Ocean Park would order dolphins from drives one last time in April 1987 with a large shipment of animals: eleven false killer whales, three Pacific bottlenose and three Pacific white-sided dolphins were imported from Iki Island. Leadership changes, which was underway during the late 1980s, would ultimately end the practice.
Not all of Ocean Park’s animals were sourced from drive fisheries. Their lone orca, Hoi-Wai, arrived half a world away from Britain. Captured in 1977 in Iceland, she and another orca (later named Winnie) served as substitutes for Windsor Safari Park. The safari park was forced to transfer their lone killer whale, Ramu, to SeaWorld when he outgrew their facilities. Originally named Suzie Wong, she was trained at the Clacton Pier Dolphinarium and then returned to Windsor when the Clacton’s infrastructure sustained severe storm damage.
She was later delivered to Hong Kong on January 28th 1979, just in time for the Chinese New Year. Upon her arrival, the public balked at her moniker (given the racist stereotype), and a naming contest was held. The winning name was Hoi-Wai (pronounced hoy-way), meaning “might of the ocean.” She would perform at the park with her rotating assortment of dolphin pool mates for eighteen years.
In April 1989, she was briefly granted same-species companionship when Sea World Kamogawa sold Ocean Park their surplus adolescent bull. Renamed Prince, he lived with Hoi-Wai until July 1991, succumbing to melioidosis. (While Hoi-Wai was given annual booster vaccines for the disease from 1983 onward, it is unknown if Prince ever received any.)
Ocean Park would cease to be a Jockey Club subsidiary in July 1987, becoming its own entity with a government-appointed board. Esteemed marine biologist Stephen Leatherwood would become increasingly involved with Ocean Park in the late 1980’s, eventually becoming director of the veterinary and education department. He also created the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) in 1993, and oversaw a five-year action plan that would address and invest resources into threatened Asiatic river dolphins and other cetaceans.
Another significant change was the investment in a captive dolphin breeding program. Beginning in 1988, the Training Yard, a complex consisting of six connected pools that was once a former feeding pool in the mid-1980s, was placed off limits to the public. It was transformed into a center “dedicated primarily to research and captive breeding of bottlenose dolphins.”
One of OPCF’s first major donations came from cast and crew of the 1992 martial arts film, “Moon Warriors.” The production crew used Ocean Theater to film lead actor Andy Lau performing with Hoi-Wai, who starred as protagonist’s orca companion, Neptune. (Giving credit where it’s due, Lau did the majority of the waterwork stunts.) Former Chief Executive Matthias Li recounted, “Instead of being charged a commercial payment [for filming at the park], they were asked to donate a sum of money to be dedicated to the conservation of ocean life.”
As the park gained some legitimacy in the conservation field, the end of the 1990s would prove to be tumultuous. Following on the heels of Leatherwood’s death in January 1997, Hoi-Wai perished three months later on April 21st from severe intestinal hemorrhaging, despite trainers and veterinarians fighting “around the clock” to stabilize her. Even after the long-awaited Handover (when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China) was accomplished in July, the park would encounter an attendance slump in 1998 due to the Asian financial crisis.
There was, however, some excitement on the scientific front. Ocean Park would make headlines in the June 2001 when the the park announced that two Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins “delivered two healthy calves,” Hoi Kei and Max on May 14 and May 25th (respectively), conceived through artificial insemination. It was a project that started a decade earlier in collaboration Hong Kong Polytechnic University, with SeaWorld eventually lending their expertise later. The method would prove to be a boon for marine parks worldwide in the coming decades to prevent genetic bottlenecks in their bottlenose dolphin colonies.
Video of Ada giving birth (dated May 14, 2001), and Ocean Park holding a press conference announcing the artificial insemination achievement (dated June 28, 2001). (Video Credit: Associated Press)
Ocean Park would place their breeding program temporarily on hold from 2006–2010 during a slew of construction and expansion projects. This included the expansion of the former Training Yards-turned-dolphin reproduction research hub, renamed as the Marine Mammal Breeding and Research Center. The make-over was completed and put to use in November 2009, with the Center becoming new nursery for expecting mothers and newborn dolphins. The facility would open for just five weeks to the public in 2013, becoming part of Ocean Park’s behind-the-scenes tour, which also included a look at the aviary, coral cultivation tanks and the panda house.
Even with funding being poured into captive breeding methods and new facilities, it did not curb the deaths. Mellioidosis was still an issue, even with the annual inoculations (the last publicly confirmed mellioidosis-related death in September 2001). Ocean Park began to search worldwide to loan dolphins from other facilities: Domino and Dumisa, both Indo-Pacific bottlenose born at Bayworld in South Africa, were exported to Hong Kong in July 2009. Rita, another captive-born, was transferred from the Tunisian Friguia Park in November 2012, after she was left alone following the death of her companions.
Breeding loans would not be enough. Ocean Park would announce on April 17, 2010 it was in ‘very preliminary’ talks into funding research, in partnership with the Solomon Islands government, to determine the local bottlenose population. In return for the funding, the arrangement would let the marine park to take 24-30 dolphins. The last time Ocean Park took dolphins from the wild (through non-drive hunt means) was December 1987 and December 1997 from Indonesian waters. Ultimately, the plans to import dolphins was dropped following outcry from conservation organizations. While Ocean Park pledged to donate $100,000 to an approved population survey, the research was postponed (and ultimately dropped) following a change in leadership in the Solomon Islands government.
However, it would be Ocean Park’s other side project (happening simultaneously) that would result in the biggest uproar. In September 2010, the park announced it had intended to import six beluga whales for its upcoming Polar Adventure Zone exhibit, scheduled to open in mid-2012. These six were from a group of eighteen, where most were destined for marine parks and aquariums in the United States.
Local animal rights and international conservation organizations pushed back aggressively. Questions were raised whether Ocean Park had the expertise to care for the animals (the extent of their experience was funding a 2007 beluga abundance and genetics study, along with Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld, and Mystic Aquarium in the Western Sea of Okhotsk), whether the animals would even thrive, and what merit their presence would bring.
Then-Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman assured the media the animals would be given the utmost care at Ocean Park, emphasizing they would serve to educate visitors:
“We’re not even thinking about entertainment. They are not going to be jumping hoops. They are there to be studied so people can understand belugas and study them and see how we can conserve them…. Irrespective of whether we go ahead with the import or not, we are setting up a very strong research center not just with Ocean Park but with world-renowned scientists to study belugas and their conservation. It’s part of our mission We’re going about things the right way. We are very responsible.”
Yet even the most responsible facilities were having difficulties keeping the Arctic whales. In neighboring Taiwan, the esteemed National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium had ten Russian-sourced belugas on display, imported in two separate groups in 2002 and 2006. By the end of 2009, half of their pod had perished.
Ever “sensitive to public sentiment,” Ocean Park commissioned two major opinion polls to gauge the Hong Kong public’s opinion on the matter. The survey conducted by Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, “63 per cent of respondents supported bringing beluga whales to Ocean Park.” Meanwhile, University of Hong Kong’s public opinion poll revealed “a slight majority of people opposed importing the whales… But three-fifths supported the import so long as Ocean Park worked with other world-class aquariums on animal research to study and conserve beluga whales.”
How the polls can be read is a matter of interpretation: while the majority of citizens supported the beluga import and display, it was not unanimous. As one animal protection league executive director commented:
“Twenty years ago in Hong Kong, 95 per cent of people would have found it acceptable, and it’s interesting that today, on a very quick survey, it’s 50-50. You can be sure that in 10 years’ time, it would be 90 per cent against.”
Ocean Park would announce in August 2011 they abandoned their plan to import and display belugas (much to some board members chagrin). While it was alleged that “animal rights extremism” caused the marine park to cave, Allan Zeman spoke to journalist Tim Zimmermann in length about the decision. It had more had to do with seeing how belugas were kept in mainland China and Japan while conducting research on how to make a ‘better’ exhibit, and whether it would be wise in the long-run. Zeman elaborated,
“I guess seeing them, even in Atlanta, made me realize that the enclosures aren’t big enough. That with whales that size, unless you can take the park to the ocean, it’s hard. Some animals do well in captivity and some don’t. If you have a big animal you really need a proper facility for them. I felt what we were building was not big enough. That’s my own feeling.”
In the aftermath of the ill-fated court battle over their import permit rejection, Georgia Aquarium admitted that Ocean Park had intended to temporarily hold some whales destined for American facilities, while “waiting for permit approval” from United States authorities.
Meanwhile, Ocean Park also had to defend their public image as a wildlife “conservation champion.” In addition to hosting education programs for children through their Ocean Park Academy program, they also fund research grants. In the 2015/2016 fiscal year, the park “donated HK$12.1 million to [Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong] which supported 32 projects in across nine countries and involved 22 animal species.”
While the funds do contribute to meaningful research into the terrestrial and marine life that live within and around Hong Kong, there is something to be said of Ocean Park’s lukewarm interest in the local Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. Roaming the Pearl River Delta Estuary and called locally as the ‘Chinese white dolphin,’ these pinkish cetaceans are genetically distinct from their Australian counterparts. While a roughly estimated 2,500 dolphins live in the Estuary, a smaller population – just 368 individuals – frequents the Hong Kong waters.
The Chinese white dolphins experience a barrage of threats ranging from pollution, shipping noise, boat collisions and habitat loss from infrastructure projects, such as the highly controversial third plane runway beside the Hong Kong International Airport. Yet, as one local activist noted, more effort is put into their captive bottlenose program, than mitigating the threats facing local humpback dolphins: “What is the point of breeding [bottlenose] dolphins in captivity to perform for humans when they are not a local species and not even endangered in the wild?”
While Ocean Park has conducted biosonar and ‘cooperative enrichment’ research with their bottlenose, posting about it in length on their website, it feels more of a way to deflect criticism, rather an actual accomplishment compared to their ‘artificial reproduction’ project. While artificial insemination is increasingly used in a number of nations, it appears to have mixed results at Ocean Park’s own bottlenose program. The park has concentrated on their own captive breeding efforts during the past two decades, resulting in seventeen live calves born between 2000–2018, six would still die by 2021. Even Hoi Kei and Max, the first dolphins born through artificial insemination, perished sometime prior to 2013. The most recent death was a seven-year-old Milo, who passed away on April 15, 2021, reportedly from “rapidly acute hemorrhagic enteritis.”
With the curtains poised to close on Ocean Park’s dolphin show, what will be done with them?
As discussed earlier, there is a real risk the animals would be sent to mainland China. In 2015, Suzanne Gendron, former Executive Director of Zoological Operations and Education, told the South China Morning Post she was not worried with the fast rate of marine parks being constructed across the country and the lack of animal welfare laws. She continued that “while there is room for improvement in many mainland facilities, she [was] confident that “best care” standards can be met.” Ocean Park had sent staff and “animal behavior experts… on regular trips to the mainland to advise on how new parks can raise their standards.”
Ocean Park’s expertise and advice may have helped improved the husbandry and care for marine mammals in some select parks, it fell on deaf ears for the vast majority in the mainland. In September 2018, Al Jeezera released a video expose called “China: Caging the Wild.” Through undercover video, clandestine discussions with animal importers, curators, and one-on-one interviews with ex-trainers and marine mammal experts, it painted a damning picture. Marine mammals were not only being captured from Japanese and Russian waters and imported into China at an alarming rate, they were facing abuse, were pushed too hard to perform, or experienced neglect from veterinarians that had no experience with marine mammals. For the ones that died, there was no time to examine what went wrong, as the owner was already sending orders for replacements.
It is glimpses likes these that makes local conservation organizations’ plea to into a feasibility study (whether Ocean Park can retire the dolphins to a seaside sanctuary) all the more urgent. From employing the dolphins as inoculation test subjects, to making breakthroughs with artificial insemination methods, it would be wholly unacceptable if their park’s last generation of dolphins weren’t at least granted a reprieve. If a seaside location is not a doable option, then something must be constructed, but with the dolphins’ needs in mind, to live out their final years.
Featured Image: An Indo-Pacific dolphin performing at Ocean Theater, Ocean Park, November 2011. © Calshutter/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(Originally published June 17, 2021)
The author would like to thank University of Hong Kong Libraries Special Collections staff for their assistance.
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