Georgia Aquarium Now Touts Swimming With Dolphins

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Georgia Aquarium Now Touts Swimming With Dolphins

By Anai Rhoads on Friends of Animals, April 2010

Many aquarium-based zoos will tell you that dolphins are better off in enclosed areas, safe from the dangers posed to them in the wild. However, dolphins have few predators, and their biggest threat is the human.

Dolphins are considered one of the most intelligent animals in the world. They are gregarious creatures who are often seen swimming in groups in the wild. However, their friendly nature and effortless trainability have put them in a precarious position.

Bottlenose dolphins are heavily sought after by fishermen and aquariums due to their novelty and profitability. So it should surprise no one that the world's largest aquarium has set its sights on introducing a "swim-with-dolphins" program.

As we speak, the Georgia Aquarium is expanding their swim program by bringing in four dolphins to be used in their new facility, courtesy of the Florida-based Dolphin Conservation Center at Marineland. This ambitious $110-million dollar project, which is being built and sponsored by Home Depot, will open its doors in November 2010.

Home Depot's owner, Bernie Marcus, has a lot invested in the Georgia Aquarium. If it weren't for Marcus, the Georgia Aquarium may have never even existed. It opened its doors in 2005 completely debt-free thanks to Marcus.

While dolphin and other swim-with programs are billed educational, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the truth for the dolphins is a far cry from this family-friendly image.

"Many swim-with programs will have the public believe that the captive animals serve a higher scientific purpose. These programs call themselves 'conservation centers,' when in reality the only science undertaken is that which will keep the animals alive and the forced artificial insemination of female dolphins for future profits." said environmental educator Zach McKenna.

Georgia Aquarium's Notorious Record

Sadly, the Georgia Aquarium has been responsible for a number of marine animal deaths, despite the fact it opened its doors just four years ago. In October 2009, the aquarium shipped via FedEx three beluga whales, Nico, Maris and Natasha, to SeaWorld San Antonio for a temporary stay until the company's swim-with facility was complete. Nico, however, died suddenly shortly after his arrival from the shock of the transport.

But the death trail didn't begin with Nico. In 2007, two other beluga whales and two whale sharks died while held at the Georgia Aquarium. Gasper was put down after being used to entertain the crowds due to advanced bone disease. Marina, who had spent all of her life in captivity, died when she was just 25 years old. The Georgia Aquarium claimed she died of "old age." However, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Protected Resources, in the wild beluga whales live between 35 to 50 years.

The two whale sharks, Norton and Ralph, developed serious infections which later killed them. Aquarium staffers hypothesized that the two died from a chemical that was used to treat their water, but some experts are skeptical. The very next year the Georgia Aquarium opened a whale shark swim-with program.

Nico's and Gasper's stories highlight the need to shut down these aquariums. After Nico's capture by Russian crews out of the White Sea years ago, he was sold to a Mexico City amusement park. While there, he was placed in a filthy tank below a wooden rollercoaster along with Gasper. Both were used as mere decorations to entertain the crowds.

In 2005, they were spotted by none other than the Georgia Aquarium's Chief Veterinary Officer, Greg Bossart. While both beluga whales were obviously ill, the Georgia Aquarium insisted on shipping them to their facilities to be introduced to visitors, with the promise the whales would be treated humanely. Obviously, that promise wasn't kept.

"The swim-with profiteers have become very good at justifying the captivity of their animals, rarely are they rescued animals. Many participants I have spoken to admit feelings of guilt and regret, during and after the experience, a sense that the forced experience violates the will and spirit of the animals," said McKenna.

The Effects of Swim-With Programs on Dolphins

According to SeaWorld, which has its own swim-with programs, dolphins can travel up to 100 miles a day and often dive hundreds of feet below the water's surface. Yet, confined in these facilities, they are forced swim in small, shallow circles - something that is completely unnatural to them.

Dolphins are also extremely social beings who live in large groups. Unfortunately, profit-driven aquariums and swim-with programs separate mothers from their offspring prematurely, selling them off to the highest bidder. When the swim-with dolphins are not "entertaining" tourists, they are kept isolated in holding tanks, away from their peers and social connections.

McKenna continued, "The reasons dolphins inspire intense emotion in humans is because of their cognitive behaviors and social structures. To incarcerate dolphins for the sake of human entertainment destroys that connection for the sake of profit."

Tail-walking, hoop diving and playing with objects are all unnatural behaviors in the wild. Although bottlenose dolphins are exceptionally intelligent animals, they do not learn these "tricks" without incentives.

Dolphins and other marine animals are often starved in order to get them to respond. Those who don't "play nice" are offered meager rations and placed in isolation as punishment. There is no room for slackers in this business and the animals learn quickly who is in control.

Experts believe that female dolphins will not conceive in captivity in order to spare the offspring, and rarely give birth to twins in the wild. But thanks to forced insemination, and heavy doses of hormones, it has now become to norm for dolphins to give birth to twins in captivity. The support system naturally found between females in the wild during labor is replaced by human monitoring and intrusion. Even the loving bond between mother and child, which includes a full 18 months of nursing, is often amiss.

To make matters worse, most dolphins confined in swim-with programs outside of the United States are caught in the wild. Dolphin trapping is an extremely traumatizing and bloody event. Oftentimes, dozens, if not hundreds, of dolphins are forced into tuna fishermen's nets. Most of the dolphins are killed for their meat, while the few survivors are sold off to the programs.

McKenna concluded, "If the participants in swim-with programs had any idea about the murderous global dolphin industry they were supporting, the good feelings would fade immediately."

Think Twice Before Visiting an Aquarium or Swim-With Facility

Using animals in entertainment isn't something new. Aquariums are nothing more than zoos, only with better advertising and more interaction. They lure in naive customers by flaunting opportunities to be closer to these magnificent beings, all the while hiding the horrors they suffer.

Many aquarium-based zoos will tell you that dolphins are better off in enclosed areas, safe from the dangers posed to them in the wild. However, dolphins have few predators, and their biggest threat is the human.

Aquariums will also pretend that having the option to interact with marine animals benefits both people and the animals, giving humans a better insight into their behavior. But the reality is, interacting with animals confined in tanks benefits no one - except those who profit from them.

Smiling faces in glossy advertisements hide the horrible truths about these facilities, and this expansion only emphasizes the need to end swim-with programs all together.