Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Taiji Take Two: Dolphin Base

After Sunday's slaughter and capture I drove to Dolphin Base to check on the Risso's dolphin captured just an hour prior. I was in pain, it was in more pain than I could imagine, and I just wanted to sit with it for a while. As I was gazing out at the Risso's, lost somewhere in my mind, I caught a glimpse of a dolphin surfacing on the outside of the pens. This was very confusing to see, I thought maybe I'd imagined it. It surfaced again, so no, I wasn't seeing things. Ok, next question, what was it doing there? Had it jumped out? Escape through a hole in the net? Did the trainers who were busy feeding the others know it was out there? Did they care? After more observation I saw that the trainers did indeed know, and there were two other dolphins out there as well, all bottlenose. Later, when I saw the others, Nicole told me that the trainers do occasionally let the dolphins out, but that she didn't know why. I wasn't able to visit Dolphin Base yesterday due to the lengthy slaughter, but when we visited it today I saw again these dolphins swimming free. It was starting to get dark though, and the trainers brought the dolphins back in the pens before leaving for the night.

These dolphins looked like they were having an absolute blast out there. They were ripping through the water, porpoising at high speed, as if they were finally able to stretch their muscles after being crammed in their tiny confinement. They circled the perimeter of the pens over and over again, spending time with the other captives. Whenever a boat drove past, the dolphins porpoised after it and began bowriding. My heart was pounding seeing this. I kept saying to myself, "Go, go go!" Get out of here, you have to go!!" But of course whenever the dolphins started following a vessel, it would slow down until they got bored and swam off. The drivers must have some sort of understanding with Dolphin Base so that they don't lead the dolphins out to open ocean. Every once in a while they would swim over to the main pen, and the trainers would rush over and start interacting with them. I could not tell what was going on, but the trainers did not appear panicked in the slightest. They gave the dolphins commands, tossed them a treat, and when the dolphins swam away the trainers resumed feeding the others.

What was going on here? I was so confused and wished I could ask for some sort of explanation from the trainers, but I don't know that any of them speak English and I didn't want them to misinterpret me, or think I was trying to harass them, so I just kept watching. At one point the trainers used fish to coax the dolphins back into the pen, but they did not pull the net closed and the dolphins once again swam free.

Why do the dolphins stick around? Why don't they swim far and fast, away from Taiji, never looking back? I have a few thoughts on this; the dolphins may not want to leave the others behind, or maybe they're terrified of the path of the exit back to the ocean. They constantly can hear the banging and cries of pods being driven in and killed, so if I were them, I'm not sure I'd want to swim that direction. Or perhaps they've become so brainwashed and broken by the stress of captivity that they're now mentally dependent on their trainers. During the process of Keiko's (Free Willy) rehabilitation, they actually had to teach Keiko how to think for himself again. If he came up with a new behavior on his own, then he'd be rewarded - but he would not get a reward for performing the same behavior twice, it had to be different, and a creation from his own mind. So many people want us to go out to the pens at night and cut the nets, but (besides being illegal) that would achieve nothing. With the probable exception of the newly caught dolphins, they would likely not swim away. They can all absolutely be released back into the wild, but they would need rehabilitation first. It's just like counseling after a traumatic event.

Those some possibilities I can think of from the dolphin's perspective, but what about the trainers? Why do they let the dolphins out at all? In doing so, they're more or less admitting that it is inappropriate to keep dolphins in confinement. If they're so confident that they can let the dolphins out and they will not leave, then why keep them locked up at all? Why not just cut the nets and let the dolphins swim freely, and still coming back for feeding and training sessions? Seriously, if there are any trainers out there reading this, I'd love to know. Please feel free to share your reasoning behind this, I would love to have an actual conversation with you, I think we would both learn a lot.

I do have to say, it has been really really nice seeing the dolphins playing free, even though I know it is only temporary. The only dolphins I've seen since I've been here have been either swimming for their lives, or being held prisoner as some sick form of entertainment and bad education. Watching the bottlenoses zip around and play alongside the boats has helped to heal my soul a bit, after a couple very difficult days in Taiji, Japan.


  1. Wow this makes me even sadder!!!:( I have always wondered why dont they jump over these stupid nets and escape:-( Cause they friendly and trusting by nature!!:-(

  2. Brian said something about 'gate training', such as other dolphinariums having a 'freedom' period during the day use. Maybe he can chime in?