In a changing landscape of attitudes toward animal protection, the final seminar at the Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit had the look of a main event. Except the venue was a Hilton in St. Petersburg, not Caesars Palace. The card offered enlightened aquarium CEOs and documentary filmmakers. And everyone was on the same side, right?
For a passionate dolphin advocate like Louie Psihoyos, the idea of a panel to discuss the future of captive dolphins was like a trick question. For a passionate dolphin advocate like David Yates, it probably felt that way.
» National Aquarium: In Baltimore, the future is (almost) here.
“I wasn’t told I was going to be a moderator but I think I will do that now,” said John Racanelli, head of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. “We can bitch all day. You can bitch all day. But we need solutions.”
Psihoyos won an Oscar in 2010 for The Cove, a searing analysis and blunt indictment of dolphin hunting in Japan. Yates runs the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a rescue facility and home of Winter, the star of Dolphin Tale and a recently released sequel.
“No, I didn’t see the movie. I’m not going to see the movie,” Psihoyos said. “The movie is [bleeping] salacious. It’s all bullshit.”
“This is getting good,” Racanelli said.
“The Future of Whales and Dolphins in Captivity” was just getting started. An audience of roughly 150 cheered after sharp exchanges. In an unintended moment of comic understatement, Lawrence Curtis – a documentary filmmaker who lives in Naples and was seemingly the lone panelist without a dolphin in the fight – said, “We have aquaria that are in a quandary.”
Before Dolphin Tale premiered in 2011, Yates guided CMA, a nonprofit rehab facility for marine animals, during five years of growth. Spending doubled on animal care, tripled for education and salaries, and volunteers quintupled to roughly 1,000, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Advertising grew 13-fold, also, the Times reported.
“We’re called Clearwater Marine Aquarium but we’re not an aquarium,” said Yates, emphasizing CMA’s mission. “There’s been a sea change in the overall attitude [toward animals in captivity] and the question is, how do we get to the right balance.”
Clearwater voters approved plans in 2013 for CMA’s new facility on public land, scheduled to break ground next fall. A 2,000-seat dolphin stadium was dropped from the original design.
There are 240 accredited zoos, marine aquariums and conservation centers in North America. Documentary films such as The Cove, Blackfish and dozens that were screened at Blue 2014 are forcing aquariums that dabble in conservation into rethinking their gameplans. Racanelli said the National Aquarium is embracing the trend and exploring all options, including architecture, infrastructure and virtual reality. Coming soon to an aquarium near you: digital dolphins.
An underwater visual display concept is also on the long-range drawing board at CMA.
“Guests will get the experience of seeing dolphins up close even when they’re not,” Yates said. “We’re going to get there at some point; it’s just a matter of time.”
“Jacques Cousteau said the educational benefit of watching a dolphin in captivity is like learning about man only by watching a prisoner in solitary confinement,” Psihoyos said. “I think when you take any dolphin out of the wild, when you teach it to do tricks for our amusement, it’s says a lot more about our culture than it does theirs. … They have complex emotions and you’re putting them in a tank to basically do tricks.”
Without offering proof, Psihoyos said Winter required ulcer medication during the making of the Dolphin Tale movies. Yates denied it.
“There was no ulcer medication during the filming of that film? Tell me. Tell me right now,” Psihoyos said.
“She had no ulcer medication during the filming of DolphinTale 2,” Yates said.
“She’s never had psychotropic drugs at all? We’re talking about psychotropic drugs and ulcer medication for Winter. And another dolphin, Hope. This little dolphin that is supposedly not releasable? That’s just silly. The dolphin is completely releasable. So it’s a good story to tell. It’s a good story for a movie. But it’s not a good story for the animal itself.”
“You’re talking about other facilities and not what we do here at Clearwater Aquarium,” Yates said.
Yates said the National Marine Fisheries Service makes all decisions on dolphins and other captive mammals, not aquariums. He said the CMA is studying a lagoon in Clearwater as a potential acquisition to provide a private sanctuary for marine mammals.
“That’s where we’re headed. I think that’s the future of the trend as far as females in captivity,” Yates said. “I am a proponent of getting every animal back to the wild if it has any chance of doing that.”
Hope, the co-star of DolphinTale 2, was rescued at 2 months old, Yates said, and has no experience with survival in the wild.
“If you want to disagree with the government, go ahead and disagree with the government all you want,” Yates said.”
Psihoyos was invited to visit CMA and see “what we do and how we do it.” Chances of that seemed unlikely.
“It’s not a life for dolphins,” Psihoyos said. “You can’t play God with every wild animal that’s out there.”