I haven’t seen the movie Dolphin Tale but I am familiar with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium from my years working nearby at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. According to a September 3rd story in telegram.com, the Aquarium is building a new, 68 million dollar aquatic center in downtown Clearwater to accommodate the star of Dolphin Tale, a rescued dolphin named Winter with a prosthetic tail, and the star of the soon-to-be-released sequel, another dolphin calf named Hope.
This new aquatic facility will be remarkable because designers are saving nearly 100 million dollars by eliminating all entertainment facilities. The focus will be “rehabilitation and marine rescues, not entertainment” and, according to the article, they have videotaped celebrity endorsements to support their project.
This is in stark contrast to last month’s announcement by SeaWorld, who unveiled its plans to open a flashy, new orca environment in 2018. The naturalistic area will cover 1.5 acres and its 10 million gallon pool will be up to fifty feet deep and have an underwater current to provide exercise for the orcas. They are even taking the extraordinary steps of pledging 10 million dollars to research and establishing “an independent advisory committee” to oversee the orca program. All of this, and no celebrity endorsements. In fact, according to the LATimes.com, critics called this a desperate move, suggesting that “a bigger prison is still a prison”. As if to punctuate their predicament, SeaWorld stock is plummeting, their profits dwindling, and the State of California is considering legislation to outlaw the shows that are a staple of SeaWorld’s livelihood.
Such is the power of two movies featuring marine mammals, one an upbeat tale with a happy ending and the other a dark exposé that alleges mistreatment and worse. Even famed primatologist, Jane Goodall has been drawn into the fray. Her recent letter to the Vancouver Parks Board in opposition to the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean program suggests that the scientific community and society at large are having second thoughts about programs that keep “highly cognitive species like primates, elephants, and cetaceans in entertainment and research” settings.
There can be little doubt that public views are evolving and that, if zoos and aquariums are to survive, they must evolve as well. But when we talk about marine rescue and wildlife rehabilitation, SeaWorld Parks have been in the field for nearly fifty years. So to suggest that a small facility in Clearwater Florida is doing good work while SeaWorld is not seems a bit disingenuous. SeaWorld may have its questionable practices, but providing quality care for rescued wildlife shouldn’t be in the discussion. I wonder if anyone will stand up for SeaWorld. Maybe they are the ones that need to be rescued.