The dolphins have arrived. Five inshore Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins — three females and two males ranging in age from 6- to-20-years-old — have recently moved with their trainers to their new home just off of the Loop 101, on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
The newest residents will be living at the Dolphinaris Arizona facility, a dolphinarium that consists of three connected pools, spanning from 2- to 10-feet deep and containing nearly 1 million gallons of filtered salt water.
Dolphinaris Arizona, a product of Mexico-based Dolphinaris, has been the center of public criticism since the plans were first announced early last spring.
However experts contend these third generation captive-bred dolphins have only known human-care. Additionally, the facility is a licensed zoological facility and to be considered as such, research is a large part of the deal.
Dolphinaris is working with Texas A&M University, and others in the United States and Mexico, to study the finned mammals.
The licensing procedure includes space, water quality, the presence of veterinary care, how animal’s food is stored and thawed, and how the animals are transported.
Critics purport that the highly-intelligent mammals need more mental stimulation and room to swim, according to a widely supported petition that has been circling around the internet for months, and has signatures from all over the world.
Inshore dolphins are known to hang out in shallow water less than 10-feet deep, even in the wild. They are also — on average — about 200 pounds smaller than off-shore ecotypes.
In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prohibit, with certain exceptions, the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.
The website states that Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 based on the following findings and policies:
- Some marine mammal species or stocks may be in danger of extinction and depletion as a result of human activities;
- These species or stocks must not be permitted to fall below their optimum sustainable population level (“depleted”);
- Measures should be taken to replenish these species or stocks;
- There is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics; and
- Marine mammals have proven to be resources of great international significance.
The world’s most endangered cetacean, the vaquita with fewer than 40 remaining, lives adjacent to the Sonoran Desert about 50 miles from Arizona.
The main focus for Dolphinaris Arizona, they say, is to teach residents about the importance of marine mammals and ocean conservation.
“If only they knew we are all on the same team,” said full-time staff veterinarian, Molly Martony in a Sept. 6 interview. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t all truly care for these animals.”
Dolphinaris Arizona is housed on the north side of the OdySea in the Desert complex, home to the newly opened aquarium, Butterfly Wonderland and other shops and attractions to be opening soon.
Dolphinaris Arizona is scheduled to open Oct. 15.
Dolphins before humans
Providing a safe and stable home for the dolphins is priority No. 1, said Dolphinaris officials.
“Healthcare and preventive care is paramount,” said Dolphinaris Arizona General Manager Dr. Grey Stafford during a Sept. 6 interview. “Right now we’re just kind of getting them used to learning the habitat and getting adjusted to their new surroundings.”
The facility is opening with nine trainers. The five animals were transferred from northern California’s Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, where their pool was only a fraction of the size of their new facility.
“This is far bigger than where they came from,” said Dr. Stafford, a marine mammal trainer for over 26 years. The facility should be receiving a few more dolphins in the near future as well.
The dolphin’s trainers started their bonding in California, before the move.
“Some of our trainers were stationed with them back in their former zoo, so some of us have already been working with these animals for four-to-five months,” said Dr. Stafford. “By the time we open, our senior staff will have been with them for about six months.”
Right now, they are getting used to their new surroundings and learning the pool.
“It’s expected animal behavior,” said Dr. Martony. “Giving them time to be animals and do what they want to do, check it out, have fun and not really be too rigorous and let them adjust at their own pace.”
The start has been good so far.
“Our trainers have spent so much time with them before that we kept that consistency when they came,” she said.
“So they already had familiar faces, familiar trainers that they had established that baseline with. That helps us take better care of them too because when there’s little things that we’re like ‘is that normal for her?’ and then we’re like ‘oh yeah, this one hates ice; this one loves Jello.’ It’s important for us to really know what works for them.”
Some of the amenities the bottlenose dolphins will interact with include water hoses, ice toys, water jets, balls and interaction with guests.
“All of this will provide variety to the animals in mental — as well as physical — stimulation to them,” said Dr. Stafford.
The pools the dolphins are housed in is turned over about 16 times a day, with a filtration system that keeps dust and other particles out of the water.
Additionally, the pools can be enclosed to stabilize the temperature of the air or the water.
“The idea was to create an indoor environment, that doesn’t always have to be indoor, but gives us flexibility to take care of the animals year round,” said Dr. Stafford.
Their medical care consists of top-of-the-line veterinary equipment including an ultrasound machine, x-ray machine, EKG unit and endoscopic materials.
While there aren’t any calves in the group, it is something Dr. Stafford hopes they will be able to fulfill one day. The pool provides a long enough range for mothers to nurse their calves, he said.
“We have shallow areas here where dolphins can slide up, and we can talk about their body parts,” said Dr. Stafford. “Here it’s about two-feet deep, so we can have the animal lay on its side and we can do ultrasound scans in the water all with an audience. We can talk about veterinary medicine for marine mammals.”
Dolphinaris Arizona has a large restaurant style walk-in fridge and freezer full of fish. The best way to keep all the nutrients in the food is to keep the fish frozen, and allow it to thaw slowly — not by running it under cold water, said Dr. Stafford. They get their fish from a commercial supplier, and has the option to receive fish from Florida, California or Massachusetts.
Safety of dolphins
Marine mammals are required to have 10 continuous hours without public interaction, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In January 2016 the USDA opened a public comment period for a proposed rule concerning the humane handling, care and treatment of marine mammals in captivity.
In acknowledging the safety record of dolphin interactions programs, the department stated: “We note that interactive programs have been operating for over 20 years without any indications of health problems or incidents of aggression in the marine mammals, as evidenced by medical records maintained by licensed facilities and observations by experienced APHIS inspectors.”
Additionally, the USDA stated marine mammals must have unrestricted access to a “sanctuary” and are allowed to leave the interaction area as they choose during interactive programs.
In 2014, the Associated Press published an article evaluating survival rates for killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions and buluga whales at more than 170 U.S. parks and aquariums.
In regards to bottlenose dolphins, the article found that: “captive bottlenose dolphins had an average life expectancy of almost 24 years, with a high estimate of 26 years and a low estimate of 22 years. Those at SeaWorld had an average life expectancy of almost 45 years. A population of bottlenose dolphins off the Sarasota coast has a life expectancy of 25 years.”
What to do at Dolphinaris
Guests who visit Dolphinaris will have the opportunity to choose from a variety of attractions — from just hanging out and watching the dolphins swim around to actually getting in the water and acting as a trainer for the day.
Each guest will go through an orientation prior to getting into the water.
“There will be a brief introduction,” said Dr. Stafford. “Things like how are dolphins mammals like us, what is the proper etiquette to meet a dolphin — we have to be mindful of their eyes, their blowhole, their genitals.”
The trainers will teach guests how to gently touch the animals, and will go over topics such as conservation and ways they can contribute.
Options include a dry-encounter experience, a shallow-encounter experience including playtime and educational talks, and a submerged dolphin swim where the animals will swim past guests underwater with a mask on.
The facility is also wheelchair accessible and can often accommodate special needs for land and swim experiences, according to the Dolphinaris Arizona website.
“Whether it’s with pursuing dolphins, or engineering or just a passion that they have, realizing that you can do anything and that’s really the message I hope people come away with,” said Dr. Martony.
Ticket prices range from $56 to $200 per person during the opening week. Guests are recommended to make reservations five-10 days in advance. To schedule a time and experience, visit dolphinaris-arizona.com.
Plans for a restaurant are also in the works at Dolphinaris Arizona.
“We’re also figuring out ways within the restaurant that we can give back in certain ways as well,” said Dr. Martony. “Those little details are still to come, but I know that our restaurant counterparts are really excited about coming up with creative ways for people to donate and have funds go to marine mammal conservation efforts.”
A portion of ticket sales from all Dolphinaris facilities is donated to marine mammal conservation and education.
Mexico-based Dolphinaris has five other locations: Cancun, Riviera Maya Park, Cozumel, Tulum and Barcelo.