When I was appointed as Director of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) in Durban in 1967, I had little experience of marine mammals, other than occasional encounters with seals while diving. SAAMBR fulfills its research function through its Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, and its environmental education function by running an aquarium and dolphinarium. The Durban Aquarium was world-renowned in 1967, but its Dolphinarium was yet to be developed. For this reason, I was sent on a tour to six countries in 1971 to study the world’s most successful dolphinaria.
This was a profound experience and I returned full of enthusiasm, except for one reservation - I had seen killer whales in captivity in both the USA and Japan and had come to the conclusion that these powerful, free-ranging animals should not be confined to artificial pools which were far too small for them. About dolphins I felt differently. They seemed perfectly adapted to life in captivity. Dolphin shows are spectacular and, properly presented, highly educational.
SAAMBR proceeded to build the dolphinarium at the foot of West Street in Durban as part of the Durban Aquarium complex in 1975. Lex Fearnhead, who was my Assistant Director at the time, played a key role in the management and execution of this enormous project, and Richard Starke handled the all-important water reticulation and filtration systems. (Lex lived in Pringle Bay during the last years of his life and Richard is a well-known Betty’s Bay resident and chairman of SeaWatch). We employed Dr. Dudok van Heel, the Director of the world-famous Haarderwijk Dolphinarium in Holland as Technical Advisor.
The Durban Dolphinarium was technically advanced and highly sophisticated with a huge open-air exercise and display tank, holding tanks offering shade and seclusion should the dolphins so wish, quarantine and hospital tanks, offices and laboratories. It was completed and opened for public shows in 1977, initially stocked with two Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), a Dusky Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus obscurus) and several seals. We built bonds of trust and friendship with these magnificent animals and learnt to communicate with them. The shows were designed to be educationally orientated, rather than to provide public entertainment. Every cent of profit from the dolphinarium was put towards research aimed at safeguarding the conservation needs of marine mammals in their natural environment. For the first time a facility was provided in Natal for treating and rehabilitating injured dolphins and seals washed up on the shoreline.
Then came what was to become a life-changing experience for me. My family and I were holidaying at Trafalgar on the Natal South Coast in June 1977. It was the time of the sardine run when schools of Bottlenose Dolphins move northwards, close inshore, following the shoals of sardines. I was surfing with my paddle ski when such a school of dolphins appeared further offshore. With my intense interest in these animals, I paddled out to see them from closer by. Within minutes, I was paddling northwards with them. They accepted me into the school as though I was just an odd-looking dolphin with a peculiar way of swimming.
This was an awesome experience. After half an hour or so, it dawned on me that I had paddled a long way northwards along the coast and that my family might get worried about me. So, reluctantly, I turned to paddle back. At this the lead dolphin breached, i.e. it jumped high out of the water and then hit it sideways with a tremendous splash a behaviour pattern which I knew from my dolphinarium experience, indicated anger. I turned back northwards and ‘towed the line’ as did the rest of the dolphins. Eventually I realized that I must turn back. Again the lead dolphin breached. When I continued paddling southwards, opposite of the direction in which the school was moving, virtually every dolphin started breaching I was clearly breaking a strictly encoded discipline.
I paddled back deep in thought. To have experienced this behaviour of a group of wild animals in their natural environment was mind-boggling and made me doubt whether it was justified to capture and tame marine mammals for purposes of public display. However convinced I was of the importance of environmental education and rehabilitation of sick or injured dolphins, I was no longer comfortable in my role of heading a public dolphinarium in which dolphins were kept in captivity, albeit under ideal conditions. It became a personal dilemma.
Several years later, while working for the CSIR in Stellenbosch, I was asked to chair the Planning Committee of the Two Oceans Aquarium which was to be developed as part of the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. I took on this task, but with one stipulation it should be an Aquarium only with no dolphinarium component. Hence the current configuration of the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Am I being unfaithful to my colleagues who now run the dolphinaria at Durban and Port Elizabeth? I don’t think so as I acknowledge the important function of these facilities and support the work they are doing. But few people have had the privilege of such close and direct contact with marine mammals in their natural environment and every time that I see, swim or surf with them while kayaking or paddle skiing, I know that I personally, can no longer be involved in handling them in captivity.
Allan Heydorn 13 August 2008