Saturday, February 28, 2009

Local men free dolphins trapped by ice

Three dolphins had been trapped for a week by drift ice in the harbor of Seal Cove, Newfoundland. Residents of the small community appealed to the local department of fisheries and oceans, but received no response.

Four local men finally took their own 16-foot boat, rammed it up on the ice, jumped out and began hacking a channel to the open sea…

“You’d hear them crying, every night,” said one of the men in the boat, Rodney Rice, 39. “I went down there last night and you could hear them trying to break up more ice. . . . They wouldn’t have lasted another day.”

“I had a floater suit on,” said Banks, “And they would come up and rest their head on me and I would keep their head out of the water so they can breathe through their blowhole.”

Are there some similarities between dolphins and humans?

This is the first installment in a regular column I will be writing for the Gloucester Daily Times.

You may have already seen my name in the Times over the past few months, providing information on seal strandings on Cape Ann. Last fall, we saw an unusually high number of harbor seal strandings on Cape Ann's shores, while currently, we are in the midst of the peak season for harp and hooded seal (ice seals) strandings.

I study seals and other marine mammals inhabiting the Gulf of Maine — humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, to name a few. In this column, I will share information about these and other inhabitants of the sea. In addition to covering marine topics pertinent to the Gulf of Maine, I will incorporate what I have learned from my wildlife research in other parts of the world such as Africa, Alaska, and New Zealand.

Similar to the evolutionary history of the marine mammals that I study, my own life's "evolution" started on land and has brought me to the sea. Born and raised in the land-locked state of Iowa, my interest in marine biology was originally peaked by taking a high school marine biology course in Des Moines. Two years later, as an undergraduate at Duke University, I was seaside at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. In Beaufort and later Zanzibar, Tanzania, I literally got my feet wet in the field of marine mammalogy by studying bottlenose dolphin behavior. While marine mammal field research is neither easy nor always "Discovery Channel" spectacular, I was hooked.

After earning my B.S. degree from Duke and working for a few years at a biotechnology company back in Des Moines, the pull of the ocean was too strong to overcome and once again I found myself seaside. This time it was in Texas, where I enrolled in a graduate program at Texas A&M University and was based at the marine biology campus in Galveston. While there are ample marine mammals residing off Texas' coast in the warm, subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, my Master's and Ph.D. research brought me instead to the cool, subpolar waters of Alaska and New Zealand. In Alaska, I sought to understand the behavior of male sea otters in Prince William Sound, while in New Zealand, my quest was to unravel the social lives of dusky dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds.

While much of my research has focused on the mammalian inhabitants of the sea, I have also studied mammalian inhabitants of terra firma such as lemurs, chimpanzees, Colobus monkeys, and even humans. Despite being separated in space and time by millions of years of evolution, terrestrial mammals (especially primates) and marine mammals have more in common than you might expect.

In my next column, I will discuss some of these similarities and what we terrestrially-based humans can learn from marine mammals. In the meantime, please feel free to stop by and tour the Whale Center of New England's Visitor Center at 24 Harbor Loop in Gloucester. You will find a full humpback whale skeleton as well as amazing photos and facts about the whales and other marine mammals with which we share this blue world.

Heidi Pearson is the assistant director and stranding coordinator of the Whale Center of New England, based at harbor Loop in Gloucester.

CITA fight against dolphin parks!

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association would like to respond to comments published in the press regarding the two captive dolphin parks that have recently opened on Grand Cayman.

Our position has not changed; the CITA has been on record since 2002 as being opposed to these facilities and we have well researched and documented facts that support this position.

Already both captive dolphin attractions have employed many of their standard tactics to convince the public that they are a humane and valuable asset to the community.

Local tourism and marine pioneers have been used to spread their doctrine, the wonderful children of the Lighthouse School invited to play with the animals and small children and families pictured with the ‘smiling’ dolphins. And please don’t be misled about the employment opportunities for Caymanians and the economic value of new jobs; the majority of employees are foreign and that is not going to change any time soon.

There are no adequate facilities for captive dolphins. There are more elaborate and sophisticated ones, but no dolphin parks are suitable as wild dolphins swim hundreds of miles a day and have the whole ocean in which to live in.

They have been recorded to dive to depths of hundreds of feet. They live in a social family pod and nurse, nurture, teach and protect their young. Statistics show that the average life of a dolphin in captivity is seven years vs. 50 years in the wild.

Saying that the facilities in Cayman are world class or provide the best in care is very misleading. It is based on the underlying principal that some captive dolphin facilities are acceptable and it is the CITA’s position that they are not. These are highly intelligent mammals. They do not deserve to be captured, taken from their families, stressed and forced to live the rest of their lives in a swimming pool that is perhaps only 20 feet deep.

Regarding educating the public; yes we understand that both adults and children learn about dolphin behaviour and biology when they swim with these animals. People would probably love to ride a camel or see a wild cat too; however, that does not make it right to capture and incarcerate them here in Cayman.

Of course dolphins are entertaining, but this is something that they are forced to do in order to obtain their food. Dolphins are clever, which is why they are a highly valued commodity; they will exercise their skills in order to survive. If doing tricks is what it takes then they will do them. They are a sentient creature, which means that they have self awareness similar to humans. Surely we should not capture them for our own entertainment.

The CITA has opposed the captive dolphin facilities from long before any permits were granted, development started or animals imported, but we were not listened to.

In August 2008 we asked the Government to place a ban on any future imports of dolphins with a well documented paper on the impacts on capture to the wild dolphin populations. We have had no response to this request. The practice of herding, terrifying, wounding and killing is typical of all dolphin captures.

The Cayman park owners could argue that they purchased their dolphins from other parks, however the other parks will now have to restock their own facilities from the wild, so there can truly be no distinction.

If the developers are correct in their claim that these creatures breed successfully in captivity, there will be no need to import any more. We will stop being a party to the capture of wild dolphins and this is something that we can be proud of.

There is nothing Caymanian, sustainable or indigenous to having captive dolphin facilities in Cayman. We should not be a copycat destination but instead embrace ‘all things Caymanian’.

The CITA strongly supports tourism, including new development and diversification of our existing product. We encourage the growth of new properties, dive sites, restaurants and attractions but the CITA will not support either of the captive dolphin parks.

Will people visit these places? Perhaps, but is it right for the dolphins and our future vision of tourism in the Cayman Islands? That is for you to decide.

Once again, we beseech the Government to seriously consider the implementation of a ban on the future importation of cetaceans, as many other nations have already done.

We need to protect these marine mammals, the environment, the reputation of our tourism product and the culture and heritage of the Cayman Islands. Let your voice on this matter be heard.

You can request email copies of our position papers by emailing

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"