The performing dolphins at Aqualand in southern Tenerife suffer just as much as the ones at Loro Parque’s better-known dolphinarium in the north. Aqualand, which is located in Costa Adeje, is a popular water park that offers high-speed water slides, giant spas, hydro massage showers, a wave pool, and other water-themed activities for adrenalin-seeking tourists. On its website, Aqualand advertises the dolphins as “the stars of the park,” and the dolphins perform once daily. Aqualand’s website boasts that the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association has awarded the dolphin show as “the best in the world.”
I visited Aqualand to witness the dolphins’ living conditions. The stadium consists of the typical dreary collection of small concrete tanks separated by iron gates. There is a show tank and a miniscule medical tank in between two holding tanks.
During the incredibly loud Las Vegas-style show, the dolphins are instructed to play ball and dance backward on their tail flukes, and at some point, the trainers use the dolphins as live surfboards. The show is a full-blown circus act where dolphins are cruelly exploited as performers. While the ear-deafening music is blasting through the stadium’s sound system, one of the dolphins even has to push a child from the audience around the tank in a small rubber boat. Throughout the show, the dolphins perform several high-speed synchronized summersaults and jumps. They execute them with painstaking precision, and I get the impression they have been through an intense training program. As soon as they have completed a trick, they rush to the edge of the tank to receive a small portion of fish from their trainers. They are obviously kept hungry prior to a show, and trainers control them by their food to make them perform the tricks correctly, just like in any other dolphinarium. Trainers are experts at making the performance look like innocent fun and games, but to the dolphins, this is not a game. It’s work. They are doing what they know they must to earn the food rewards they so desperately want and need.
The show lasts about 25 minutes, and when it’s over, one of the staff members sets up a booth by the edge of the tank and encourages parents to purchase tickets to a dolphin encounter where children get to pet dolphins on the head. I walk up to her and ask where the Aqualand’s dolphins came from. She says they were born here. “All of them?” I ask. She hesitates for a moment and then responds: “Well, some of them came from Cuba years ago.” I am not surprised. Cuba has been a major supplier of wild-caught dolphins that have been sold to dolphinariums abroad, including some in Europe. But she denies that the dolphins were deliberately captured for Aqualand. “They were not captured for us on purpose,” she says. “They were rescued from fishing nets. We wanted to give them a chance at a better life here with us in Tenerife.” I know she is lying to my face. Aqualand did not start off as a rescue center for Cuban dolphins that got trapped in fishing nets. It has always been a full-blown tourist attraction that exploits dolphins in theatrical shows to attract holidaymakers.
Dolphins are free-ranging, highly intelligent, and powerful predators. But in Aqualand’s bleak and gloomy concrete stadium, there is no way for them to express their natural abilities, such as foraging, navigating, and exploring. And their awe-inspiring ability to use echolocation to hunt is completely wasted in the desolate prison they are in. They can swim only a few feet before they hit a wall, and in between performances, they swim in pointless circles, going nowhere.
As I leave the stadium, I overhear the staff member tell a German tourist the exact same thing she told me: Most of the dolphins were born here, and those who weren’t were saved from fishing nets in Cuba. I wonder how many people she tells this deceiving story to, and how many of them believe it’s true.
Featured image: If the dolphins weren’t hungry, the trainers would not be able to make them perform. After each completed trick, the dolphins rush the edge of the tank to receive the food-reward they so desperately want. photo: Helene O’Barry/Dolphin Project[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]