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Panama marine theme park hits choppy waters

Activists oppose a plan for a dolphinarium as cruel. Officials deny it, and say the area needs the economic boost.

June 24, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SAN CARLOS, PANAMA — A marine mammal theme park proposed by a group of ex-SeaWorld executives for this isolated stretch of western Panama has been stalled by animal rights activists who say that "swim with the dolphins" attractions are cruel and anti-environment.

Business and local government boosters say the project, by creating jobs and fueling foreign investment, could help transform this impoverished region into a tourist mecca. The area "could become the next Orlando," said Mark Simmons, formerly a senior dolphin trainer at the SeaWorld parks and now executive vice president of Wildlife International Network, the Orlando, Fla.-based company proposing the project.

They see a huge regional market primed by Central and South Americans who have been unable to get tourist visas to the United States because of tighter restrictions. But a coalition of 65 environmental and animal rights groups, including Greenpeace, Humane Society International and activists such as Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the late undersea explorer, sees the proposal as furthering the exploitation of dolphins.

"I don't think we should be opening dolphinariums, we should be closing them all over the world. It's retrograde, like opening the Colosseum again," said Gabriela Etchelecu, executive director of MarViva, a marine watchdog agency in Panama City. "Taking dolphins out of the wild and making them slaves makes no sense."

A political decision

In the end, the fate of the Ocean Embassy theme park may hinge on politics. President Martin Torrijos has not taken a public stand but is said to be concerned that the park might spur U.S. environmentalists to oppose a bilateral free trade agreement that goes before lawmakers in both countries later this year.

As proposed, the $500-million resort and residential community would be built on a 700-acre site here on the Pacific coastline, 50 miles west of Panama City. The centerpiece would be an "interactive" aquatic park where tourists would pay $100 or more to frolic for a few minutes with the friends of Flipper.

The project is one of dozens built or proposed around the globe in recent years in hopes of replicating the success of such attractions as SeaWorld's Discovery Cove in Orlando and Xcaret on Mexico's Riviera Maya.

"Interactivity is a large part of what's driving the growth. So is the rise in global tourism," Simmons said.

As theme parks proliferate, so do the concerns of wildlife activists, especially when the parks feature dolphins captured from the open sea. The Ocean Embassy promoters have requested permission to capture as many as 80 dolphins in the first five years of the project.

The SeaWorld marine parks in the United States, owned by Anheuser-Busch, have not relied on captured dolphins since 1993 because of an in-house breeding program. Although most of the Ocean Embassy investors are former SeaWorld executives, Anheuser-Busch has no involvement in the Panama project.

Cramped quarters

Critics say the parks, whether they use captured or house-bred dolphins, condemn to confinement animals that in their natural habitat swim 25 miles or more a day.

Many of the highly social creatures die during capture or soon after, critics say, often from "capture myopathy" or depression from being separated from their families or pods.

Ex-SeaWorld executives say they bring expertise to the project. The 15-to-20-year average life span of dolphins at the SeaWorlds, where they received their training, is close to how long the animals live in the wild, they say.

Simmons said his partner, Robin Friday, who handled several pre-1993 dolphin captures for SeaWorld, did not lose an animal in the process.

Marine parks overall, Simmons said, have fostered respect and concern for dolphins. "It's the same old story that SeaWorld has dealt with for years. There are extremist organizations who don't think any kind of animal should be in captivity, including domestic pets and goldfish, and that's a philosophy you can't do anything about," he said.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society International in Washington, said her organization opposes the Ocean Embassy project because of the proposed captures and because, she says, the company hasn't done an adequate dolphin population survey.

"The 80 they want to take may be all that exist in Panama," she said.

The group has played a role in stopping the construction of such attractions on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean and in Costa Rica.

"We have a really strong position against getting in the water with dolphins," she said. "It's catering to an understandable desire to be close to these fascinating animals. But the dolphins are being harassed more and more."

Economic concerns

Panamanian congressman Arturo Arauz, who represents the area, strongly favors the project, saying that the 1,000 jobs it would create would lift living standards in a region where many scrape by on subsistence wages as fishermen, artisans or domestic workers.

"It would be a very healthy investment," said Militza de Navarra, a San Carlos councilwoman. "Most of the people here are either unemployed or underemployed, and a tourist project like this, of excellence, would give them jobs. Why don't the protesters go picket against racehorses that are kept in stables?"

Simmons says the project has received all the necessary Panamanian government permits except one: approval from a marine mammal committee set up in 2005 to ensure the welfare of whales and dolphins that pass along Panama's coast. The committee is deadlocked.

Judging from a poll published in February by the Panama City newspaper La Prensa, the project enjoys something less than broad public support; 81% of those surveyed said they opposed the capture of dolphins.

Among those opposed on environmental grounds are Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro.

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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