Free the dolphins

Capture practices are cruel, says Ric O'Barry
Sandra Davie Straits Times 29 May 11;

Free the dolphins.

That is the appeal which Mr Ric O'Barry, who shot to fame with his film on the capture and killing of the marine mammal in Japan, is making to Resorts World Sentosa.

RWS plans to showcase 25 wild-caught dolphins as one of the attractions at its oceanarium slated to open by the year end.

In a letter sent last Friday to the integrated resort's chief executive Tan Hee Teck, Mr O'Barry, who works for United States-based environmental group Earth Island Institute, has urged him to show Singaporeans RWS is a 'true steward of the environment' and 'a responsible company sensitive to the harm captivity inflicts on dolphins'.

The marine mammal specialist, 72, has also offered his help to rehabilitate and release the dolphins back to the wild, in the Solomon Islands, off Papua New Guinea.

'Your cooperation would ensure that these dolphins (are) returned to their natural habitat where they can thrive, as opposed to keeping them in captivity, separated from their original home range and their pod,' he wrote, adding that most Singaporeans would object to keeping dolphins in captivity if they knew the capture practices.

The activist, who investigated the dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands for a TV documentary last year, said they are cruel.

'It is not that much different from what happens in Taiji, Japan. The dolphins are corralled into a cove by the villagers. The healthy ones are caught to be sold to aquariums but the others are speared, clubbed and stabbed to death.'

Dolphin-hunting nations such as Japan have defended the practice as being centuries-old. Taiji officials have said that the Japanese government allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year and Taiji hunts about 2,000 a year.

The Japanese have also asked Western nations to understand and respect different food cultures.

RWS has never revealed how much it paid for the 27 bottlenose dolphins bought from Canadian dolphin trader Chris Porter in 2008 and 2009.

The plan to exhibit them along with whale sharks had drawn flak from environmental groups and animal lovers here. In May 2009, RWS scrapped the plan to exhibit whale sharks, saying it might not be able to care for the animals which can grow to more than 12m and weigh 15 tonnes.

Nine of the 27 dolphins had been sent to a holding facility in Langkawi, Malaysia, while the rest were housed in Ocean Park Adventure in Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Two dolphins died in Langkawi last October from a bacterial infection arising from contact with contaminated soil and surface waters. A few months later, the remaining seven were sent to the Philippines.

Local group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), which sent a team to Langkawi, noted that the sea pens were too small, rusty and in a high boat traffic area which would have been stressful to the dolphins.

RWS said the marine mammals were moved to the Philippines not because of the poor water quality in Langkawi but to 'continue integrating the dolphins into social groupings'.

It added that it will proceed with its plan to have a dolphin exhibition in its oceanarium. The 8ha Marine Life Park was part of its proposal when it won the bid in 2006 to build the Sentosa integrated resort.

Last Friday, in response to another campaign launched by Acres to free the dolphins, Mr Tan said the company was following international rules on the treatment of marine animals.

Speaking on the sidelines of the official opening of RWS' Universal Studios, he added that the dolphins are 'very healthy' and expected to be brought here in the next 12 months.

RWS later issued a statement, saying the team was providing the 'very best care' to the dolphins, including a superior diet and veterinary attention. It added that it was committed to marine research, conservation and education.

Asked to respond to Mr O'Barry's appeal, an RWS spokesman said yesterday his CEO will do so after he has seen the letter.

Contacted by The Sunday Times in Miami, Mr O'Barry said it was ironic that RWS should talk about conservation and education.

'The act of catching and confining these animals in concrete tanks and training them to become something they are not, cannot possibly contribute towards constructive education on marine life and environmental issues.'

Mr O'Barry, who is aware of RWS' record earnings, hopes it would take up his offer. Last quarter, RWS' pre-tax profits of $537.9 million trumped its competitor Marina Bay Sands' performance of US$284.5 million (S$350 million).

'If Resorts World frees the dolphins, not only will it show good corporate citizenship, it will also be a massive windfall of good publicity for them.'

He also appealed to Singaporeans to support his cause and do their bit to persuade RWS to free the dolphins. 'I have always admired Singapore from afar, for being this little island nation that does amazing things.

'Resorts World and Singapore can set an example here for being true stewards of the environment and helping to protect and preserve the different species that make our planet a beautiful, rich place.'

In Sentosa, dolphins are a draw at another attraction called Underwater World, which is run by Haw Par Corporation.

'Flipper' trainer seeks to make amends for past
Straits Times 29 May 11;

In the 1960s, Mr Ric O'Barry helped spark a worldwide fascination for dolphins by training five to play Flipper on TV.

The series, about a bottlenose dolphin which kept company with a Florida park ranger and his kids, made people want to reach out and touch these seemingly sociable creatures.

Marine parks sprang up to cash in on that.

But he had a change of heart when Kathy, one of the dolphins which played Flipper, died.

'Kathy looked me right in the eye,' he said. 'Then she took a breath, and never took another one. She sank to the bottom of the tank,' he recalled, adding that he was quite certain that her death was a suicide.

He explained: 'Every breath a dolphin takes is a conscious effort, so they can decide not to take the next breath. That's what I mean by suicide.'

It was just before Earth Day, 1970. The next day, he found himself in jail for trying to free a dolphin.

'I completely lost it,' he admitted in a phone interview with The Sunday Times. He went on to set up the Dolphin Project to free captive dolphins and educate people about their plight.

For years, he had been trying to get the media to focus attention on what happened to the dolphins in Taiji, Japan. He managed to do that in 2009, when he worked with film-maker Louie Psihoyos.

The Cove went on to win Best Documentary at the Oscars.

In the documentary on the annual hunt of wild dolphins in Taiji, fishermen in boats bang pipes underwater. Fleeing this sound, the dolphins are corralled into a secluded cove.

The healthy ones are caught to be sold to aquariums but the others are speared, clubbed and stabbed to death, as recorded in the documentary, portions of which were shot secretly.

Mr O'Barry said the dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands are no different. The residents use stones to create a sound that enables the hunters to drive the dolphins into an inlet.

'The dolphins are ripped from their natural environment, separated from their families and pod mates, held in nets, transported in trucks, hoisted into cargo planes and flown to distant locations. Is it any wonder that many die in the process?'

Survivors are 'condemned to a life in a concrete tank, listening to the hum of the filtration system and the screams of the audience'.

While wild dolphins can live for 60 years, in captivity they often die prematurely. Captive ones routinely suffer from ulcers, he said, adding that they frequently go blind and have skin problems.

Many also succumb to stress-related conditions like pneumonia, as well as self-inflicted injuries or those caused by accidents or confrontations with other confined dolphins.

Mr O'Barry, who works with US-based environmental group Earth Island Institute, said he will never give up the fight to free dolphins in captivity.

'It's my way of trying to right the wrong I committed in helping to boost the captivity industry through the Flipper series.'

Sandra Davie

For more on the issue see ACRES "Save the World's Saddest Dolphins" facebook page