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The Time Has Come!

A dolphin sanctuary for the Turks & Caicos Islands.

By Don Stark, Chairman, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund

Facilities housing captive marine mammals for the entertainment of tourists have been around for many years. It is only recently that people have begun to realize that keeping highly intelligent, family-oriented, social animals such as dolphins in captivity is inappropriate and cruel to the animals. This is evidenced by the steady decline in visitors and revenue from places such as Sea World.

As a consequence, facilities around the world, such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland are beginning to close down their swim-with-dolphin programs and dolphin shows. This trend is creating a need for a safe haven for these former entertainers to either be rehabilitated and released back into the wild or to live out their natural lives unmolested. In fact, the National Aquarium has announced they intend to create and open a seaside dolphin sanctuary to house their eight unemployed dolphins by the end of 2020.

JoJo, a wild Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, is a TCI national treasure.

JoJo, a wild Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, is a TCI national treasure.

The National Aquarium has outlined the criteria their search team is using to evaluate potential sites for the dolphin sanctuary. These include: a tropical or subtropical climate, a dynamic habitat, a place with natural stimuli (meaning it has live fish that the dolphins can interact with and potentially learn to feed themselves again), and customised care provided by trained professional staff.  The National Aquarium intends to maintain a connection to the facility.

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund has been in contact with the staff at the National Aquarium in an effort to interest them in evaluating the Turks & Caicos Islands as a home for the dolphin sanctuary they intend to build. The TCI certainly meets the key criteria with regard to climate, habitat, and natural stimuli and the National Aquarium would hire the professional staff to provide the quality care for these highly intelligent animals.

The TCI is an ideal location for such a facility which fits well within our “Beautiful by Nature” branding. We have clear, tropical waters which are the natural habitat for dolphins. We have a healthy population of bottlenose and spotted dolphins in the waters around these islands.  The Turks & Caicos would make a perfect home where the dolphins can either be rehabilitated and released into the wild or spend the rest of their natural lifespan without having to entertain humans for their food.

In addition, the Islands have a history of rehabilitating and releasing captive dolphins back into the wild. In 1984, Chuck Hesse founded the Caicos Conch Farm on the eastern side of Providenciales. Conch require sandy sea floors as they live on detritus in the sand left by other sea creatures. As a result, the Caicos Conch Farm had 60 acres of fenced-in sea pasture. In February 1990, Mr. Hesse sent out a notice that any organization wishing to rehabilitate a dolphin could have access to this 60 acre pasture, the Conch Farm staff, and its facilities.

Shortly thereafter, ZooCheck, an environmental group in the United Kingdom, contacted Mr. Hesse about their desire to free three dolphins being held in deplorable conditions in facilities in the UK. ZooCheck said that if the Conch Farm facility was deemed appropriate by the London Zoological Society, the first of the last three captive dolphins in the UK could be on its way to Providenciales by December of that same year. Rocky was the first dolphin to arrive in January 1991 after Hesse and his nonprofit organization, PRIDE, obtained approval for the development of the rehabilitation facility from the TCI Government and permission to import the dolphins. Missie and Silver arrived two months later. The three had spent a combined 56 years in concrete pools on display and performing tricks for their “daily bread.” Major funding support was raised by ZooCheck with help from the Mail on Sunday, a popular British newspaper.

For five months, the dolphins lived in the Conch Farm pasture. During that time, volunteers worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the dolphins so they could return to their natural habitat, the open sea. During the years they spent in captivity, Missie, Rocky, and Silver had been hand-fed frozen fish instead of foraging on their own for food or using their sonar capabilities, so they had to learn how to hunt and feed themselves. Many in the community were involved in this effort, including several of TCI’s current elected officials. Over time, the three dolphins were weaned from a diet of dead, frozen fish to catching their own living, swimming meals.

Once the three could catch live fish on their own, it was time to attempt their release back into the wild. To accomplish this, a special sea pen was built to transport the dolphins to the uninhabited island of West Caicos. After spending three days in this sea pen, the gate was opened on September 10, 1991 so the dolphins could swim free. At first, they didn’t want to leave the security of the sea pen. But after much hesitation, Rocky led the way and the three finally left the pen and entered the open ocean. They were spotted several months later in the waters around the TCI and appeared to be healthy. The rehabilitation process was considered a success.

So, with a perfect climate and large native dolphin population, as well as previous experience in the rehabilitation and release of captive dolphins, the Turks & Caicos Islands are an excellent location for a dolphin sanctuary. This is a much better business to support than a commercially-operated, for-profit, swim-with-the-dolphins program.  A dolphin sanctuary would provide a safe environment with lots of natural space in which to roam for formerly captive dolphins. And if they can be rehabilitated to feed on their own, it would be an ideal location into which to release these former slaves.

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF), a local not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help preserve and protect the TCI environment, along with a group of volunteers has proposed establishing a new Dolphin Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre in the TCI. To make this happen, TCRF needs the financial and moral support of tourists, the local population, and the TCI Government.  More information about the plan can be found at:

www.tcreef.org/dolphindefensefund.html



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Marta Morton, owner/operator of Harbour Club Villas (www.harbourclubvillas.com) took this photo of the native Turks & Caicos rock iguana on Bay Cay. This endemic animal is being threatened by the invasive green iguana. See article on page 36.

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