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Of Rainbows, Dolphins, and Grim Reality


November, 2018 Dolphinaris, Puerto Aventuras Quintana Roo, Mexico

I went to the Puerto Aventuras marina today. It was first on my list of dolphin parks to visit here on the Caribbean side of Mexico, called the Riviera Maya. It was a picture-perfect day to stroll around and familiarize myself with the facility.

Puerto Aventuras is great for dolphin viewing, because you get to see the dolphins for free. We even found a parking place that left us with just a brief walk to the dolphin pools. I have come to Puerto Aventuras as the start of my mission – to visit as many of the dolphin parks here in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as I can. Now that I have moved to the state of Quintana Roo, I intend to continue my research in person, as I am surrounded by dolphin parks.

What is life like for a dolphin in captivity?

Here at Puerto Aventuras there is a hilly island in the middle, and the dolphin pools go around the island in snack-tray sections. The water flows freely from section to section, but there is open fencing separating dolphin groups.

Around the outside there are the obligatory shops, restaurants, and bars. We headed to the right on our tour of the dolphin pools. The first section held two dolphins and some tourists and trainers standing with them in the water. The next, some trainers stood waist deep in the water talking together, another pair of dolphins swimming close by.

Around the bend there was a trainer who seemed to be finished feeding the two dolphins in that enclosure. One dolphin watched the trainer leave, the other dolphin floated on the surface with his blowhole out of the water. He/she stayed that way, not moving. It was not a natural dolphin behavior, of that I am sure. He stayed that way, inactive, as we moved on. Then, excitement! The next segment held a mother and calf! The calf looked to be a few months old. It stayed securely close to its mother. My animal behavior curiosity took hold – this gorgeous weather, this heart-warming sight, I could easily have sat and watched them all day. Or so I thought.

There was a short pier there, down which the previously mentioned trainer came, carrying a tiny cooler of fish. He turned to his left, the next section, and we saw a dolphin alone – she being obviously pregnant. He used commands to have her perform tricks, after which he would throw her a handful of small black fish. She, like any other pregnant mother, seemed to perform the tricks with difficulty. I felt sympathy; was it really necessary to put her through that?

I looked to the mother and calf pair. The mother swam tight circles next to the pier, with the calf right at her side. Around and around she went. I will take a leap here and speculate that she was waiting for food. But it wasn’t her turn. We watched the trainer feed the pregnant dolphin, and then he left.

The pregnant dolphin raised herself up out of the water, looking after him. Showing off, hoping for more? Her pregnancy makes her look so big! After a minute she kind of threw herself at the wall next to the pier. She did it a number of times. Fortunately, the trainer came back and repeated the feeding process.

The mother and calf continued to circle the area by the pier without stop, around and around. Again, it certainly wasn’t natural dolphin behavior, and the mother’s unsatisfied desire for food made me uncomfortable. They keep them hungry, I’ve read. Former trainers say that they keep them hungry so that they will perform their tricks. If they are not hungry, they won’t perform. The next pen held a blue foam wave board, and there was a dolphin hiding his head beneath it. There was another, larger dolphin in the same pen. Right as we arrived the larger dolphin swam up and, with a gaping mouth, bit the other dolphin! The smaller dolphin took off, and his attacker briefly seemed to claim the wave board.

Rainbows, dolphins, idiot me.

The larger dolphin took off, really fast, and went after the other one again. The smaller dolphin had been trying to hide under that foam board. The big dolphin was attacking him! No matter where the smaller dolphin swam in that too-small space, the other one chased him away.

The smaller one swam past where I stood. I could clearly see scrape marks along his back. Two clear sets of teeth-scrape marks. Those were not scars, those marks were fresh. I felt confused – if I could tell the bigger dolphin was terrorizing the smaller one, surely so could everyone else!

Two employees came out from the island onto a pier. They talked together, glancing briefly at the dolphins. With relief, I certainly expected them to do something! Finally, one of the men walked toward the pool. He picked up a floaty contraption made of orange jugs and a rope and threw it into the pool. That was it. They left.

I felt guilty – I should have said something to them. Asked what was going on, and why it was being allowed to continue. The smaller dolphin swam past me again, his eye on me. “I’m sorry,” I said aloud. “I don’t know what to do. I’m really sorry.” Yeah, I’m weird like that. I felt like crying.

A few steps on and we were back where we started.

So ended my very first visit to a dolphin park. I saw perpetually hungry dolphins being fed after performing tricks, dolphins swimming in endless circles waiting to be fed, a dolphin listlessly floating at the surface, a pregnant dolphin throwing herself against the side of her enclosure, and a bully tormenting his seemingly exhausted pool-mate with bite-marks.

One dolphin park on my list down, nine more to go.

One of the arguments supporting dolphins in captivity is education and exposure. I’ve been told that being in the presence of actual dolphins makes a difference – it increases people’s knowledge of dolphins themselves, and it makes them more supportive of conservation issues. I definitely saw absolutely no evidence of those claims today. The only conclusion I could come to today was that dolphin bullies suck as much as human ones do. Am I anthropomorphizing these animals? If so, it is not without cause. Not only are dolphins intelligent, they are emotional, and I don’t think I’ve over-reached with my word choice. Do you?

Includes information from the following sites: Report on Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 Whales, Dolphins and Humans: Challenges in Interspecies Ethics White T.I. (2018) Whales, Dolphins and Humans: Challenges in Interspecies Ethics. In: Linzey A., Linzey C. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics. The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London First Online27 June 2018

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