European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



In Cancún, a war over dolphins

By David Gonzalez

The New York Times

22nd October 2003

CANCUN · Thousands of tourists come every year to swim with dolphins, expecting mystical encounters or unmatched educational experiences. Whether at water parks or even at a mall, the price for an hour's swim is about $100, not counting the videos, photographs, T-shirts or dolls to commemorate fleeting moments riding atop the snouts of two sleek creatures.

But the real cost is much higher, according to a growing international protest movement of environmentalists and animal rights advocates who say there is nothing educational about turning wild animals into lucrative rides and who are outraged over the recent deaths of two captive dolphins at an amusement park.

Their past protests led the Mexican government to ban the capture of local dolphins and the legislature is considering prohibiting imports as well. Now, the protesters have turned the tourist-rich Yucatan Peninsula, where there are nine swim programs, into the front lines of the dolphin wars.

Yolanda Alaniz, a former congressional aide who heads a conservation group, said a dolphin could bring in as much as $7,500 a day. "But it is a cruel business," she said. "That is why we are going step by step to stop them."

Alaniz said the first of the 240 dolphins in Mexican parks were caught by fishermen, who were paid several hundred dollars a dolphin; 81 dolphins also came from Cuba, which sold many for around $50,000 each.

Opponents of the swim programs have enlisted U.S. officials, alleging that U.S. citizens at Dolphin Discovery in Isla Mujeres have bought dolphins from Cuba in violation of the trade embargo. Mike Wood, an official at the company, denied the allegations.

Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, confirmed that Dolphin Discovery was being investigated for possible violations.

Mexican parks do a brisk business selling trained dolphins for as much as $90,000 each, particularly to an eager market in the Caribbean.

International rules limit the sale of dolphins to numbers that do not affect local populations. With Cuba limited to 10 a year and the Mexican ban on local capture, parks are looking elsewhere.

In late July, 28 dolphins arrived at Parque Nizuc from the Solomon Islands. Opponents of the dolphin parks say these were part of a capture, which flouted the international regulations, of 200

Executives at the Wet `n' Wild park said they had permits from the Solomon Islands. Mexican officials said the animals were imported with the proper documentation and veterinary tests. One of the dolphins died days after its arrival, while a local dolphin perished three weeks later.

Mauricio Martínez, director general of the Wet `n' Wild park, said the most recent death was caused by a stomach ulcer brought on by stress. He blamed the government and animal rights groups for "provoking" the death with unnecessary and burdensome requirements. He said 60,000 people swam with dolphins at the park last year without harm to animals or humans.

"We are convinced if you have contact with wild animals your knowledge and respect for wildlife will increase," he said. "We have a program of high educational content and have trained people who are capable."

Tourists who swam with the animals at various parks said that the educational component was minimal, but were excited about the experience nonetheless. "I like it," said Paola Maraga, a tourist from Rome. "It is always nice to see animals and human beings play together."

But several trainers said tourists were unaware that sometimes the animals turned aggressive. Worse, most trainers have only a basic knowledge about dolphins, they said.

People such as Ric O'Barry, a former trainer on the Flipper television show, are particularly infuriated by the parks, and the poor training. "It's always sad when a dolphin dies," said Barry, who is now a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which has taken a lead role in the fight. "There is something obscene about a magnificent creature dying in an amusement park."