WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DOLPHINS OF ATLANTIS?
HEY LOVELY! Autumn has officially become my favourite season in Perth. The mornings are crisp, the evenings are snuggle worthy and the days are nothing short of stunning, perfect for Sunday drives along the coast, with a bit of meandering about in between.
Our first stop for a morning mocha was at the gorgeous Perth City Beach.
West Australians are fortunate to call our coastlines and beach fronts some of the cleanest in the world because most of us take a personal pride in keeping the oceans and beaches litter free.
Paul and I made our way towards Yanchep, an outer coastal 1970's suburb known as the defunct brainchild of the infamous entrepreneur Alan Bond, who sold the Yanchep Sun City project to Japanese owners, Tokyu Corporation.
In 1981 the company built the Atlantis Marine Park as a tourist attraction.
Although the park’s slogan was “Atlantis marine park for the enrichment of mankind” the park's success hinged on the theatrical performance of 7 bottlenose dolphins that had been captured from the local coastal population 6 months prior to the opening, broken in and then trained to perform over and over again for the next 10 years.
By the end of the 80's the park was losing money, nor could they afford the required expansions for the three female dolphins born in 1988, so the owners decided to close it down by August 1990, leaving all the dolphins without a home.
The only remnants of the park now are the abandoned limestone statues including the ten metre tall King Neptune, serving as a sad reminder of what happened to the dolphins.
As I looked out to sea, I began to wonder if my hazy recollections of the three of them dying from poisoning was fact or urban legend, so I decided to do my research and here is what I found out.
With the approval of The State Government Wildlife Department, part of the park's closing entailed an agreement with marine park veterinarian and research scientist Dr. Nick Gales, who believed that given enough time and funding, it would be possible to reintroduce the dolphins and their captive born offspring back into the wild.
Tokyu Corporation accepted his proposal, agreeing to fully fund the project provided that the release would end their financial obligations to the dolphins.
Fortunately as part of her PhD, Kelly Waples documented the rehabilitation and release of the bottlenose dolphins from Atlantis Marine Park in a fascinating read; The Atlantis Marine Park Project.
In short, the official rehabilitation process began in March 1991, 6 months after the closure of the park.
Whilst still living in the marine pools but with limited human interaction, the dolphins were all freeze branded, taught some new hand signals for easier handling and introduced to foraging with locally caught live fish. The younger three dolphins treated the fish as a game to play against each other, rather simply chasing the fish instead of eating the fish.
In October 1991, the dolphins were moved to a custom made sea pen in the Two Rocks marina which served as a "halfway home" so that the dolphins could acclimatize to life at sea with a larger living space, fresh sea water, fresh fish and obstacles such as limestone reef. They were fitted with tracking gear and lead out on open ocean excursions by the team.
In November 1991, Mila (one of the original captive females) gave birth to a male.
On January 14 1992, all dolphins were given free access to the marina and the ocean beyond by permanently removing the gates that had been separating the two. Apparently it took some coaxing for the dolphins to leave the pen and travel out to sea but eventually they started to explore of their own volition.
Without reliable tracking, it was difficult to assess the success of the project. It is hoped that at least five of the released grew to become healthy dolphins that integrated completely into the wild population.
It is known that for four of the dolphins; Rajah, Mila, her calf and Echo (4 year old captive born dolphin), the first and only release didn't bode so well.
Rajah was the first to be returned to the sea pen 10 days after his initial release because they believed he lost too much weight, too soon and that he was not foraging properly, choosing instead to feed on bottom dwelling lobster and spiny fish.
Echo was captured and returned to the sea pen after 8 days out at sea (not including the 2 days she had spent hanging around the marina) because she was losing too much weight and spent most of her time hanging around beaches and rock jetties interacting with people for companionship and in hopes of food.
After 4 weeks at sea, Mila's new born calf went missing, presumed dead. Mila had lost too much weight, despite receiving substantial fish handouts from the back of the team's boat during her last two weeks at sea.
The decision was made to return her to the sea pen once she had started following other boats for food, instead of foraging. She was captured and returned to the sea pen on February 28 1992, 44 days after release.
After one effort, the research team believed that these three dolphins were incapable of humanely living in the wild so a new home had to be found for them.
Underwater World, now known as AQWA, decided they'd like to expand their aquarium to include the dolphins among their exhibits so a new pen was constructed in the Hillary's Marina and the dolphins were moved there on September 2, 1992.
CALM (Department of Conservation and Land Management) and Underwater World formed a joint management committee to oversee the dolphin program, which was supposed to continue to train the mammals to look after themselves at sea with the hopes of being released again but instead the dolphins remained penned to participate in several daily "educational shows" and a swim-with-people program.
Mila calved two more offspring, Kila who drowned when her rostrum (beak) got caught in the pen's netting and Indiana, born in 1989, died in the spring of 1999 from a bacterial infection.
Finally, between December 27th to the 31st 1999, the remaining three dolphins died within 4 days of each other.
Autopsies revealed that Mila (then 29 years old) died of a heart attack, however the reasons for Rajah and Echo's death couldn't be determined. The deaths were treated as suspicious and passed onto police for investigation but the case was never solved.
There was some speculation that Rajah (then 28 years old) was so distressed by the death of Mila that he pined to death and Echo (then 11 years old), was greatly stressed after the two elders had passed so that caused him to die ... perspective? The average dolphin's life expectancy in the wild is between 40-50 years of age.
Suspicion still remains that the three dolphins were poisoned but will we ever truly know?
My research for this story lead me into the heinous nature of a billion-dollar industry built on the long suffering of intelligent, social beings who are traumatized from being captured, cruelly broken in, trained by deprivation and then denied everything that is natural and important to them for the rest of their sad existence.
I've chosen to share what I've learnt because frustratingly, people are still supporting this industry all in the name of entertainment.
QUESTION: Did you ever visit the dolphins at either Atlantis Marine Park or Underwater World?