Recently, as part of the Empty the Tanks campaign we had volunteers travel to Mexico in order to document the dolphin captivity facilities within the state of Quintana Roo. Quintana Roo is a tourism hotspot where locations such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Cozumel reside. The state of Quintana Roo is a little over 34,000 square kilometers and they have packed in 19 facilities that spend each day profiting off of the exploitation of dolphins.
For more than 30 years the captivity industry in Mexico has deceived us with their false claims and marketing. During these years they have ignored the scientific facts about the animals they are exploiting. It is time they acknowledge the complexities, emotions and intelligence of all cetaceans.
The Mexican tourism industry expects nearly 45 million people to visit the country in 2019. Mexico is the 8th most visited country in the world. With tourism numbers continuing to grow each year, it is also important to increase efforts to educate tourists about dolphin captivity throughout the country.
Our volunteers visited all 19 swim-with-dolphins facilities in the state in order to obtain more information about the health of the dolphins there, as well as to document the activities taking place. What they discovered were astonishingly small tanks, some of which are only feet from the ocean, full of dolphins that showed restless and stereotypic behaviors. Each day the dolphins must earn their meals by doing tricks and entertaining paying tourists.
In this blog we are going to tell you about the well-known company called Dolphin Discovery and what our volunteers found when they visited their facilities.
Dolphin Discovery is a well-known name exploiting dolphins in captivity. According to their website, Dolphin Discovery has 22 locations spread out across Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Jamaica and the United States. They also boast about what they call their “sister parks” which includes captivity partnerships with zoos and parks in even more locations around the world. They use brightly-colored brochures and pictures of smiling tourists to entice vacationers to come into their businesses for dolphin interactions.
There are seven Dolphin Discovery facilities in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico and our volunteers visited each of them to find out what was really happening behind those perfectly scripted brochures and signs.
Our volunteers pretended to be typical tourists while visiting these facilities and participated in a free tour from a trainer (Dolphin Discovery refers to them as “Marine Mammal Specialists”) at the Dolphin Discovery Cozumel location. If you read the first blog post in this series about Dolphinaris and the dolphin captivity industry in Mexico, you will remember our inside information told us that dolphin calves die in Mexico so frequently that they are not reported to government agencies until they are at least six months old. The trainer and tour guide at Dolphin Discovery seemed to confirm that information when she told our volunteers that no dolphin calves are named until they are at least six months old.
At this facility the dolphins are kept in man-made pens in ocean water. The pens are separated by nets and there are 10 small pens with one larger one in the middle. The dolphins are supposed to get “free” time inside the larger pen throughout the day. That did occur during one of the visits but not as frequently as the trainers claim. The dolphins also appeared to be chasing each other aggressively when they were allowed into the larger area together. It is a common fact that dolphins show aggression towards each other in captivity due to the stress of the confinement and forced social structures. The few minutes of “free” time turns into a game of chase and bully for the dolphins involved.
There are two Dolphin Discovery locations in the Puerto Aventuras community in Rivera Maya: one is partnered with the Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort and Spa, and the other location is less than a half of a mile away from the resort. The dolphins at these locations are kept in ocean water pens of various sizes. At the Dolphin Discovery facility outside of the Dreams Resort there is a marina next to the dolphin pens with a great deal of boat traffic within it. Volunteers described being able see fuel floating on the water’s surface in the dolphin pens, as well as being able to smell it when they were near the water. This of course brings up a great deal of health concerns for the dolphins who cannot escape that water pollution. The noise of the boat traffic is also a concern for their overall well being.
While visiting Dolphin Discovery inside the Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort and Spa, our volunteers described this distressing scene:
“A trainer kept hugging one of the dolphins over and over. They picked the dolphin up out of the water and held him or her the way you’d cradle a baby – upside down with their stomach pointing towards the sky. The trainer would then try to toss the dolphin up as best he could into the air and then catch it. He was also repeatedly grabbing and hugging the dolphin from behind. It was really distressing to watch.”
This behavior is completely unacceptable and further points to the fact that these animals are being mistreated and exploited in captivity. The trainer in this particular situation was also alone in the water with no other employees or guests around at the time due to the rain storm that had started. It is unclear if he realized anyone was around and watching this behavior.
The dolphins at all the Dolphin Discovery locations exhibit the same rake marks and discolored rostrums as dolphins languishing at other captivity facilities in Mexico. The trainers refer to these marks as “social marks” and claim that bullying is normal behavior. While rake marks and individual aggression might be seen in wild populations as well, the difference is that in a small tank the bullied dolphin cannot get away or escape the attacks. At the Playa del Carmen location a dolphin was seen being chased and attacked by four other dolphins. The dolphin would try to get into the shallow areas of the tank but ultimately could not fully get away from the aggressors.
Another interesting and slightly ironic situation was observed at Dolphin Discovery’s Tulum-Akumal location. The trainers have taught the dolphins to pick up trash from the water and put it in a garbage can that a guest is holding. This trick is for conservation, as the trainers would regularly say. Shortly after witnessing that interaction between paying customers and the dolphins, our volunteers stayed to watch the dolphin show. During that show, the presenter talked about the various dolphin encounter packages you can purchase and how fast a dolphin can swim, but they never once mentioned dolphin conservation or how to help wild populations. These places truly are putting on a show to simply entertain the masses.
One of the Dolphin Discovery locations, the Costa Maya facility, fully caters to the cruise lines and passengers. This particular facility was the most difficult to gather information on because you must be a cruise ship passenger to gain entrance. It is difficult to understand why these cruise companies are still supporting such an outdated and controversial industry such as dolphin captivity. Princess Cruise Lines even awarded Dolphin Discovery the Shore Excursion of the Season award. TripAdvisor presented Dolphin Discovery with a Certificate of Excellence in 2014. When you look closely, it is clear that these companies do not have the best interest of the animals in mind and yet their upbeat slogans and colorful signage, tricks the average person into believing the lies. In support of the lies and exploitation, the travel companies continue to advertise and sell tickets on behalf of the captivity industry.
Please contact the companies listed in the graphic below to tell them it is time to stop supporting dolphin captivity, and of course please never participate in a captive dolphin encounter.
In our next blog entry about Mexico’s dolphin captivity industry we will tell you about Delphinus, the final swim-with dolphins company operating in Quintana Roo.
Featured image: A dolphin doing tricks with a trainer at the Dolphin Discovery Tulum location. Credit: Empty the Tanks/Dolphin Project