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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Flipper’s Follies

Air Date: Week of

Millions of visitors flock each year to water parks to see showcase dolphins and whales flaunt their aqua stuff. But visitors may not know what goes on underneath the surface of these marine parks. Many of these animals live in unhealthy and sometimes dangerous conditions, with little or no management or oversight. Host Steve Curwood talks with senior writer Sally Kestin of the Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, about the business of sea stars. We’ll be joined later by Ted Griffin, one of the first killer whale collectors in the business, whose main claim to fame is bringing in the most famous of sea stars, Shamu.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Sea stars are the dolphins, whales and sea lions that jump and juggle their way into the hearts of audiences year after year. They bring in the big bucks for water parks as marquee attractions, and millions of visitors flock to places like Sea World to get a little splash of marine magic. But behind the aquatic curtain, these creatures may have less than glamorous living conditions – some even downright dangerous.

Sally Kestin has extensively investigated the lucrative marine park business, and the treatment of its prized performers. She’s the senior writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and has written a multi-part series on abuses in the industry. Sally, welcome to Living on Earth.

KESTIN: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Sally, I want to ask you, how did you get into the story about the treatment of marine mammals in captivity?

KESTIN: Last summer, a local anti-captivity activist had called the newspaper wanting us to take a look at a death of a young orphan dolphin. This was a dolphin that had stranded on the beaches near Cape Canaveral and had been named Rocketman appropriately by his rescuers. The federal government had decided that Rocketman, it was only a few weeks old at the time which is too young to be returned to the wild, so they sent him, as they often do in those cases, to a marine park, and they chose a facility in the Florida Keys. But he didn’t do well, he died about a month later after the move from some sort of infection. So we had the federal records on this dolphin and, in reviewing them, we were intrigued by what we saw…. some of the reasons that the government had turned down other Florida marine parks to take in Rocketman.

CURWOOD: For example?

KESTIN: One of them had a herpes outbreak among its dolphins. Another one had some problems with a recent inspection. They had inexperienced staff and some questionable veterinary care. Another one had a history of losing dolphin calves, and the list just went on and on. And the conditions that we were reading about there just didn’t seem to match this idyllic picture you get when you go to a marine park. So we decided to take a closer look.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve catalogued the causes of death for many marine mammals kept in aquaria. I’m wondering if you could list some of these and tell us just how common they might be?

KESTIN: We looked..of course, as one scientist for the industry told us, all living things die, and we discovered that the National Marine Fishery Service has been keeping an inventory of all marine mammals in captivity for more than 30 years. So the government had collected all of this information on births, and deaths, and moves, and why marine mammals died, and how old they were, and we found about one in five of the nearly 4,000 deaths in this federal inventory, one in five of those animals had died from either human contact or possibly preventable causes.

The causes of death would be stress, ulcers, animals died from too much chlorine in their tank, from jumping into an empty pool during a cleaning. Lots of incidents of marine mammals swallowing keychains, sunglasses, metal, things that people toss into the tanks not thinking twice, and the dolphin eats it and dies.

When not performing, Presley spends time floating at the surface of his tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Visitors who asked in February what was wrong with him were told he was fine. (Photo: South Florida Sun-Sentinel photo by Angel Valentin)

CURWOOD: What about the laws protecting these animals and the enforcement of them? How well does the government, the federal and state governments, how well do they do in enforcing the laws that are on the books to protect marine mammals in captivity?

KESTIN: Well, that’s one of the things that struck us when we first started looking at this. There’s just been a gradual weakening of the regulations. And back in 1994, the industry successfully lobbied Congress to essentially weaken regulations. They used to have to submit necropsy reports to the government when an animal dies, they no longer have to do that. They used to have to get an export permit when they wanted to trade or sell an animal out of the country, they no longer have to do that. And they got inspections moved from the Marine Fishery Service to the USDA, which really doesn’t have the expertise. So we found that the inspections are cursory and minimal. When they do find violations, there’s a tremendous amount of leeway given to marine parks.

CURWOOD: Are there any particular cases, Sally, that you can tell me about that really struck you as egregious?

KESTIN: There was one case out in Hawaii that happened over the course of the last couple of years. The inspector had gone out to a place called Sea Life Park, and had noted that they did not have a local vet nearby to attend to emergencies or even provide routine care. And the inspector had cited them for this inadequate veterinary care, and gave them a deadline to correct it. Over the next 15 months, the inspector went back out four more times, and kept noting that they still had not complied with this deadline, still didn’t have sufficient veterinary care. She even wrote in her notes that she had discussed the gravity of the situation with senior management at the park because they had an older population of marine mammals, and some of them with some fairly serious medical conditions.

And then, last fall, the inspector went back out because a pregnant dolphin at the park had been in labor for three days, never completely expelled her calf, and at no time during those three days of labor did she receive any veterinary care. The dolphin continued to weaken and eventually died, as did her calf. And so that sort of struck us as here’s an example where they knew about a potentially serious violation, and it ended up in resulting in the death of two animals.

CURWOOD: And what has happened to that park since then?

KESTIN: The USDA is investigating, and that’s all they’ll tell us, so I don’t know if they have taken any action, it doesn’t appear that they have yet. It did become obvious to us that when they do crack down on these parks, it is a process that takes months, if not years.

CURWOOD: How do you think parks can improve their conditions and the treatment of these animals? And I’m wondering if there’s a particular park out there, or a number of parks that you think are doing it right?

KESTIN: The first part of your question on how they can improve, I think there are certain things that they have learned and have gotten better at. I don’t understand why in this day in age, after so many advances, you would continue to see facilities that just can’t seem to get the chlorine right, the chlorine balance in their water, and we certainly found that. We found a dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida that had problems with water quality and chlorine for a couple of years, and their dolphins were suffering eye irritations and their skin was peeling.

There also doesn’t seem to be much of an excuse to allow people to have access, that close of an access to the animals where they can lose keychains and sunglasses into the water. It seems like the parks could put some barriers between the visitors just to prevent those sorts of things. So there are some basic things that I think could be done. Sea World is certainly held up by the industry and by Sea World as sort of the leader in the industry in terms of animal care and breeding, they’ve had success at breeding, I think they’ve now bred close to 20 killer whales since 1985 and more than 100 or so dolphins. So everyone seems to turn to them for advice on and help in breeding.

CURWOOD: You say that marine mammals are big business. Who profits from these sea stars, and what’s a killer whale worth today?

KESTIN: A killer whale is insured for up to $5 million dollars. There’s a killer whale here at the Miami Seaquarium that has a life insurance policy for a million dollars, and that’s on the low end because she’s been alone and has no proven breeding record. So, younger killer whales are worth up to $5.5 million dollars, we found. Bottlenose dolphins are worth anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000. We’ve heard offers of $400,000 for a dolphin calf in Mexico. Sea World paid $130,000 a piece for several dolphins from Marineland a couple of years ago. So the animals have become extremely valuable, and you can certainly make a lot of money in this business.

In the U.S., admission to marine parks now costs up to $130 per person. And they promote these extras that you can swim with the dolphins, or you can become a dolphin trainer for a day for $650; you can send someone to dolphin therapy sessions for $2,000 a week. On the revenue side, we calculated that a single dolphin in a swim with the dolphins program brings in about a million dollars a year.

CURWOOD: Sally Kestin is the senior writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sally, thanks for taking this time with me today.

KESTIN: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: I want to turn now to Ted Griffin, who was one of the early whale collectors who profited from the sea star business. He’s the man who brought Shamu the killer whale to national attention, and he’s founder of the Seattle Aquarium in Washington. Ted, welcome to Living on Earth.

GRIFFIN: Well, thank you.

CURWOOD: So, how did you get into the business of whale and dolphin collecting?

GRIFFIN: Well I started with a long history of skin diving and being in the water and very familiar with boats. When I built the Seattle Aquarium in 1962, during the Seattle World’s Fair, I had planned to get a killer whale and I was going to capture one within a few weeks. Of course, it was four years later before I actually got my whale. But I used to go out routinely, chase around after them, try to jump out of the boat and get a rope around ‘em, drop a net over ‘em – I did all kinds of things. Most people thought I was crazy, but to me it was just getting in the water with a whale.

CURWOOD: Your whale collecting, though, did get off to a pretty high-profile start, because you’re the one, in fact, to thank for bringing Shamu to international attention. Just how did you rope in this – perhaps it’s the most famous killer whale in Sea World’s history?

GRIFFIN: Shamu came into Puget Sound in November with a pod of eight or ten whales. And this was the fist time I’d ever attempted a capture. I got in my little runabout and followed the whales, and I saw a fishing boat in the channel and I stopped and I said “would you like to help me catch a whale?” And the captain kind of laughed at me and said “nah” and said “good luck, boys.” So I went on down the channel and another fishing boat and I said “would you like to help me catch a whale?” And he said “well, what do you guys pay?” And my partner Don Goldsberry and I had a bunch of cash in our pockets, so we waved money at ‘em and they smiled and they said “okay, we’ll go.”

So, next thing I know, the fishing boat that I talked to first was following along behind us, and so we went over and said “well, we’ve already hired this other boat.” And he said “well, we’ll just come along.” So here we are in Henderson Bay, which is near Tacoma, Washington, and the whales are kind of lollygaging around the shore. And all of a sudden, Don Goldsberry’s on the lead boat and he says “run, run!” So the engine starts up and the net flies off the stern. Well, the whales see that and very quickly turn around and go back the other way. But this other boat, he has come up behind the whales, and he starts from the back end of the net and goes the other way. And pretty soon I’ve got a three-quarter of a mile round circle around those whales. I couldn’t believe it. That’s how we succeeded.

CURWOOD: Now I understand that Shamu’s mother died in this process?

GRIFFIN: She did. The way I initially captured whales was to follow the pod and if the pod were submerged I couldn’t see them. So I went to the Fish and Wildlife Service and borrowed a shoulder-firing harpoon rifle. And with a long string attached I was able to attach a buoy to the end of that, and by harpooning the shoulder of a whale I could then watch the buoy. And when the buoy got into the water that I thought was suitable for setting the nets, then we could set around the buoy and, hopefully, catch the whales. That’s how it happened.

Unfortunately, Shamu’s mother was the one that I harpooned. I believe it was the mother, I don’t know that for a fact. And the female, as I fired from the helicopter, she rolled – which is quite unusual – and the harpoon entered her lung and she died shortly thereafter.

CURWOOD: Oh my God. How’d you feel?

GRIFFIN: Terrible. I mean, it was the first whale I’d ever actually had alongside the boat, and here it is dying. My partner and I are trying to tie it up and suspend it above water and get ropes under the pectoral fins. This was a procedure that they’d used for years to fire these cylinders with information into the whales. And then when they actually kill a whale and cut it up for blubber, the little cylinders tell where the whale was initially spotted, and how big it was at the time, that kind of information. So I had assumed because of that information that this was not a serious problem. In any event, the whale died. And my partner and I are just enormously upset about it, but there’s nothing we can do.

CURWOOD: From your experience as a founder of an aquarium, as a former whale collector, what’s your assessment of the quality of the marine parks these days?

Visitors have little trouble believing that dolphins like this one at Gulf World in Panama City Beach enjoy playing and performing for humans. (Photo: South Florida Sun-Sentinel photo by Angel Valentin)

GRIFFIN: Well I’m not aware of all of the parks that have whales, but in any given situation you will find people who are short of money, and short of knowledge, and are not taking appropriate care of their animals. I mean, that’s just the way it is. On other cases, you will find marine parks that put an enormous amount of money into it and do the very best they can.

Now, there are people who would object simply because the whales are in captivity in a marine park, and that’s enough. They say that no matter how good a care you take care of them it’s not swimming in the wild. So, all I can do is stand on what I have done, and I would do it again. I wanted to know the whale, I wanted to befriend the whale, I wanted one in captivity so that I could have it as a companion, I wanted to train whales to go out into the ocean and come back, I wanted to domesticate the animal, and I still do.

CURWOOD: Ted Griffin is the founder of Seattle Aquarium and a former whale collector. Ted, thanks for speaking with me today.

GRIFFIN: You bet. Thanks a lot for talking to me, Steve.




South Florida Sun-Sentinel series on the Marine Parks industry


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