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Controversy swirls around dolphins

By David Paulin


5th October 2003

KINGSTON, Jamaica — With their permanent smiles and playful manner, dolphins have long been the friendly creatures of the deep. But as the Caribbean gears up for another tourism season, they are being portrayed as victims, too.
In a heated dispute that could shape the region's tourism industry, animal-rights campaigners are battling resort operators over their proposals to develop marine parks where tourists pay hundreds of dollars to swim with trained dolphins.

At least seven Caribbean nations already boast such coastal enclosures or "sea pens," where thousands of tourists per week participate in so-called "swim-with-the-dolphin" programs — or "encounters," as the facility's operators call them.

Operators of the parks maintain their dolphins are happy in the natural-looking facilities. But animal-rights activist are not convinced, and they are drawing battle lines in tourism-dependent Jamaica, the latest country to develop such parks in recent years.

Millions of dollars per year are at stake along with hundreds of potential jobs in direct and indirect employment. Tourism operators here say dolphin-swim programs are one way to help revive the island's stagnant tourism industry, which took a nose dive after the terrorism attacks of September 11.

But activists maintain it is inhumane to capture and confine the highly intelligent and gregarious creatures, which sell for more than $100,000 in the Caribbean, but are usually "rented" to the facility's operators, sometimes with an option to purchase them.

They contend such parks, no matter how idyllic looking, support a cruel and poorly regulated international trade in the mammals, which they say are traumatized and even killed during capture. They cite, along these lines, the recent capture of as many as 200 dolphins in the Solomon Islands, 28 of which went to a marine park in Cancun, Mexico.

The activists also are concerned that capturing dolphins in Jamaica's waters will have a negative effect on the Caribbean's dolphin population.

In the middle of Jamaica's controversy are Stafford Burrowes and Adrian Foreman, co-owners of Dolphin Cove, a 2-year-old nature park in Ocho Rios, a coastal city about 40 miles north of Kingston, the capital.

The park's centrepiece is a 13,000-square-foot enclosed lagoon that runs 12 to 15 feet deep. It's home to seven playful dolphins that swim freely, frolic, and mate, drawing 400 to 700 visitors a day, most of them cruise-ship passengers who pay $15 each for admission to the park.

As many as 240 participate in dolphin swims, paying $39 for 20-minute "touch encounters" to $155 for 30-minute "swim encounters" in which two dolphins push and pull swimmers, and perform other tricks, under the supervision of two trainers.

"It's not a prison," said Mr. Burrowes of the lagoon. "I have had people come here — declared animal activists — who shook my hand and said 'well done.’ "

He "rents" six of his dolphins from Mexico, where they had been confined in tanks. The other was rescued after it beached itself here. Mr. Burrowes said dolphin swims are increasingly popular for vacationers who want "an adventure and experience," rather than Jamaica's traditional fare of beaches and nightspots.

"I have always wanted to swim with the dolphins, and this was the opportunity to do it," said Kris Wright, 30, a payroll manager from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"They are totally magical animals," said Jason Diioli, 32, a railway inspector from Los Angeles. He and his wife, Monique, 24, spent nearly $400, after their hotel's markup, for a 30-minute dolphin "encounter."

"It was absolutely worth the money," she said.

The couple and several other swimmers expressed surprise when told animal rights activists were upset about the facility. They said the dolphins appeared happy.

Diana McCaulay, head of the advocacy group Jamaica Environment Trust, contends the open appearance of the enclosed lagoons and "sea pens" is deceiving, because they still confine the free-spirited creatures.

"Dolphins swim 60 to 100 miles per day, dive to great depths and hunt fish. Under no circumstances can those conditions be replicated in captivity," she said. Two U.S. dolphin specialists and research scientists, Naomi Rose and Toni Frohoff, recently visited Jamaica and sharply criticized the marine parks, their educational value and the international trade in captured dolphins.

"The cost for the dolphins is much higher than any amount of money that tourists can spend," Miss Rose said.