doing this for an oceanarium in the States called The Shed - he has been for the last ten years and a number of dolphins have died there... one as recently as 1999 - in July."

Clearly some work needs to be done to establish who is correct about whether or not Dr Sweeney still captures dolphins. And is he in line for the job of capturing the Bayworld animals if and when a permit is granted?

Dr David: "I would not accept Jay Sweeney to capture. I would choose somebody else. The other condition that you mentioned is that we have to have the CV of somebody who is currently active and can show an impressive track record currently in catching dolphins without mortality."

There are also questions surrounding the actual assessment Jay Sweeney did of Bayworld. In his report he states that the facility could cope with 14 dolphins. Vic Cockcroft disagrees.

Dr Cockroft: "I have no doubt that it is possibly as good or even better than most of the facilities elsewhere. But again, that's an indictment on how bad the other facilities are, rather than how good Bayworld is, and I think that that's the way it should be seen."

At the heart of the dolphin program at Bayworld lies an educational rationale which will undoubtedly be adversely affected if they should lose another dolphin.

Sylvia: "People want to have these experiences. There are many people who want to go out on a whale-watching experience as well, but it's way beyond their sort of financial capacity. This will always remain the experience of the elite."

But former Bayworld staffer Dr Debbie Young disagrees with the current Bayworld education programme.

Dr Young: "My one concern is that the educational message that Bayworld is delivering is not strong enough. It's all very well making dolphins jump through hoops or catch plastic balls or that kind of thing. We're teaching kids the wrong kind of thing. It needs to be stronger and it needs to be more aimed at dolphins in their natural habitat."

Gordon Fairlie, on the other hand, feels that no animal needs to be incarcerated to provide education for people.

Gordon: "I have to ask this question... How many children in South Africa know more about dinosaurs than about dolphins? And I would say the vast majority of them. And I have to ask you this as well. How many of those children have ever seen a live dinosaur? None!"

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.