Interesting Notes From The Virgin Captivity Summit

In February 2014, Sir Richard Branson, in response to criticism of Virgin Air’s involvement with tourism to marine parks, pledged that Virgin would no longer partner with organizations that take marine mammals from the wild. To develop that pledge, and Virgin’s business strategy going forward in a time of increased debate about the ethics of marine mammal captivity, Virgin convened a two-day summit in Miami, in June, so it could sit down with marine park industry representatives and animal welfare advocates to explore all the issues around marine mammal captivity.

It is rare for advocates on both sides of this issue to sit down face-to-face, and it is a reflection of Virgin’s weight and importance that it happened at all. It must have been been a very, shall we say, interesting discussion. And Virgin has just released a fascinating summary of the discussion.

How Virgin proceeds from the summit in refining and implementing Sir Richard Branson’s pledge will help set a standard for other businesses that are connected to the marine mammal captivity industry.

For now, and for the record, here are some of the key points and discussions from the Summit (highlights are mine):

John Racanelli (Balitmore’s National Aquarium): In an effort to understand the future “customer,” the National Aquarium was part of a larger consortium of U.S. Universities, zoological institutions, and government agencies that commissioned a nationwide study to understand public attitudes, perceptions and beliefs in the U.S.A. regarding aquariums. The ongoing survey has collected data over
eight years with annual sample sizes of up to 32,000 and asks respondents nationwide to rank levels of agreement with
a range of statements. The data are not publicly available, but John Racanelli did share some of the findings. The data
indicate a shift in attitudes, perceptions and beliefs regarding the value and appropriateness of holding cetaceans in
captivity and it becomes particularly pronounced for the Millennial generation, where the survey observed a material decline in the desire to see cetaceans in any kind of captive setting. 

Continue reading “Interesting Notes From The Virgin Captivity Summit”

Aquariums Split Over Wild Beluga Import

This is a very interesting, and potentially important, development: two major players in the aquarium world are opposing the proposed Georgia Aquarium import of wild Russian belugas.

Over the past decades, marine parks and aquariums have mostly stayed united on issues related to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the display of whales and dolphins. For the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres to take a different view of the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import wild belugas and distribute many of them on breeding loans to SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, and Mystic Aquarium is a big deal. And it’s an encouraging sign that some aquariums–given what we now know about the intelligence, awareness and sociability of small whales and dolphins–see the possibility of a different model for education and display than the model that has dominated the industry since its inception.

Here is the National Aquarium letter to NMFS, outlining its opposition. One thing that really catches my eye is the National Aquarium’s statement that it wants to review the Marine Mammal Protection Act along with other institutions and outline a new model for display that reflects all that we have learned about marine mammals since the MMPA was put in place in 1972. That is desperately needed, I think:

Here is the Sea Life Centres letter:

And here is a press release from Whale And Dolphin Conservation applauding the position of the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres:

The stand that the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres are taking will no doubt cause some heartburn in the industry. But any reform of the MMPA and how marine mammals are treated and displayed around the world is much likelier to make progress with some industry support. So kudos to these two organizations for taking a big and brave step forward.

What Is NOC, The “Talking” Beluga, Really Saying?

NPR jumps in with a nicely done story that includes more detail on NOC’s history, and how researchers came to believe he was mimicking human speech (the audio version of the story is here).

Here’s some useful backstory:

But a white whale at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation did something very different. NOC (pronounced Nocee), as he was called, lived in an enclosure in the San Diego Bay. Biologist Sam Ridgway was there one day when divers were swimming nearby. “This one diver surfaced next to the whale pen and said, ‘Who told me to get out?’ And the supervisor said, ‘Nobody said anything.’ ”

A curious Ridgway started recording NOC. And what he heard was quite strange: It had the cadence and rhythm of human speech. No words were distinguishable, but the sounds were eerily “right.” Ridgway laid out audiograms of NOC’s chatter, and they showed that the rhythm and pitch were different from NOC’s normal sounds: They were, in fact, very similar to human speech. NOC had lowered the pitch of his sounds several octaves below normal, into the range of human speech at 300-400 hertz.

Ridgway says there’s no reason to think NOC understood speech; he was just mimicking humans he’d heard. From where? “I think it was from divers using underwater communication equipment,” he says.

The story (scroll down) also includes audio links that let you listen to an ordinary beluga vocalization, and then compare it to a recording of NOC. There is a striking difference.

Here is the same audio, released by the National Marine Mammal Foundation:

And you can watch NMMF’s Sam Ridgway appearance on The Today Show here.

The more I think about this, the more I think the excitement and interest over NOC is emblematic of what troubles me about marine mammal captivity and research.

First: NOC’s vocalizations are like ear candy to humans, who love the idea that any animal might mimic a human (see endless YouTube videos). But what educational or research value do the recordings of NOC really hold? If it was important research or information you would presume Ridgway would have published it before decades had passed.

Second: If NOC was truly mimicking humans (maybe he was psychotic; maybe he was ill; maybe he was just bored and messing around with his vocalizations to distract himself; who really knows?) it’s important to remember that he was doing so only because he was in a situation where he was spending his life in their company. It would be far more interesting, and meaningful, if wild cetaceans adapted their vocalizations for human consumption, which is what Denise Herzing and her Wild Dolphin Project are hoping to see. In any case, I’d much rather see research on real wild beluga vocalizations. That would teach us something about belugas as they really are. And that is the sort of knowledge that is important it we really care about beluga populations and their future.

Third, the media splash, and the publication of this research is really another form of beluga exploitation. Do any of the media outlets really care about NOC and belugas? Did anyone ask serious questions about Ridgway’s research program, and history with the Navy? Not really. It was a 5-minute distraction for people driving home in traffic or sitting around with the television on.

There is an upside, though, I think. For better or worse, humans aren’t very good at stepping outside their own lives and human frame of reference. They care about things they can connect with. So hearing NOC vocalizing in a pattern that sort of sounds like it has human rhythm probably had millions of people thinking of belugas in a positive way.

Now, I know this is basically the core of the marine park argument in favor of captivity, and marine mammal shows. And I hasten to add that I don’t think that it–or NOC’s media splash–justifies captivity. You can achieve a lot, if not more, of that sort of connection through seeing and hearing wild animals, whether in nature or on film. And there’s no real justification for taking away an intelligent, social animal’s freedom, no matter what good you claim you are achieving. But it’s just to say that NOC’s unusual vocalizations, whatever they were when he made them all those years ago, at least cry out for a serious evaluation of the human relationship to marine mammals, and the issue of marine mammal research and captivity. And that would be a good thing.

Deep Dive Into Belugas

Felicity Barringer, who wrote yesterday’s New York Times article about the controversy over whether the Georgia Aquarium should be allowed to import wild belugas from Russia, takes to the NYT’s Green blog to go much deeper into the ethical, moral and scientific arguments over the question of beluga captivity.

Partly because, apparently, this song was in her head the entire time she was reporting the story:

Anyhow, her post is a great example of how online space can add insight to a story in the printed newspaper and it’s worth reading the whole thing. But here are the questions she is trying to get at:

Therein lies the conundrum built into the decision facing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in coming months. Is the goal of inspiring visitors — and doing research that may help conserve these animals in the wild — worth the price of taking extremely social animals with deep bonds of kinship out of the ocean, teaching them crowd-pleasing tricks and putting them on display in an aquarium?

Should animals that migrate hundreds of miles between their ice-clogged Arctic habitats and the estuaries at the mouths of rivers like Russia’s Amur or Canada’s St. Lawrence, that dive hundreds of yards deep to forage on the ocean floor, be confined to a tank with no more than a handful of other belugas for company?

Should belugas whose range of calls represents one of the most extensive vocabularies in the animal kingdom have to listen to their whistles bouncing off walls?

Unfortunately, these are not the issues NOAA is considering when it weighs the beluga import permit application. Which is why the Marine Mammal Protection Act is outdated and needs to be revisited.

Ocean Park, Hong Kong: A Different Approach To Belugas

BelugaThe New York Times weighs in with a well-reported story about the controversy over the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import 18 wild belugas from Russia.

The story contains an absolutely classic example of the bogus beluga rationale I wrote about the other day, again courtesy of Georgia Aquarium’s William Hurley:

But beyond those legal considerations, said William Hurley, a senior vice president of the Georgia Aquarium, marine institutions need a strong captive population for research that could help safeguard the beluga as its Arctic habitat is transformed by a changing climate.

“If you don’t have enough of these animals in our care and don’t have enough to extend that for more decades,” Mr. Hurley said, the aquarium will be unable to unlock “the secrets these animals hold.”

What the story doesn’t mention is that not all the marine parks that originally set out to research this Russian beluga population, as a step toward importing wild belugas from Russia, are in agreement about displaying belugas.

Ocean Park in Hong Kong was part of the marine park consortium that helped fund the research, and was planning to import some of the belugas for its new Polar Adventure exhibit. But along the way, Ocean Park decided that it would not include belugas in the exhibit, and would not be importing any of the 18 belugas captured in Russia for the consortium.

Beluga SantaOver the summer, I called Allan Zeman, the chairman of Ocean Park’s Board Of Directors to ask why. He was refreshingly forthright and candid about Ocean Park’s decision. And his thinking is an example of how at least one marine park looked at the ethics of displaying belugas and–despite the fact that belugas are popular with the public and generate lots of revenue–decided to go another direction.

Here is what Zeman told me, lightly edited for clarity:

What happened with the belugas is that we originally six years ago talked about doing belugas and other animals. Ocean Park is really about animals. It’s similar to SeaWorld.

Nobody 6 or 7 years ago came out against the idea. Everyone was excited about plan, which even had polar bears. But after we started designing the park–the CEO and myself–we started traveling around to familiarize ourselves with the animals in different parks. Nobody said anything. Most people didn’t know what a beluga was, except for the animal rights people. Continue reading “Ocean Park, Hong Kong: A Different Approach To Belugas”