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Dolphin Discovery and The British Virgin Islands – knee deep in the dolphin capture industry

Dolphin Discovery is one of the world’s largest dolphin captors. They have 29 parks in different locations throughout the world, particularly in Mexico and the Caribbean. The company has over 260 dolphins held in confinement, some of whom were born in captivity, others captured. Dolphin Discovery offers the attractive “Swim With Dolphins” tourist package, where dolphins confined in small tanks on land or sea have to perform unnatural tricks for tourist entertainment. These tricks include physically invasive activities such as pulling swimmers along by their dorsal fins or pushing the swimmer’s feet with their noses, leaving visible damage. Up until Hurricane Irma in 2017 one of those 29 dolphinariums was located in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). However, during the hurricane Irma storm in 2017, the Dolphin Discovery sea-pen was ravaged by the storm and the dolphins were evacuated out of the dolphinarium and sent to another Dolphin Discovery sea-pen in Jamaica. The park in BVI was closed and still remains closed. However, at present, Dolphin Discovery is currently applying to the BVI to reopen the marine park. This is of great concern, considering the animal welfare deficiencies of Dolphin Discovery’s practices.

Ever since circa 2006 Dolphin Discovery has promoted an official policy of being against capture and vehemently denies the fact that they continue to buy captured dolphins. You can visit any Dolphin Discovery park in any region and all of the staff will tell you without hesitation that Dolphin Discovery definitely does not buy captured dolphins any more. They will tell you that they don’t need to capture dolphins because they have a “miracle breeding” programme. Dolphin Discovery always insists that dolphin captures are a thing of the past.

If this is the case why is Dolphin Discovery still regularly buying captured dolphins from Cuba? According to the official documentation we have available, it shows that in just three years, from 2013-2016 the British Virgin Islands has imported thirty wild-caught dolphins from Cuba.

Unfortunately CITES doesn’t give out the names of the people or companies who carry out the imports, but as Dolphin Discovery was the only company officially licensed to manage and confine dolphins in the BVI it leaves no doubt that is was Dolphin Discovery that has been buying the dolphins from Cuba.

This seedy trade of prostituting stolen dolphins does not stop there. Upon further investigation we can see the British Virgin Islands have not only been importing dolphins from Cuba but they have also been exporting dolphins out again. Basically, because Dolphin Discovery has dolphin facilities all across the Caribbean, and by looking at the import and export records, it is apparent that the dolphins are being captured in Cuba then sent to the British Virgin Islands and from there they are being sent out to other Dolphin Discovery locations such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. For example, in 2015, twelve wild-caught dolphins were sent to the BVI in the same year that five wild-caught dolphins were sent from BVI to Jamaica. It is probable that Dolphin Discovery is purchasing the wild-caught dolphins from Cuba, training them in the BVI and then sending them on to their other facilities.

This shows that the British Virgin Islands was acting as a hub for Dolphin Discovery to bring wild-caught dolphins in from Cuba.

Cuban captures: Barbaric, unsustainable and cruel:

Cuba has received criticism for not publicly reporting population estimates or completed assessments of the cetaceans in local waters. No studies are available which determine if the captures may be sustainable and what long-term effect they may have on the existing dolphin pods. On top of this, the number of dolphins being captured is completely unknown. It has been argued by marine mammal experts that exports of Cuban dolphins should not be allowed, as Cuba has not submitted valid scientific ‘Non Detrimental Findings’ reports to CITES.

Dolphin Freedom has spoken to divers who have been frequenting Cuba for diving trips for nearly two decades; they report that divers can verify seeing fewer and fewer wild dolphin in local waters. According to sources, the process by which the Cubans obtain the wild dolphins is harrowing for the creatures. The pods are chased by speed boats, while divers try to catch the animals with nets as other divers jump into the water to wrestle each dolphin into submission and haul them onto the boats. Many dolphins die during the capture process and mortality of dolphins spike immediately after capture. Once the dolphins are on the boat and selected for captivity it appears they are taken to the Havana Aquarium where they start to undergo training. Cuba has eight dolphinaria on their island. The dolphins are sold to the dolphinaria on the island or shipped to Dolphin Discovery Caribbean parks or sold to other parks in the Caribbean, such as on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas, which imported six dolphins in 2016. Cuba even sells the dolphins further afield, such as an export to Turkey which shipped 6 dolphins also in 2016. However, by far the biggest buyer of Cuban dolphins still remains Dolphin Discovery.

The Head vet of the Havana Aquarium, up until recently the main person in charge of trading the captured dolphins, is Celia Guevara, the daughter of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Thusly, it is interesting to note that while this Cuban industry is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars through the sale of wild dolphins, the men paid to capture the dolphins receive a pittance.

Sixteen years ago, Scientist and Cuban exile Carlos Wotzkow blew the whistle on experiments Celia Guevara was alleged to have carried out on sharks and dolphins. Carlos commented,

“Since 1989, when I entered the National Aquarium on an almost daily basis to fill my deep-diving tanks to collect specimens for the National Natural History Museum (MNHN), Celia Guevara was already known at the aquarium, sadly, for inoculating Nurse Sharks and dolphins with the AIDS virus. For hours under bright sunlight, both sharks and dolphins were restrained by several people and martyrized on a concrete table near the edge of the tank while the ‘eminent veterinarian’ took blood samples looking for the desired antibody.”

Considering that Cuba has such a thriving dolphin capture industry, it receives very little attention. Information on the Cuban capture and captivity industry is relatively lacking in comparison to other components of this industry. This is largely due to the Cuban regime that censors information and stifles civil dissent.

Dolphin Freedom visited Cuba in 2016 to observe some of the conditions in which dolphins are held. Our trip included a visit to the Havana Aquarium. The Havana Aquarium is by far one of the worst facilities we have had the misfortune to visit. Tanks are small, concrete and barren. Dolphins displayed tangible signs of stress, exhibited abnormal behaviours and were fighting each other. Upstairs above the public canteen is a “private” dolphinarium tank. Our monitors were invited upstairs to see this private tank and undergo a private swimming session with two female dolphins. The indoor tank was tiny, with very little natural light. The tanks was sunk by about 1.5 meters, which meant that the water containing the dolphins was too far down for them to bob their heads up to look over the tank wall for even the small enrichment of being able to look out. All they could do was swim on their sides to look up at us when we peered down into the sunken tank. All the tanks in the Havana Aquarium were extremely dated, paint was falling off the walls and all of the installations were old and in great need of repair.

Dolphin Discovery has been lying to the world for years:

These very serious animal welfare concerns regarding the Cuban capture industry include the following: most notably, a lack of transparency by failing to carry out proper scientific studies on the sustainability of existing pods, and the traumatic and high mortality rates of dolphins during capture, during transport and whilst held captive. These deep concerns make Dolphin Discovery’s alleged animal welfare policy a farce. What’s more, Dolphin Discovery has been continuing to fuel and drive the horrifically cruel unsustainable practice of dolphin capture since they started in the 90s all the time whilst lying to its customers (and most likely many members of staff). This also throws into question the validity of Dolphin Discovery’s claims that their miracle breeding programmes are such a success. They are certainly not a success in the Caribbean as evidenced by Dolphin Discovery’s need to buy over thirteen captured dolphins a year from Cuba. Earlier this year, a whistleblower from another Mexican company which copies a similar model to Dolphin Discovery in Mexico, alerted campaigns about the death of 11 dolphins in less than 2 years. Many of these dolphins died when still under one year old. The reality is that the death toll inside Swim With Dolphins facilities in the Caribbean is extremely high. Dolphin Freedom believes that Dolphin Discovery must continue to purchase Cuban dolphins because calves are dying at high rates. In 2014 we monitored 4 calf births. Sadly only one calf, Thor, is alive today. This implies a survival rate of only 25%. Of course, this information is never made public; what tourist would choose to be complicit in so many dolphin deaths?

History of Dolphin Discovery’s liaison with the Cuban capture industry:

Once dolphin capture was banned in Mexico in 2002, Dolphin Discovery switched to attaining its dolphin stock from Cuba in order to avoid detection. Between 2002 – 2006 Dolphin Discovery carried out a prolific acceleration in growth; this was primarily due to large purchases of Cuban dolphins. The table demonstrates how, thanks to Cuban captures mainly between 2002-2006, Dolphin Discovery was able to grow its captive dolphin empire in Mexico exponentially. Once dolphin imports were banned in 2006, you can see from the table that dolphin numbers slowed.

After import and export of dolphins was banned in Mexico in 2006 Dolphin Discovery started to report that it had stopped buying captured dolphins. This may have been the case in Mexico, but it certainly has not been the case in the Caribbean. Many of the Caribbean islands lack animal welfare legislation. On the islands where Dolphin Discovery is running dolphin ‘entertainment’ parks, capture imports and exports have not been prohibited. This means that Dolphin Discovery can still legally import the dolphins from Cuba and ship them out again.

British Virgin Islands are complicit in dolphin captures.

Dolphin Discovery opened its dolphinarium in Tortola in 2007. Since that time the British Virgin Islands have been allowing Dolphin Discovery to import wild captured dolphins from Cuba. This implicates Cuba in breaking the SPAW Protocol. BVI has also been allowing Dolphin Discovery to lie to its customers by telling them they don’t buy captured dolphins anymore, whilst all the time continuing to buy them. Not only has the BVI been very scandalously allowing this, they have been turning a blind eye to likely deaths of dolphins in transit. In fact, the CITES office in London explained to us about the 2013 Cuban export to the BVI of ten wild-caught dolphins which the BVI “mistakenly” reported as captive bred. Was this an honest mistake? Either way, it demonstrates more negligence on behalf of the BVI.

Dolphin Freedom wrote to the BVI government after 2016 urging them not to allow Dolphin Discovery to reopen a dolphinarium in the path of the hurricanes climate scientists warn are likely to worsen. The letter was co-signed by various NGOs including the Animal Welfare Institute. Despite various attempts to get an answer from the British Virgin Islands, the government never took the time to reply to our letter. This complete lack of regard for dolphins only demonstrates to our team that the British Virgin Islands really don’t care about the welfare of the dolphins. This indicates a shameless lack of responsibility for creatures which bring in so much money, and whose future is unknown.

The BVI is a particular hot-spot for the cruise ship industry. As Dolphin Discovery tries to open their dolphinarium on the island again, the cruise ship industry, in which Tui has a fleet of ships, lobbies the government to allow the dolphin company to re-open. It was recently reported that the Tortola dolphinarium receives 500 customers per cruise ship. At around 70-200 dollars a ticket, the dolphinarium is a great business for all involved, other than the dolphins themselves. Nevermind that the captured dolphins are so overworked and traumatised that they are dying at rates we can’t even imagine. Dolphin Discovery, with the support of the BVI, can just go to Cuba and order some more dolphins. It is unconscionable that this goes on without any scientific data as to the damage this does to dolphin populations, let alone the damage done to the individual dolphins.


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