By Judith Lavoie, TimesColonist.com
Chris Porter, known internationally as a dolphin slave-trader for his lucrative business capturing dolphins in the Solomon Islands and selling them to aquariums in such locations as Dubai and Mexico, says he has had a change of heart and is planning to release his last 17 bottlenose dolphins.
The controversial dolphin broker and marine mammal trainer, who trained Tillikum the killer whale when he was at Sealand in Victoria and then became Vancouver Aquarium’s head trainer, has sold 83 dolphins around the world over the last nine years and drawn the fury of animal- rights groups.
“To be sure, I have a bad name. I have been deemed the Darth Vader of dolphins,” said Porter in an interview.
“But I have decided to release the remaining animals back to the wild. It’s driven by the incident with Tillikum and I’m disillusioned with the industry,” said Porter, who splits his time between Victoria and the Solomon Islands.
News that Tillikum had killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando — the third death connected to the whale — was a shock, showing trainers have been unable to provide for the needs of such an intelligent animal, he said. Another catalyst was the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, which shows the bloody capture and slaughter of dolphins in Japan.
Porter, who previously believed some animals must be captive educational ambassadors for their species, is beginning to doubt the value of shows, where animals are forced to perform tricks.
“Are we really educating and providing the best representation of wild animals in an aquarium?” he asked.
The artificial, sterile environment in which most marine mammals are kept bears little resemblance to their habitat. Killer whales are likely to become frustrated, increasing the chance they will lash out, he said.
But, from the start of the Solomons project, Porter said he saw himself as saving dolphins, which were being slaughtered by the thousands by islanders there, who used their teeth as currency.
Hunters have now been educated to realize there can be a much larger value in dolphins, Porter said.
“When I got there a dolphin was worth $20, and last year dolphins were worth $140,000,” he said.
Porter’s Free-the-Pod venture is likely to have high profile support from some of his former fiercest opponents.
Activist Ric O’Barry, a marine mammal specialist for California-based Earth Island Institute, who, in the 1960s, trained dolphins for the Flipper television series before dedicating himself to freeing captive dolphins, headed to the Solomon Islands this week to assess the Free-The-Pod exercise.
O’Barry, who spearheaded the making of The Cove, said in an interview that given Porter’s reputation, he wants to look at what is planned before throwing his support behind the project.
“I will see. I have an open mind,” he said.
Mark Palmer, Earth Island associate director, said there are questions that must be answered before Earth Island works on the release plan and helps educate local residents about eco-tourism and other alternatives to dolphin slaughter or export.
“Is it real? Are we really talking about the release and permanent end of the capture of dolphins?” he asked.
Although others are capturing dolphins around the world, the closing of Porter’s operation would make a sizable dent in the supply, Palmer said.
Also, there will have to be a health assessment of the animals and an assessment of whether they can adjust to the wild, he said.
If Free-the-Pod looks like a go, Ric O’Barry’s son, Lincoln, will film it for Animal Planet, Palmer said.
The dolphins are being held in a cove and Porter envisages a phased release, starting next month.
“It’s a natural sea-pen and we will start introducing live fish to them and they will be released with tracking devices and a strict follow-up,” he said.
Food will continue to be provided for animals that return.