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Any Way to Treat a Dolphin?

The brainy animals' tourist appeal has led to relocation, confinement and, some say, trauma. But Solomon Islanders who hunt them see cash.

October 17, 2003|Richard C. Paddock and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Village chief Robert Satu believes he has a rare gift: the ability to summon wild dolphins. He stands in the bow of his small fishing boat, calls to the animals and asks them to swim toward his nets. Until recently, the dolphins would end up as dinner.

Satu, 51, says he has used his talent to kill 483 dolphins during traditional hunts in this South Pacific nation, harvesting the meat to feed his village and the teeth to use as money.

Now he has found a better way to make hard cash -- catching dolphins alive and selling them to an aquatic park halfway around the world.

"For me it's finished. No killing anymore," he said. "We have to look after the dolphins."

During the last nine months, Satu and his crew have caught 95 Pacific bottlenose dolphins for the tourist trade, sparking an international uproar far greater than any controversy they ever caused by eating them.

In July, Satu and his foreign partners, led by Canadian entrepreneur Christopher Porter, sold 28 of the dolphins to Parque Nizuc in Cancun, Mexico, for the increasingly popular activity of swimming with the beloved mammals. In the largest transfer of wild dolphins ever recorded by international regulators, a chartered DC-10 arrived from Brazil and flew the animals 12,800 miles from the island of Guadalcanal to their new home in the Caribbean.

The lucrative deal inflamed animal-welfare activists, who oppose keeping the highly intelligent creatures in captivity. They said the transaction bent international rules governing the trade in wildlife and ignored the ecological risks of moving a species from the Pacific to an environment half a world away.

"Think about what happened to those dolphins," said former dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry, a consultant for the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, as he observed the creatures from a Cancun beach. "They were abducted by aliens and transported here in a UFO. They are traumatized."

Those involved in the deal say they complied with the laws of Mexico and the Solomon Islands.

All 28 dolphins survived the 17-hour flight but one died a week later, apparently from ailments associated with stress.

Nine more of the captive dolphins died in the Solomon Islands from stress and illness; 55 remain there.

Besieged by activists upset by the animal's death in Cancun, the Mexican government has suspended imports of dolphins from the Solomon Islands and temporarily closed Parque Nizuc's dolphinarium while the surviving mammals are tested for viruses. Mexico's Congress has come under pressure to extend the import ban to all dolphins and make it permanent.

The dolphin capture has aroused less controversy in the Solomon Islands, a nation of 500,000 people where lawlessness, tribal warfare, widespread malaria and unrelenting poverty are of much greater concern.

The former British colony, best known for the bloody World War II battle at Guadalcanal, gained independence in 1978 but has been plagued by ethnic fighting that claimed hundreds of lives during the last five years. In July, thousands of troops from an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived to restore order and begin rebuilding,

The government is so poor that the Fisheries Department does not have a single boat to patrol the country's 992 islands, scattered across a region twice the size of Texas. Into this chaotic setting came the foreigners seeking dolphins for the tourist trade. The government welcomed them with open arms.

Porter, a former head trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium, teamed up with Greek investor Christos Mazarakis and Mike Schultz, an American dolphin trainer who had helped introduce the business of swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas, Mexico and Palau.

Schultz said the group was drawn to the Solomons by the hundreds of thousands of dolphins in the country's waters. Calling their enterprises Marine Export Ltd. and the Solomon Islands Marine Mammal Education Center, the group leased the remote island of Gavutu and said it planned to establish a resort where visitors could swim with dolphins.

Such resorts became popular -- and highly profitable -- in the United States in the late 1980s. They are spreading rapidly in Asia and Latin America. More than 30 parks have opened in the Caribbean since 1990. At Parque Nizuc, a sprawling 6-year-old facility that features swimming pools and waterslides, tourists pay $90 for 30 minutes of swimming with dolphins in the seawater lagoon off Cancun's strip of hotels.

Restrictions on dolphin captures off Mexico, the United States and elsewhere limited availability and started Mexicans on a search for suppliers that led to the Solomon Islands. Parque Nizuc reached a tentative agreement last October to buy 100 dolphins from Porter's enterprise, although the number was later reduced.

Satu, using his unusual method, began catching dolphins for the partnership.

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