Saturday, April 08, 2006

Are dolphins in captivity really unhappy?

“Are the dolphins happy?” that was the simple but straightforward question posed by my companion to a world–class trainer on a recent trip to Jamaica to see swim–with–dolphin facilities in action.

World renowned marine mammal trainer Eric Bogden gets up close to one of his friends at Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios

We had just visited Dolphin Lagoon, a private dolphin facility solely for guests of the Half Moon Bay Resort in Montego Bay and were now sitting at Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios speaking with world renowned mammal behaviourist and lecturer Eric Bogden.

Instead of bombarding us with scientific stats and facts regarding the animal’s emotional wellbeing, he merely answered, “That’s not a question for me. That’s for you to decide yourself when you see the dolphins. . .”

Corporate Director of Marine Animals for Dolphin Cove, which includes the Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and soon come Grand Cayman facility, Eric brings about 30 years of experience with him from his previous roles as Manager of Entertainment at Seaworld California and Director of Ocean World, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

Later on that day when the dolphins were swimming around doing their own thing I noticed one over to the side of the lagoon, standing up vertically in the water, spinning around and flapping his fins in the air as he would have during an interaction or training session. So what was going on with this dolphin? Was he going crazy in captivity? Or was he eager to please his trainers and felt the need to practice, or was he simply enjoying himself perfecting the move?

This is not uncommon, Eric informed me, more so perhaps when the dolphin has been taught a new move. He will take the time to try to figure it out and practice it while alone. He enjoys it.
Earlier at the other facility, Dolphin Lagoon, the two young males there, Bruno and Miguel, had been frolicking together in the water, tugging and chasing each–other playfully in the turquoise Caribbean Sea.

Something didn’t fit right. These were dolphins in captivity. They shouldn’t look happy. We’ve all heard why the anti–captive dolphin activists don’t want these facilities in Cayman.

Sure, they have smiles plastered on their faces continually, but they could be miserable under those grins.

However, observing these dolphins – the fun and frolics, the cheeky behaviour, the curiosity when we appear – this makes them seem content.

But, impossible – right? Most anti–captive dolphin activists point to the fact that these enclosed mammals live meagre existences in grey, concrete tank–like structures.


But, standing on a natural pristine Caribbean beach at Dolphin Lagoon I had seen the two bucksome young dolphins frolic in their section of ocean. This large area of the sea is cordoned off by loosely piled rocks and nearer to shore, netting. General Manager Neil Burrowes explains that the set–up allows the lagoon to be a continuation of the real ocean in which the boundary gaps allow for good tidal flow within the dolphin enclosure (which might roughly measure about 5,000 square metres). There are even small fish darting about the place. This is the ocean.

Some holding areas sit off to the side of the lagoon. These may be needed in case of medical care or if a need arises to separate the dolphins, I am told.

At Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios it is the same set up: Two open–style lagoons in the ocean. Here, at this much larger facility, there are eight dolphins in one large lagoon and six in the other.

Grand Cayman’s Dolphin Cove, which is to be near Morgan’s Harbour in West Bay, will also have a natural open layout, with a lagoon made from the sea and loosely piled rocks. Plans are ultimately for there to be 12 dolphins at this facility. Neil’s dad, Mr. Stafford Burrowes (owner of Dolphin Cove) asserts that the company is eager to begin training Caymanians to be dolphin trainers for the park here.

He speaks about how, when they changed the nets that enclose the lagoon at some points, the dolphins merely looked at what was going on, with no interest in swimming past into the ocean. He also maintains that at high tide the water is so high over the rocks the dolphins could easily jump over and escape if they wanted to.

So why not? I wonder. If dolphins are as intelligent as people say they are, why not escape? Could it be that they don’t mind being in captivity as much as we think they do?

So what about the work they have to do? Don’t they mind doing tricks all day for screaming tourists?

Human Interaction

Eric informs me that he would not refer to what they do as “work”, but if I mean interaction time they have with trainers and tourists, then none of them does any more than one to two hours per day, giving them at least 22 hours a day to “be dolphins”.

And what if they have a headache or feel in a bad mood and don’t want to face the tourists, even for a short session, what then?

They are free to swim away.

Training is totally based on positive reinforcement. Bad behaviour from a dolphin will get the mammal, at worst, ignored for three seconds by the trainer. The whistle is the primary re–enforcer of good behaviour, with food acting as a back up. How many hours the dolphins spend interacting with humans each day depends on the individual dolphin and what best suits its needs.

Neil asserts, “You can’t force a dolphin to do anything.” He explains that dolphins can leave the tourist interaction session whenever they choose, something they sometimes do. They often come back to the session. But when they want a break, they certainly take it.

For example, at Dolphin Lagoon the dolphins are involved in four interactive programmes a day, each of which lasts 30 minutes.

Daily Memo

A daily memo records their daily health and behaviours. One such memo regarding the dolphin Bruno includes observations of him leaving during a training session: “. . . split at the beginning. Ended session. Started again and he was much better. Did good behaviours.”

Another tourist encounter session observation reads, “Split once to Miguel (other dolphin) at platform but came back and did programme very well”.

Another beach diary marking reads, “excellent program, never split, nice slow passing touch/belly pass, ok fam photos, excellent kisses”.

One of the biggest challenges, said Neil, is keeping the mammals interested by varying their routines. Varying the times of programmes, training and their activities all play a role in this and keep the dolphins eager to participate in training and programmes.

Dolphin Cove in Jamaica permits eight people on a programme to two dolphins and the regulations in Cayman will be six people to every two dolphins and three people to every one animal.

The dolphins are fed five times a day regardless of how well they do in training or interaction. They are fed fish such as mackerel, herring, squid and capelin. It is imported frozen from Canada and defrosted, then gone through one by one for quality. The fish is at human quality consumption levels.

All this is very well – that the dolphins have good food to line their bellies –. but what about the environment? Isn’t dolphin excrement supposed to be detrimental to the precious coral reefs?


Neil explained that they had an independent study done by coastal and environmental engineering Firm Smith Warner, which concluded that the faeces of 12 dolphins is so small in the ocean that it is immeasurable.

Coliform tests are done at the dolphin facilities at least monthly, if not weekly, and quarterly a spate of different water samples are taken. The PH of the ocean is even measured.

Because the dolphins live in a natural environment their faeces evaporates into the sea the way nature intended, said Neil.

Indeed, the company has declined offers of opening in many other places because they are so conscious of having the perfect environment for their dolphins, they said.

Wild Captures

But none of this changes the fact that most of these dolphins have originally come from wild captures in Mexico and Cuba. What does mammal expert Eric Bogden think of this?

He explains that the catching process is scientific and he knows this first hand because he spent six months watching them do it. The dolphins, he said, are all caught humanely, because if they are not they will die from a syndrome know as capture myopathy.

The fact that these dolphins survived the captures and are doing well is because they have been caught humanely. The captures are highly technical, and have to be because the animals are so valuable. It is in nobody’s interest to harm them, he asserts.

An untrained dolphin from Cuba costs US$100,000. Of course this dolphin will be kept in the best conditions possible.

The company had previously acquired dolphins from Mexico, but has not done so for a few years now, preferring to work with Cuba.

Neil explained that Cuba surveys its wild populations and catches no more than 15 a year. This is all highly regulated by the government, he asserts.

The dolphins for Grand Cayman’s Dolphin Cove will come from the Jamaican facilities, Honduras or Cuba.

So how many more dolphins are to undergo capture in the wild for these dolphin parks? I wondered.

Breeding Programme

The ultimate aim, the company asserts, is to establish its own self–sufficient breeding programme. Already at Dolphin Cove there is a pregnant female, who is due in about four weeks’ time. We observed her gliding through her special private pregnancy pool, which she is free to enter and leave through open gates leading into one of the two main lagoons.

Her big belly glistens through the water. Neil informs me that breeding in captivity has been highly successful, particularly in the US, which has not imported dolphins for 16 years. Seaworld has a highly successful breeding programme that has grown rapidly in the past 30 years. Yet some anti–captive dolphin activitists still insist that captive dolphins do not breed in captivity.

There are other methods of attaining dolphins. For instance, one mammal, now at the Ocho Rios facility was saved after she became beached in the wild.
Indeed, beaching is a major cause of dolphin deaths in the wild, as are careless and inadvertent capture of dolphins in giant fishing nets, disease and predators.

Life Expectancy

Another point many anti–captive dolphin activists continually make is that the life expectancy of creatures in captivity is reduced dramatically. All this increases the need by such facilities to catch more and more dolphins in the wild, they say.

Many say dolphins can only survive five years in captivity, yet some of the dolphins at the Ocho Rios facility have lived in captivity for 30 years or more.

Recent scientific research concludes that dolphins living in aquariums have a better than or equal to survival rate compared to dolphins in the wild. The maximum age for bottlenose dolphins is from 40 and 50 years.

A recent study focused on the bottlenose dolphin and was conducted by Drs. Deborah Duffield of Portland University and Randall Wells of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, a member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

The AMMPA’s website explains, “The study is based on comparative demographic census data for dolphins in public display facilities and a wild dolphin population in the waters of Sarasota, Florida, studied by Dr. Wells, the only wild dolphin population for which such data are available. This work corroborates a study published in 1988 by DeMaster and Drevenak who pointed out that survival of dolphins in aquariums ‘may be better than or equal to survival in the wild’.”

The website also asserts that dolphins and whales in public display facilities breed successfully, form complex social groups, and exhibit excellent physical health.

“The dolphins and whales in Alliance member marine life parks, aquariums, and zoos consume consistently high–quality, nutritional food, receive excellent medical attention, and are kept free of debilitating parasites. This is in stark contrast to the predators, disease, pollution, well–documented commercial fishing and recreational boating dangers and other challenges they face at sea, resulting in thousands of deaths each year”.

Medical Health

Every morning each of Dolphin Cove’s mammals has a medical examination to check overall health. A top veterinarian from the US, a world authority on marine mammals and an expert in endoscopic surgery, flies in regularly to routinely check the dolphins and is flown in for any emergency.

Illnesses can be detected and then treated. Cancers can be removed and antibiotics administered. None of this can happen in the wild.

Dolphin Cove has been in existence roughly five years and Dolphin Lagoon, two. The total number of dolphins they have had die under their care is four, I was told.

The breakdown is as follows: Two calves were mis–carried by first–time mothers;
One dolphin that came from Cuba died from a stingray barb it had eaten while still in the wild. The animal eventually became gravely ill when food could not pass through his intestine;
The fourth dolphin died following its journey to Jamaica from Mexico. Dolphin Cove says it should never have received such an animal, as it was old and not in good health.

Now the company has health checks conducted on animals before it receives them.

Hurricane Plans

In the case of hurricanes, the animals will be placed in stretchers, which are then put in trucks and they are driven to a swimming pool in a safe area. Salt will be added to the pool for the 24 hours that they will spend in it.

Eric explains that the dolphins have been trained to go in the stretcher and they know when they do this they get a nice big fish. It is a familiar experience for them and one that is associated with a reward, making it a pleasant occurrence.

The same plan will be in place for dolphins at the Grand Cayman facility, which will not be open for another nine months or so.

Another opinion voiced by anti–captive activists is that the mental health of these animals comes into question in captivity and that many people get hurt in dolphin swim programmes because of stressed, traumatised dolphins.

The AMMPA’s website notes a recent scientific study of steroid hormones produced by the adrenal cortex, a common measure of stress in animals, demonstrates that stress is not an issue in marine mammals in in–water interactive programs. “This Dolphin Quest/Sea World study was submitted to the U.S. government in September of 2000 and provides clear evidence that the animals are in a healthy environment.”

Neil asserts that dolphins can become aggressive from time to time, like any other live animal, but there are precursors to this aggression, which trainers can read and, hence, stay away. Like interacting with any animals, once guests follow instructions risk of injury are at a minimum, he said.


Children have much to learn about marine mammals through captive facilities. During the school holidays kids from local schools visit Dolphin Cove, sit on the deck and learn all about dolphins. There could be 100 on any one day.

And at the Montego Bay facility it is hoped to bring education through dolphins to a whole new level through the help of clinical psychologist Dr. David Nathanson, one of the prime movers behind Dolphin Human Therapy.

Through this method of teaching, children with learning problems such as Downs Syndrome and Autism are motivated to learn through swimming with dolphins. This doctor has found that such children who worked with dolphins learned up to four times faster – and remembered more of what they learned –– than those in conventional classroom settings.

Such a programme is now pending for this summer at Dolphin Lagoon. Although expensive, costing about US$8,000 per child for two weeks, the benefits could be enormous.


Dolphin Cove is a major tourist success. About 800 people pass through on any average day.
“We probably turn away more people than we accept because we do not want to overcrowd the animals,” said Mr. Burrowes.

At the Ocho Rios facility the main swim with the dolphins programme costs US$179. This involves swimming in the deep with the dolphins and includes a dorsal fin pull or a foot push from the dolphins; an encounter swim costs US$101 and involves a kiss, a splash or two and an up close and personal experience; the touch is while standing in the shallows touching, meeting and making friends with the dolphins. This costs US$46 per person.

Entrance to the park, without dolphin interaction, is US$19 per person and people can view the dolphins, walk the jungle trail and relax on the beach.

At Dolphin Lagoon hotel guests pay US$890 to be a trainer for a day; US$200 for a 30 minute swim with; and US$89 to pet the dolphins in the water.

The biggest demand for swimming with dolphins seems to come from people from the United Kingdom, Neil points out.

Recently an article in a UK newspaper outlined a survey done on the top 50 things to do before you die. No. 1 was to swim with dolphins.

But there are some who are still set against the operation of these facilities.


Both Mr. Burrowes and Eric agree that the views of many anti–captive dolphin campaigners are based on misinformation and propaganda. Many base claims on captive dolphin facility standards from the ‘50s, they say. The Human Society of the United States, they maintain, makes millions of dollars a year from donations from anti–captive dolphin supporters. Perhaps it is in the organisation’s interests to be against such facilities?

And, of course, it is in the interest of the dolphinarium owners and management to show that these facilities are well run and feasible tourist attractions. . .

So, perhaps having dolphins in captivity is not an ideal situation, and catching them from the wild is far from ideal, despite the fact that it may be done in a scientific manner. But with more time, work and efforts in improving breeding programmes perhaps the need for wild captures will be eliminated. And, perhaps in a changing tourist–oriented world, captive dolphins have become inevitable.

But, since dolphins are and do exist productively in captivity, it is enlightening to have seen first hand that companies such as Dolphin Cove care for them so well. As for the initial question, “Are they happy?” I would venture to say yes – as happy as they can be in captivity.

One thing is for sure – it is an eye opener to take a closer look at how these facilities are run to get a clearer picture of the captive dolphin debate. After all, there are two sides to every story.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"