By Captain Paul Watson
In late August, a Sea Shepherd investigation team arrived in the South Pacific Solomon Islands to look into the condition of nearly 60 dolphins that had been captured in July.
It was a dangerous mission. The nation of the Solomon Islands is a very unstable place. The country achieved independence from Britain in 1976 and ever since it has been torn apart and kept impoverished by ethnic violence, government malfeasance and endemic crime. The society has been in a state of destabilization for years recently culminating with the intervention of Australian and New Zealand troops attempting to enforce a peaceful solution to the problems.
In July 2003, amidst the civil confusion, a small group of sleazy foreign entrepreneurs operating with bribes and locally hired thugs rounded up hundreds of dolphins and drove them into holding pens in two locations in the islands. The fishermen were promised $260 for every dolphin caught. The foreign middlemen are attempting to sell the dolphins for up to $30,000 each.
With the increasing popularity of "swim with the dolphins" programs at tropical resorts and dolphin shows at marine entertainment parks, the capture of wild dolphins off the shores of poor countries like the Solomon Islands is rising at a rapid pace.
The Solomon Islands were recently in the news as the exporter of about 30 wild dolphins to a water park in Cancun, Mexico, which bans capture off it's own coast, but allows importation, even if from thousands of miles away - a trip which severely stresses and could kill the dolphins in transport.
Since the shipment of dolphins arrived in Mexico, two of the dolphins have since died. Mexico ruled that there would be no further importation of dolphins from the Solomons - of course it was to late for the dolphins already in captivity in Cancun. The facility gets to keep their illegally obtained dolphins. In a related case, CNN recently reported that two other bottlenose dolphins died this week at the Dolphin Learning Center in La Paz.
The Sea Shepherd agents gained access to the dolphin holding/taming facility at Ghavutu Island in the Solomons, at which 35 wild dolphins continue to be imprisoned in 7 small, shallow pens awaiting their fate.
In charge of the program is the "Director of Animals" - Mike Schultz from Dolphin Pacific, a 'swim with' facility in nearby Palau. Mike appears on the Dolphins Pacific website where he is described as "World famous animal behaviorists and devoted Catholic."
In the Solomons, the wild dolphins are being prepared for a life of slavery at local and distant locations where they'll provide entertainment in marine parks and/or swim with programs at resorts. Dolphin Pacific intends to open a public facility in the Solomons similar to the one they operate in Palau.
Seven spotted dolphins have already died in captivity at this facility - it's well known that this species does not fare well when caged. Our agents noted that at least 2 of the dolphins were in poor health, including the remaining spotted dolphin.
Solomon Island locals are employed to assist with the herding, catching, feeding and security of dolphins. They live and work on the island. A separate pen facility holding 20 dolphins is situated in nearby Honiara directly behind the Ministry of Tourism, Agriculture and Aviation.
While there is considerable local support for this exploitation of wild dolphins, corruption is rampant in the Solomons. Already there have been severe beatings of people who have been investigating or protesting the dolphin facility. The Dolphins are an income source for locals and seen as a way for the Solomon Islands to attract more visitors.
In addition to dolphins caught alive for their entertainment value, thousands are killed each year off the coasts of the Solomons - some for food, most for their teeth which are kept and sold as souvenirs and jewelry.
Dolphins are highly developed, social, intelligent marine mammals that require the open sea to swim, hunt, play, breed and be happy. The capture method is extremely stressful, sometimes deadly, and separates family members. Captivity in small pens and the taming process is very stressful and some dolphins stop eating or drown themselves as a way of suicide.
Accustomed to hunting and eating live prey, the captured dolphins are fed dead, rotting fish which does not nourish them properly, especially when kept in concentrated groups. Food deprivation is the usual taming method. In captivity, the dolphins' keen sonic abilities are rendered useless and they often show signs of depression.
I contacted Dolphins Pacific in Palau to inquire about their involvement with the capture. They denied any involvement. According to Carol Ngiraidis of Dolphins Pacific in Palau, "Please be advised that Mr. Michael Schultz, former Director of Training for Dolphins Pacific is no longer connected or employed with our company. Mike left our company sometime in November 2002. Any activities in connection with the capture of Dolphins in the Solomon Islands is his own and does not in any way involve whatsoever with our company. Any references to our company is false".
Carol is described on the Dolphins Pacific website as Ichiban Comptroller. Her attempt at damage control is contradicted by the fact that Mike is still listed as an employee of Dolphins Pacific on their website, his staff and he were wearing Dolphins Pacific T-shirts and he himself stated that he was working for Dolphins Pacific.
There is no question that the world trade in captive dolphins is a very shady business. It is a slave trade and those who participate in the illegal, brutal and immoral trade in slaves, be they human or dolphin or other animals are the scum found at the bottom of the barrel of human character.
This trade has now been implicated in murder. On September 17, 2003, Jane Tipson was brutally assassinated in St. Lucia. Her assassin walked up to her car and shot her in the head at point blank range. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society immediately posted a $5,000 reward in St. Lucia for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer or killers. Two suspects are now being held by St. Lucian authorities.
The London Times has reported that there is a connection between the killing and the owners of Fantasea, a captive dolphin facility in Antigua. Jane was very actively campaigning against this facility just before she was murdered.
And murder is a real possibility in the Solomons. The people responsible for the capture of the dolphins have already severely beaten a member of a New Zealand television crew that was attempting to document the facility.
As Mike Schultz said to two of out agents during a conversation on Ghavutu Island, "who would be in this shithole unless you are making a buck?"