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War over dolphins

Resort owners vs. animal rights activists

DAVID PAULIN, Observer writer

The Jamaica Observer - Internet Edition

17th August 2003

IN an emotional dispute that could shape Jamaica's tourism industry, animal rights activists and resort owners are taking sides over whether dolphins should be captured and imported for marine parks.

Resort owners want Jamaica to clear the way for huge coastal enclosures for the gregarious mammals, and they want to import more dolphins for two existing parks. The animals thrive in such world-class facilities, they argue.

At stake, they say, are hundreds of potential jobs and millions of US dollars in potential revenues. If Jamaica fails to act, these benefits would be lost to several other Caribbean nations, where such facilities exist or are being developed, the owners contend.

Animal rights activists, on the other hand, say it's inhumane to confine the highly intelligent creatures. They're urging environmental officials and policy makers to exercise caution in granting permits allowing for the importation of dolphins from abroad or for their capture in Jamaica's waters.

"We should not have captive dolphins anywhere," insists Diana McCaulay, head of the non-governmental Jamaica Environment Trust. She says a captive dolphin is an unhappy dolphin, no matter how grand or natural its enclosure.

In the middle of the controversy are Stafford Burrowes and Adrian Foreman, co-owners of Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios, an upscale nature park that opened two-and-a-half years ago. A family of seven dolphins is its main attraction. The businessmen also operate a similar dolphin facility that opened four months ago at the ritzy Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay. It features two dolphins in a seaside enclosure. They are Jamaica's only such facilities -- and they may set a trend for future developments.

Dolphin Cove is a far cry from the large concrete tanks in old marine parks, where dolphins have traditionally been confined -- and were reduced to performing tricks, Burrowes remarks.

At Dolphin Cove, the dolphins swim freely, frolic, and frequently mate in their immense watery abode, drawing 400 to 700 visitors and cruise ship passengers daily.

"It's not a prison," says the self-proclaimed dolphin lover of the two facilities. Under US regulations, the cove could hold 50 dolphins, he notes. "I have had people come here -- declared animal activists -- who shook my hand and said 'well done'."

The dolphins in Ocho Rios, Burrowes says, can escape if they want to by swimming over a barrier at high tides. But they prefer to remain in the cove to be around people, he believes.

McCaulay and other dolphin lovers, however, are drawing a line against efforts by Burrowes and Foreman to expand their operations, and to capture dolphins in Jamaica's waters or import them from Cuba or Mexico.

She and other rights activists maintain that captive dolphins suffer high stress levels. Programmes allowing tourists to swim with dolphins, they say, are particularly stressful for dolphins, and they pose the possibility of injury to swimmers.

Burrowes, however, describes his world-class facility as far in excess of standards set in the United States and Jamaica, and that includes the swim programmes where a dolphin trainer is always present.

"We have never had an incident," he boasts of the swim programmes.

Local rights activists promoted their cause last week at public meetings in Kingston and Montego Bay, during which two visiting US biologists and dolphin experts railed against the trade in captured dolphins, and against parks that keep them.

Burrowes, who attended the Montego Bay meeting, argues that old films and slide shows depicting dolphins being mistreated in sea parks, and during brutal captures, unfairly tarnished the new generation of sea parks like the ones he operates. "There are bad guys in every business," he notes.

McCaulay says her group is not seeking to close Dolphin Cove or the Half Moon Hotel's facility. "I think it's a pragmatic position. I am opposed to keeping dolphins in captivity," she insists.

The activists, however, are demanding a wide-ranging inventory of the Caribbean's dolphin populations, before Jamaican officials consider permits to allow dolphins to be captured in Jamaica's waters or imported. The inventory is now under way and would determine the environmental impact that any captures would inflict.

That inventory would take at least three years, it is estimated. And in any event, tourists -- and their dollars -- may well have some say in the controversy.

At Dolphin Cove, the company-loving dolphins are major attractions for fascinated tourists who watch them from dry land or swim and touch them.

Swimmers pay up to US$160 to spend half-hour with the lovable creatures with perpetual smiles. It's a sought-after experience for tourists, including those who are content to observe.

"We are sold out on the cruise ships before they sail out of their ports in North America," Burrowes discloses in respect of reservations to swim with the dolphins.

Seeing opportunity galore, Burrowes and Foreman are eager to build a new lagoon for dolphins in Ocho Rios. They're attempting to obtain environmental permits for the project.

They also want permits to import six dolphins, some of which are now held captive in a "congested tank" in Cuba, according to Burrowes.

"I think those six animals will create millions of dollars per year, and create jobs," he calculates. "Our ultimate aim would be to establish a breeding programme, and breed dolphins for ourselves, and perhaps for export."

Eight of the dolphins he now owns came from sea parks where they had been kept in tanks, he notes.
One dolphin was acquired after it was rescued when it beached itself.

Visits made by the US biologists to the Ocho Rios facility produced only a few complaints, says McCaulay. One was that fish for the dolphins ought to be stored in stainless steel coolers, so that the containers can be sterilised.

"I told them I would take their advice," Burrowes acknowledges.

Other complaints included concerns about the educational value of Dolphin Cove, and of the number of people swimming with the dolphins, adds McCaulay.

Burrowes, however, insists that his facility betters Jamaican and US guidelines about the number of people swimming per day with the dolphins.

Whereas the guidelines allow a maximum of 15 people per dolphin, he says, "We allow only 10 people". And the dolphins "work" only two hours per day during four sessions stretching 30 minutes each.

People visiting the park have a new respect for the mammals, he suggests, and that includes thousands of children who visit each month. "There's no question about it."

But Naomi A Rose, one of the dolphin experts who visited Jamaica last week, belittled the value of such parks, and their educational value.

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