For four SeaWorld dolphins, the final act nears

Two of the aging Commerson’s dolphins at SeaWorld’s Aquatica Park: They will not be replaced when they die.
Two of the aging Commerson’s dolphins at SeaWorld’s Aquatica Park: They will not be replaced when they die.
Published Feb. 3, 2016

Amidst the rides at SeaWorld's Aquatica water park in Orlando, there are four unusual creatures: Commerson's dolphins, known for swimming upside down and their black and white markings that make them look like mini-killer whales.

They likely will be the last of their kind in the United States. SeaWorld's collection has dwindled over the years and the company doesn't plan to breed or replace the aging dolphins.

"Once these animals go away, that's going to be it for the species for the SeaWorld parks," Chief Zoological officer Brad Andrews said.

After years apart, SeaWorld recently brought together a group from its San Diego park with two others in Orlando. It was a bittersweet reunion. One died a week after making the trip.

Commerson's are still found in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere, but SeaWorld has pledged not to take whales or dolphins captured after early 2014.

Animal advocates say SeaWorld, which has faced controversy over captive killer whales, will likely have to eventually stop exhibiting other types of animals as replacing them becomes too hard.

After its last polar bear died in 2014, SeaWorld Orlando did not replace him, citing difficulties of obtaining more. SeaWorld also recently abandoned a controversial bid to import beluga whales caught in Russia a few years ago.

SeaWorld says it has had success breeding animals. With the Commerson's, though, "when you start with 12, there's not enough genetic diversity," Andrews said. With an estimated life span of less than 20 years, "they don't live very long," he said. "That sort of stopped the program."

Critics say the dolphins' lives demonstrate the problems of captivity. "It's a depressing story," said Nick Atwood, campaign coordinator for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.

SeaWorld, meanwhile, sees the dolphins as ambassadors who have taught visitors and scientists about their wild counterparts. Andrews noted that SeaWorld has published scientific papers after studying everything from their behavior to blood.

In 1983, SeaWorld started with a dozen Commerson's from the wild. Biologists wanted SeaWorld to study the dolphins, which were threatened by fishermen who caught them to use as crab bait. Six died in 1983 and 1984, federal records show, and there were 14 births through 2001 of Commerson's that lived more than a month.

The dolphins moved from place to place, but mostly they lived in San Diego. Four came to Orlando in 2008. They can be seen from above-ground and underwater viewing areas and a lazy river. Also, a clear water-slide tube runs through their 228,000-gallon habitat.

"It's sort of like having a chimpanzee exhibit with a chute through it and periodically having people run through the chimpanzee enclosure. How is that even remotely reasonable?" said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist.

"The animals don't care, put it that way," Andrews said. "They got used to it very quickly."

In 2014, two Orlando dolphins — one 15 years old, one 20 — died, leaving just two.

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The San Diego park's three surviving Commerson's were in an exhibit at the Journey to Atlantis ride. SeaWorld brought in schooling fish, and the three dolphins were moved to behind-the-scenes pools. At one point, they moved in with beluga whales. One beluga exhibited dominant behavior and blocked their new companions' paths, so the decision was made to move the dolphins.

One of the original captured dolphins, 33-year-old Betsy, started eating irregularly after arriving in Orlando last month and quickly died. Betsy appeared healthy in assessments before the trip, said Chris Dold, SeaWorld Entertainment's vice president of veterinary services.

Critics have questioned why the animals were moved, particularly the elderly ones. "I think it points to how zoos and aquariums often treat animals as kind of playing cards they can kind of shuffle around," Atwood said.

SeaWorld said it wanted to reunite the dolphins in a place people could connect with them. Animals go through a lengthy process to acclimate them to travel, Dold said.

Shannon Cremeans, director of the nonprofit group Ceta-Base that tracks captive dolphins, think that SeaWorld has generally done the best it could. She said in an email it is "impressive that SeaWorld has maintained the species for over 30 years based on a small founding group of animals, especially taking into consideration how little was known about caring for this species at the time."