Marine Animal Capture Is A Big, Bad Business
Captures disrupt the highly socialized lifestyles of these majestic creatures... many die from shock or injury.
CAYO COSTA - On this barrier island on Florida's west coast, Harvey Hamilton grew up in a family that made its living from fishing.
From a friend in the Keys, he learned about a far more lucrative catch: bottlenose dolphins.
Under the tutelage of mackerel fisherman Milton Santini, Hamilton caught dolphins in Florida waters from the Keys to the Gulf of Mexico in the 1960s and 70s and sold them to the marine parks then opening nationwide.
Now 64 and a charter boat captain on Pine Island, Hamilton was a pioneer in a field that has turned into a billion-dollar-a-year industry.
Between the 1960s and 1993, at least 1,600 whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions were taken from U.S. waters, according to National Marine Fisheries Services records. SeaWorld is listed as "collector" of 186.
Collectors used airplanes, boats, harpoons, nets and explosives to catch specimens.
Captures disrupted the highly social animals. At least 22 died from shock or injuries, federal records show.
Of those that survived capture, three-quarters are now dead. Killer whales that died survived an average of nine years after capture; bottlenose dolphins, eight years, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found. The remainder are still alive, some in their 40s.
Captures became increasingly unpopular with animal welfare activists and others. Since the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago caught three dolphins in 1993, no marine park has applied for a capture permit.
"[They] recognize it's a very contentious issue with the general public," said Steve Leathery, who oversees marine mammal permits for the Fisheries Service.
Instead, parks rely on stranded animals that cannot be returned to the wild and breeding to restock their tanks. But the industry doesn't rule out more captures for fresh genetic material.
"There's always that possibility," said Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums in Washington. "We're doing everything we can to maximize the collection we have. We work very hard at that."
Hamilton was fresh out of the Marine Corps in the 1960s and, following family tradition, became a commercial fisherman near his native Cayo Costa off Fort Myers.
With Santini, his fishing buddy, he learned how to catch dolphins in Florida Bay. In the summer, the pair headed to Pine Island. They kept the boat behind Hamilton's house and transported their catch to Key Largo.
"It wasn't very popular then," Hamilton said. "[Santini] was catching dolphin for $300. He'd pay me $50. We'd catch one or two a day."
Hamilton set out in a catch boat, working it toward a group of dolphins. He waited for a lone animal or a pair to split off.
"If he makes a mistake, he's caught," he said. "You didn't want to put your net around 10 or 12 or you'd drown one. Some dolphins you'd take in and they'd just lay there. Others would get excited and run the net."
Hamilton said he released adults more than 7.5 feet long and dolphins still nursing.
"You gotta check their teeth, look for scrapes on the roof of their mouth or tongue," Hamilton said. "Then you know this dolphin is eating" and no longer nursing.
The crew hoisted eligible dolphins onto the boat. "We'd cradle him and pick him up," he said, "One, two, three ... "
Hamilton covered the foam pad that held the dolphins with flannel to avoid skin abrasions. A sprinkler system in the boat kept the animals moist.
Not long after Hamilton joined up with Santini, Hollywood called, looking for an underwater star. Santini and Hamilton offered Mitzi, a dolphin they'd trained.
Mitzi could play catch and would let a 9-year-old boy ride on her back. In 1963, the movie Flipper made Mitzi a star.
Marine parks wanted to capitalize on the Flipper craze. Worldwide orders for dolphins poured in, Hamilton said.
"Things really took off in the dolphin business," he said. "I was supplying overseas, in the U.S."
Hamilton got out of the U.S. business in 1975, however, after federal overseers began to get involved.
"It got to be a pain," he said. "I just gave it up."
When he stopped, a "green" dolphin, one fresh from the sea and untrained, sold for $1,500 -- five times the price when he started.
Hamilton's services are still in demand outside the United States, and prices have continued to go up. About 15 years ago, he said, Ludwig Meister, owner of two dolphin attractions in the Caribbean, hired him to catch 15 dolphins in the Bahamas.
Dolphins are plentiful in the crystal waters of the island chain. "I could have caught one a day," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he never lost a dolphin and sees nothing wrong with capturing them.
"We loved them," he said. "They remind me of a young child. You just got to teach them."
Guillermo Lopez caught dolphins in his native Cuba but now speaks out against captivity. As chief veterinarian of the National Aquarium in Havana from 1987 to 1994, he oversaw the capture of 50 to 60 dolphins by the communist island, the world's biggest dolphin supplier.
During his tenure, the Cuban government sold dolphins to marine attractions in Europe and Latin America for $85,000 to $90,000 each, Lopez said.
When an order came in, Lopez and his team of 10 to 15 headed out in two boats along Cuba's northern coast.
"The fast boat would drag a net 200 meters long by 4- to 8-meters deep," he said. "They would find a pod and release the net. Most clients wanted females, measuring 7 feet 2 inches to 7 feet 11 inches."
The crew took the dolphins to a second boat, where Lopez checked their health and took them to a holding pen.
At least five dolphins died, Lopez said. Once, the team entrapped a mother and baby.
"The rules prohibited capturing them, so they were released, but the baby got caught in the net," Lopez said. "He died in my arms."
A necropsy showed the 3-month-old died of a heart attack. Another dolphin died two months after arriving in Switzerland from a liver infection most likely caught while awaiting transport, Lopez said. Another dolphin lost an eye being hauled onto a boat.
Lopez said he had no choice about the captures.
"You're a doctor. You're a communist," he said. "I felt very bad."
Lopez resigned in 1994 after his complaints about conditions at the aquarium went unheeded and two dolphin calves died, he said. Still a Cuban citizen, Lopez, 47, now works outside that country as a marine mammal consultant and advocates against captivity.
"I'm trying to help animals," he said, "cure them."
Among U.S. collectors, Marine Animal Productions stands out, capturing 259 dolphins from 1966 to 1989, more than any other since the federal government began keeping track, records show.
The Gulfport, Miss., company caught dolphins in waters off Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama for customers that included aquariums in Niagara Falls, Mystic, Conn. and the Navy, said company president Moby Solangi.
"They contracted for our services to collect, acclimate and maintain [dolphins] for a certain period of time," said Solangi, a marine biologist. "It's not like you collect and put an animal on the plane. You have to acclimate [them], get them used to eating."
He would not say how much clients paid.
"The animals were collected in shallow waters, very safely," he said. "Usually a very large net was thrown around, like you catch fish. You isolate a group of animals of proper size. We used airplanes, three to four boats, divers, veterinarians."
Two dolphins died during capture, he said.
"When we brought them on the boat they had very serious cases of pneumonia and just died," he said. "The mortality would be less than one half of one percent, a couple animals over that many years, "
Founded in 1965, Marine Animal Productions now works "with 13 percent of all dolphins in captivity in the United States and Canada," its Web site says, providing marine mammals to parks in 18 states and 11 countries.
Of the dolphins Solangi took, the company kept some for its Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport and leased others to zoos and aquariums, moving animals in time for tourist season.
Wee-Tee, a male dolphin and one of the last Marine Animal Productions captured, spent his first six years at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1995, the company moved the dolphin every spring and fall between Hershey and Gulfport -- a total of 17 times, records show.
"Change is always good," Solangi said. "We all like to go places. You keep them in the same house it gets old. By moving them around, mixing them around, changing them to where they are compatible, I think it is very healthy for them. That's what we call enrichment."
At least four of the company's sea lions died while or shortly after being moved from stress, heat stroke and pneumonia, the records say. Sprout, a male sea lion born in captivity in 1993 at Canada's Wonderland, was moved to Marine Life Oceanarium on Oct. 16, 1995, and died the same day. The cause of death is listed as pending, federal records say.
The benefits of capturing and displaying marine mammals far outweigh the costs, Solangi said.
"I think our company has introduced more people to marine animals than any place in the world. When you see something, you appreciate it and want to protect it."
Ted Griffin spent most of his summers as a child on the beach, fascinated by the massive, majestic killer whales swimming in the Pacific Northwest.
"I became a guy who went out and captured killer whales and paid the light bills," he said.
As a young man, Griffin opened the Seattle Aquarium and set off to catch and ride a killer whale. His first attempt in 1962 failed when he tried to jump on a whale's back and throw a net around its enormous body.
Griffin caught a break in 1965, when a whale became entangled in a fishermen's net off Namu, British Columbia. Several aquariums wanted to buy the whale -- named Namu after the locale -- but decided it was too big to move, he said.
"I was the only one left," Griffin said. "They cut me a deal. They quoted me $50,000. I paid them $8,000, which was approximately the price of their nets."
Using oil drums and steel, Griffin built a mobile sea pen and towed Namu 400 miles to Seattle. The trip took 19 days. With the help of Seattle media, Namu was an instant hit.
"People were lined up for miles in every direction," Griffin said. "It was a very good business for us. I was recovering my expenses very quickly."
A Hollywood crew filmed Griffin riding the whale and made a movie, Namu, My Best Friend, released in 1966. Namu died that year, poisoned by raw sewage the city pumped under his pen, Griffin said.
By then, Griffin and a partner, Don Goldsberry, had caught a second whale that would become even more famous.
SeaWorld wanted that whale for its San Diego park and hoped to use the already familiar name of Namu. When Griffin refused, the company settled on Shamu, he said.
By this time, Griffin said he had a crew of about 40, including 25 scuba divers, a helicopter, a sea plane, a large "catch vessel" and a fishing boat.
"When I was not catching whales, I was visiting homeowners along the shore, anybody who had a view of Puget Sound who might see the whales," Griffin recalled.
The network of about 800 people called whenever they spotted whales.
"Usually we'd get a day's warning," he said. "They're coming in from Canada or through the San Juan Islands. I'd take a fast boat, sometimes in the middle of the night. I'd estimate their speed and my speed and follow them along."
Using marine radios, Griffin arranged a rendezvous with his crew. Herding the whales, they dropped a circular net nearly a mile across.
"We would catch anywhere from 10 to 90 whales at a time and we would take whatever we would have orders for," he said.
From a specially built floating dock, the crew selected and lassoed a whale. Divers positioned large slings around its underside, making sure to keep the blowhole above water. Using a stretcher and a boom, the crew lifted the whales onto the boat.
In seven years, Griffin and Goldsberry caught more than 30 killer whales and leased or sold them for about $30,000 each to SeaWorld and other parks.
In 1972, Griffin retired.
"I could see all the problems developing," Griffin said. "I just said, `That's it.' "
Ralph Munro took family and friends sailing in Seattle's Olympia Harbor one day in 1976 when he noticed a killer whale swimming much faster than normal, close to shore, and headed for shallow water.
Munro soon saw more whales -- followed by a trawler, speedboat and airplane.
"They had chased these whales about 30 miles down Puget Sound," Munro said. "They were using explosives, seal bombs, [used to keep seals away from fishing nets] dropping them from the boat and the airplane."
The hunters herded the whales into an inlet, and the capture boat set a net.
"As they began to close the net, they had an open torch on the back of the high-speed boat," Munro said. "They just kept dropping explosives as fast as they could to harass the whales into the net. They had mother whales inside and baby whales outside.
"I'm not a big animal rights activist but it was pretty gruesome ... one of the worst things my wife and I had ever watched. This is not a pretty business."
As they entrapped six whales in the net, Griffin's former partner Goldsberry and his new crew had no idea who was watching. Munro was an aide to Washington state's then Gov. Dan Evans.
Outraged, Munro sparked legal action, including a lawsuit against the state's game department. SeaWorld agreed to release the whales and never again apply for a permit to capture from Washington, said Munro, who went on to become Washington's Secretary of State.
Munro now opposes whales in captivity, and his wife has led protests against Miami Seaquarium for keeping Lolita, a lone killer whale.
Jeff Foster, Goldsberry's son-in-law and a collector himself, said that in the 1960s and 70s capturing whales, like big game hunting, was accepted. Fishermen, he said, shot whales to keep them away from their catches.
"At that time, nobody thought much of about it," said Foster of Seattle. "You could tell the sentiments were changing. When Ted first caught Namu, he got the key to the city. That pendulum swung from wearing the white hat to the black hat."
Goldsberry moved his whale-capturing operation to Iceland and became head of collections for SeaWorld, Foster said. SeaWorld imported about a dozen whales caught in Iceland to its U.S. parks.
In 1983, SeaWorld attempted to capture killer whales again in the United States. The company obtained a federal permit to catch 100 whales off Alaska, 90 for research and 10 for its parks, but an appellate court invalidated the permit.
Since the mid 1980s, SeaWorld has bred whales for its parks.
Goldsberry, now retired, lives in the Bahamas and could not be reached for comment.
Griffin, 68, started a technology company but has retired again. He said whale catching provided him a good living.
"I had a waterfront home on Bainbridge Island, which is a very prestigious area," he said. "I wasn't buying the world. I did buy an island in the San Juans, right where the whales came every year."
Time hasn't changed his opinion.
"It was my belief killer whales could be domesticated," he said. "They could become just like dogs and horses, and I still believe that."
Griffin got plenty of hate mail.
"There are people that won't let me in their house ... but so what?" he said. "The high points were beyond anything you could imagine, the excitement of getting in the water with the whale, communicating with the whale, teaching it to come when you call. I wouldn't change a thing."
South Florida Sun-Sentinel