Back at the start of July, Port Elizabeth’s Sport, Recreation, Sports and Culture Department and mayor Danny Jordan announced their plans to revive the once-popular South African oceanarium, BayWorld. After placing management of the BayWorld facility, along with the attached museum complex into the hands of the metro, a cash injection of R300 million (approximately $20.8 million) will be granted to the department.
Once a hubbub of crowds, flowing revenue and activity, BayWorld has become a ghost town since 2009. While the penguins, reptiles and some fur seals remain at the park, it is now a crippled shell of its former self.
Currently, BayWorld’s last two Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Domino and Dumisa, are out of the country. Because Dumisa is a product of a mother-son mating, there were fears of further inbreeding, and the decision was made to transport the park’s two dolphins to Ocean Park Hong Kong in July 2009 on a breeding loan. Domino would go on to sire another calf of his own in 2011, while Dumisa is reportedly still ‘learning the ropes’ of raising offspring by observing other pod members.
Given its state, a monetary boost like this could help the park get back onto its feet. However, rather than reinvent the park, Sports and Recreation MEC (Municipal of the Executive Council) Pemmy Majodina promised Port Elizabeth could return to its former glory – with the help of its returning dolphins. She commented:
Once we are ready, the dolphins must come back. Bayworld is characterised with these dolphins; they must be named with African names… this institution must be reshaped.”
Former BayWorld director, now current educational and training director for the Port Elizabeth Museum, Sylvia van Zyl, said while Domino and Dumisa couldn’t return to South Africa due to breeding loan agreements, their offspring could:
They will probably not bring any of the breeding animals here and this has been the arrangement with the breeding facility and a presentation facility, so if the Hong Kong people agree the dolphins can come back to South Africa, this will mean that there has to be a facility of the right standard.”
This announcement was met with a healthy amount of skepticism. South African tourist blogger and commentator, Martin Hatchuel, wrote how it is highly unlikely dolphins will ever return to Port Elizabeth mainly due to the lengthy mandate process, along with a public participation process. Additionally, the proposed R300 million hasn’t even been set aside for the project.
Other local organizations such as Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism, have expressed disappointment, commenting how they would “like to see Bayworld redeveloped as a multi-purpose venue,” rather than try to spend so much effort into rebuilding the facility’s past self.
This hefty grant of money would not be the first generous donation. The municipality overseeing the facility pledged at least two other times – once in May 2010 with a promised R484 million plan, and in August 2012 with a R10 million cash injection – to revive the park. Only did the park receive the R10 million to revamp the penguin and seal pools, which still ended up being far too small. In fact, due to the cash crunch, Bayworld eventually released their pair of ragged-toothed sharks that was kept in BayWorld’s aquarium for nearly 20 years in July 2011.
Aside from this squandering mess of empty promises and misused funds, it’s also abundantly clear the Port Elizabeth government is out of touch with rest of the world. Given the growing sentiment against cetaceans in captivity, most are left wondering how on earth could the Sports and Recreational Department think this is even a safe idea?
BayWorld’s rival, uShaka Marine World (formerly SeaWorld Durban), located in Durban, could be one answer. Given uShaka’s success since its re-opening in 2005, it wouldn’t be surprising to think Port Elizabeth is itching to get back in the dolphinarium business and get a piece of the pie. (Prior to Domino and Dumisa’s move to Hong Kong, BayWorld had approached their competitor in hopes of collaborating to swap dolphins and jump start a breeding program, but talks fell through).
The Port Elizabeth government appears to be avoiding addressing the elephant in the room. Even in its ‘better’ days, BayWorld had been under fire for animal abuse accusations and a slew of dolphin deaths. According to the Wildlife Action Group (WAG) in December 1999, at least 33 dolphins had died at the facility since its inception. Due to BayWorld’s lack of transparency and no access to government records, this number cannot be confirmed.
BAYWORLD HISTORY 101
Originally called Port Elizabeth Oceanarium until its name change in 1999, BayWorld first opened with four Dusky dolphins in 1960 (Petunia, Peter, Patsy and Paul), all captured in the Cape Town area. They would last only a few months, given their pelagic nature and higher sensitivity to stress. The facility would go on to capture another unusual species – three humpback dolphins – in 1963. which would only live for one month. Their last notable denizen would be Frizbee, a striped dolphin that was found stranded in May 1985. He would live his days as an untrained resident until his death in May 1990, from reported kidney failure.
The oceanarium’s first bottlenose dolphins, Haig and Dimple were caught in 1962; the latter would die a month after capture. Three more replacements, all females, were captured a year later. Two would die, leaving the lone survivor, Lady Dimple, to be Haig’s only companion. Between 1964 to 1981, seven more dolphins would be captured for the South African park.
Following the arrival of two dolphins in late 1967, Daan and Dolfie, Lady Dimple fell pregnant and would give birth to South Africa’s first calf on December 12, following the opening of the new Dolphin Lake exhibit. After a nationwide contest, the female calf was christened Dolly.
While their captive breeding program would slowly take off, it was more or less a convenient facade to hide the oceanarium’s ongoing troubles. For much of 1964, BayWorld wrangled with a vague mention of “illnesses” among the dolphin colony.
In August 1976, the staff was forced to release Daan (Dolly’s father) back into the wild, after keeping him in captivity for a little over a decade. While BayWorld’s statement has always been “he grew too big,” according to Nick Carter of Dolphin Action and Protection Group, his release was due to Daan’s increasingly aggressive behavior. Carter elaborated: “Not only did he threaten human beings, but he prevented other dolphins in the oceanarium from performing their circus acts.”
The bad luck continued:
- In 1979, five dolphins – Dolfie, Snappy, Flash, Themba and Mamolani – would perish within the year. Later in the year, Colin Tayler, former dolphin trainer and BayWorld curator of ten years, would break his silence on the long line of deaths. Considering how he was the driving force behind building the oceanarium’s dolphin shows, his statements weight as he told the Cape Argus how he believed “stress was the main cause of three recent dolphin deaths.”
- After Daan’s departure, a female named Malia was captured in 1977, serving as his replacement, yet she was kept in an offsite retaining pool after staff mistakenly believed she was pregnant. Her only toy and source of company was a child’s plastic surfboard. She would then fall ill with klebsiella pneumonia infection in 1979, and managed to fight it off, before finally being placed in the Dolphin Lake along with three other dolphins caught that year.
- In mid-1980, she was moved to the offsite pool again, due to repairs on Dolphin Lake. A year earlier, Dolly had developed ulcers after ripping off and ingesting chunks of the pool lining. A few weeks later, Malia would catch a respiratory disease and wither away to her death that September, despite 5-hour feedings and a range of antibiotics.
BayWorld appeared to ‘catch’ a break starting at the end of 1981, following the arrival of Thandi. After blood tests showed Thandi was heavily pregnant, a male calf was born six weeks later during an afternoon performance and was named Simo. BayWorld’s next captive born calf would not happen until 1990, when Domino was born to Dolly.
The good times would unravel for BayWorld in 1995, losing three dolphins – Lady Dimple, Thandi, and Simo – in a six-month period. Their cause of death, however, only came to light five years later, in November 2000, when Cape Argus newspaper published damning details brought by former BayWorld consultant, Debbie Young.
The first to go was Simo: after trainers began withholding food as punishment for not performing “up to standard” in February, his behavior took a bizarre turn. Dairies kept by the trainers jotted down his behaviors:
- “off, slow, lazy, screaming”; “flat, sluggish and screaming”; “pathetic and slow”
- “battling to do anything energetic”; “everything an effort, lying on bottom of pool, mouth pale;” even “madly in love.”
However, they were oblivious to that fact Simo was not being ornery, but genuinely suffering from a stomach and intestinal blockage. After his death on June 6th, he weighed a mere “186k (410lbs), having lost 12kg (26 lbs) in less than a month.” At his necropsy:
… his distended stomach contained 19.5kg (43 lbs) of wet sand, 22.5kg (48 lb) of stones, 3kg (6 lbs) of undigested food and 750 grams (1.6 lbs) of broken tile bits from the pool.
Shortly after Simo’s death, Lady Dimple stopped eating. Over the course of a month, she deteriorated “such an extent that oceanarium staff were forced to put her down” at the age of 45. The cause of her death was never released.
Thandi was the last, dying in October; the exact cause of her death, too, was undisclosed. The previous August, she had developed an abscess on the side of her head, and was given daily treatments for more than a year. She was subject to multiple “injections, gastroscopes, x-rays and biopsies.” BayWorld staff sought advice, and a marine mammal vet from Belgium flew in but assistance had come too late. In the end, the cause of her abscess could not be determined; her liver turned yellow and organs bleached white from the prolonged antibiotic treatment.
Following this spate, Sylvia Van Zyl stated the the construction activities around BayWorld, which had been ongoing 18 months prior to the dolphins’ deaths, were to blame:
This construction brought with it unrelenting noise, dust and plastic pollution and, on completion, resulted in a spate of unauthorised nocturnal intrusions into the dolphin’s environment by irresponsible and thoughtless youths.
It is believed that these events had a role to play in Simo’s behavior, swallowing foreign objects, and the unsuccessful treatment of Thandi’s abscess.
Trespassers had been an issue. Two men and a woman somehow managed to scale the facility’s spike-topped walls and were found skinny dipping and harassing the dolphins one night in 1995. While intruders and noisy construction were legitimate causes of stress among the pod, the blame should have equally been placed on the trainers, who were also responsible for Simo’s death. Explained Debbie Young:
… stones had in fact been deliberately introduced by the trainers as “toys” for the dolphins to stimulate them in the otherwise barren surroundings of their pool. But none of the trainers had noticed how many stones were being given to the dolphins and how many were being recovered.”
As well as the stones, it appeared Simo had attempted to eat every object he had found in the pool.
Even with the beans spilled, Van Zyl and the rest of the staff had approached the Department of Marine and Coastal Management for a capture permit for four Indo-Pacific bottlenose. The request was given unanimous approval by the board of trustees. In March of the same year, BayWorld had also been given the green light by marine mammal vet, dolphin broker and catcher Dr. Jay Sweeney, who described BayWorld as an “fully acceptable [facility] and in accordance with international standards.”
There was a catch: at least R30,000 ($1,900) was needed not only for the capture expenses but for the general upkeep of the remaining dolphins. Van Zyl said “the board [of trustees] had some funds set aside for exceptionally important projects.” Evidently, the lack of cash would be the deciding factor for more wild captures.
THE PAST DECADE
BayWorld’s fears of inbreeding came true on October 9, 2000, Dolly would give birth to her son’s offspring, Thunzi. Her life, however, would be cut short under mysterious circumstances. On September 7th, 2003, she was found floating in the pool with a wound to her head by trainer Robin Greyling. There have been persistent allegations that she had been bludgeoned with a blunt object. Indeed, in initial reports, police were investigating how one of BayWorld’s back gates had been forced open, but those had been quickly deemed false. In the end, the cause of death was due to a heart defect.
Dolly would go on and give birth to another calf, Dumisa, on September 23, 2004 — another result of a mother-son mating. Dolly’s life was abruptly cut short five months later at the age of 36. Dumisa, still nursing at the time, had to be hand-fed. While a veterinarian pathologist “believed her death was from natural causes, and that her advanced age had played a role,” an official cause of death was never released.
Being fully aware of the facility’s lack of transparency about the welfare of their animals, including the dolphin’s death rate, would it not be a much wiser decision to use the money to further expand the Cape fur seal exhibits, and turn the former dolphin pool into a rehabilitation pool for marine mammals? Striped dolphins, for example, have become stranded on the Port Elizabeth coast (and returned safely back into the wild in some cases). What harm is there in providing a much-needed service for wild marine mammals, possibly for the long term? The Port Elizabeth community is clearly interested in the wildlife off their coast, given the whale and dolphin watching tours that are currently offered. With todays’ technology, visitors can keep tabs on rehabilitating patients with webcams, much like those of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
If BayWorld wants advice, here’s some: as Majodina said, “reshape the institution.” This crumbling oceanarium can’t expect to return to its former self – at least, not with these skeletons rattling in the closet.
Author’s Note: Attempts to contact Ocean Watch South Africa and Dolphin Action and Protection Group (DAPG) for more information on BayWorld and their dolphins were made, but they did not return for comment.
Featured image: BayWorld in 1988/© Lu-Gerda de Klerk/Used with permission.
- Observations of a Captive Euphrosyne (Stripped) Dolphin, Stenella coeruleoalba, 1987 IMATA Proceedings
- Effects of Psycho-Physiological Stress on Captive Dolphins (1982), Nick Carter (DAPG), International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems, 3(3), 193-198.
- Untitled BayWorld Documentary transcript, 2009.
- Rate of post-mortem temperature loss in a striped dolphin (Stellena coeruleoalba). V.G. Cockcroft, Aquatic Mammals Journal (1991)
- WAG BayWorld Update, 2008, Wildlife Action Group
- Trainer Converts English for his Two Dolphins, The Morning Record, February 22, 1967
- Dolphin Math, The SouthEast Missourian, May 17, 1971.
- Dolphins monitored closely since deaths, Cape Argus, April 8, 2000.
- Shock at dolphin ‘torture’ deaths, John Yeld, Cape Argus, April 8, 2000.
- ‘BayWorld not fit to keep dolphins,’ John Yeld, Cape Argus, April 7, 2000.
- The Dolphin’s Dilemma, April 23, 2000, M-Net.
- Baby Dolphin Charms Crowds, February 19, 2001, News24.
- Heartbreak of dolphin’s mysterious death, September 7, 2003, Brett Adkins and Francois Rank, IOL News.
- Dolly Dolphin Dies, February 25, 2005, News24.
- Dolly the Dolphin Dies in South Africa. February 28, 2005, SABCNews. (Forum archive)