The life of Beachie, Bruges’ dolphin breeder
1. The life of free young males
A pod of dolphins is having fun while racing with a boat in the Gulf of Florida.
These dolphins are Tursiops truncatus with large fins, or Atlantic Bottlenose, perfectly adapted to coastal life, shallow waters and warm climate. And this is also the reason why our European dolphinaria likes them so much : they are incredibly resilient and able to survive in absurdly small pools disinfected with chlorine.
Here, we see a Trio. An alliance at the first degree, a gang of 3 happy friends who are swimming kilometers and kilometers every day to seduce pretty females of the neighborood. They will stick together for a while, sometimes for their whole life.
Watch the video. First, one dolphin is taking the initiative and jumps out of the water in a very powerful and harmonious way. Quickly, his friends will join him and challenge him : « I bet we can catch up with that boat there ! ». Their jumps are full of joy, innocence, friendship and laughter.
« The relationship between these “male alliance partners” — bromances, if you will — could last decades or even a lifetime: the friends will spend almost 100 percent of their time together and will often surface side by side in synchronicity. Most of the dolphins leaping and rolling and showing off in front of the boat were playful males, about 9 to 10 years old, just about the age of sexual maturity. Their play, which sometimes includes sex with each other, helps them determine who they’ll choose to be their useful, dependable ally for the next few decades. “It’s a big decision on their part,” Gibson said. “They want to make sure they choose wisely.” UNF’s researchers have identified 14 alliances among male dolphins in the St. Johns. Twelve are pairs, one is a trio, the other is a quartet: Osceola, Choctaw, Timucuan and Geronimo, who are almost always together. A few more alliances could be forming among the youngsters who played around the UNF boat (…) .
Different types of alliances are created amongst the males as they compete to attract the females. These alliances are not confined to one given territory, as it is the case with other social mammals, but, at the contrary, they move over large areas that overlap ».
University of Florida research
2 or 3 dolphins will form a first alliance, very strong over the long term.
These pairs or trios will in turn form a second alliance with other similar groups of 2 or 3 males within a larger group of 4 to 14 individuals, who have no family bounds between them.
This second level group will cooperate to defend its own females or to attack other groups and steal their women. Such alliances can last more than 15 years.
Finally, this « super-group » will be able to form a coalition of several groups of the same type, always to face their rivals organised like them. So we will have an alliance « A » combined with an alliance « B » to attack an alliance « C » on certain occasions, but that will be able to ally also to C to attack an alliance « D » at another moment. And then, it really becomes very complicated. (Richard Connor)
Florida dolphins also have a « fission-fusion » social structure, characterised by temporary associations, lasting a few minutes to several hours. These models of flexible grouping, in which dolphins are constantly associating differently, imply that they must be able to find each other, when they are separated by long distances. However, these distances must be within reach of communications – they must still be able to communicate.The decision of a dolphin to join or leave a group is linked to various social considerations, such as the class of the individuals in the group (mothers with their babies, single adult females, adult males and young ones). Every dolphin evolves in different social environments.
The decision is also influenced by the ecological characteristics of their habitat. For example, mothers with children prefer to reside regularly in deep waters. They develop relationships with other females in the same situation and associate with them. The same mothers, when they come to swim in shallow waters, will meet young males with whom they will have little contact.
2. The life of a captive young male
In Bruges, Beachie is sleeping on the bottom of the pool. He’s not healthy. He feels alone.
Born free in 1982, « saved » from a stranding in April 1984, he was sent to SeaWorld Orlando on the 27th of April 1984. He left this place on the 8th of June 1997 to be deported to the Harderwijk Dolphinarium, in the Netherlands.
On the 18th of September 2009, he was finally sent to Bruges. Beachie had been a good stallion before the Boudewijn Seapark. In SeaWorld and Harderwijk, he gave birth to Marble (1997), Sal’ka (1998), T’lisala (2001), Amtan (2001), Palawas (2004), Spetter (2005) and Kite (2005). But once in Belgium, he only gave a stillborn child to the young Yotta in 2010, twins (also stillborn) to the older Roxanne in 2011, and another baby who died after 4 days to Roxanne again. His largely degraded life environment probably explains these events.
Roxanne and her baby, who died after 4 days
So, in 2009, Beachie was brought to the Boudewijn Seapark in Bruges, in the context of an international breeding program (EEP – European Endangered Species Program). Please note that these programs are supposed to ensure the safeguard of an endangered species « ex situ », like for example the golden lion tamarins, the love panthers, the Sumatran elephants, or the okapis, not to mention local but less spectacular endangered species.
According to the IUCN, Tursiops truncatus is not a highly endangered species. Tursiops are never rehabilitated by the dolphinaria. So dolphinaria do betray the spirit of these European programs. Inadequate education and unnecessary researches couldn’t legally justify the breeding of captive dolphins, since they do not contribute at all to the conservation of the species.
Only females and young dolphins had lived in Bruges since Tex died. That made the arrival of a male necessary for this breeding program for what we can call « circus animals ». Note that neither Beachie nor the residents of the Flemish aquatic circus had chosen to meet. The group would have to, once again, be reshaped by the hand of man.
One week before Beachie arrived, expert trainers of the Boudewijn Seapark went to Harderwijk to see how Beachie was working, what tricks he could be asked and how he had been prepared to take part to the medical tests. In the morning of the 19th of September 2009, the dolphin was moved to Bruges in the company of 5 employees of Harderwijk and his new masters. Beachie was carried in a hammock, suspended in a box. He arrived in Bruges in the afternoon, to be immediately put in a tank behind the dolphinarium. For the entire first week after his moving, a trainer from Harderwijk stayed in Bruges to help with Beachie’s integration within the group and to advise the team of Bruges.
The residents. Flo died in 2010, at 13 y.0
Photo Adriaan van Rijswijk
For the first 4 days, Beachie stayed in the tank at the bottom, separated from the group by a simple net. This enabled him to hear and see his new cellmates. Then the male was introduced to the 5 residents. At first, he came into contact with Roxanne, one of the three adult females, while the others stayed separated from him in the pool used for the show.
Today, Beachie is getting along with the senior females (the « high-ranking » females), Roxanne, Yotta and Puck. Young Indy and Ocean – 10 years already ! – are afraid of him. The dominance in a tank is complete, as there is no means of escape, and no possibility to create alliances.Compared to what Beachie has known in his open-air lagoon in Harderwijk, the tank in Bruges is not very big. It is 3-6 meters deep and 40 meters long. On the right and on the left of the tank, there are 2 isolation pens. And behind the scene, there is another pool, larger, but 4 meters deep. This pool was originally intended to sea lions. They go back there during the winter. During the summer, they stay at the « Sea lions Theater ».
Beachie also had to learn to obey a different way.
In Harderwijk, all the dolphins were getting the attention of the trainers at the same time. In Bruges, they must remain calm in front of the trainer until they receive, one at a time, instructions. For Beachie, at the start, it was hard to wait his turn. He was often jumping out of the water, very excited, and had trouble staying calm. He’s been tamed.For the show, he has been asked first to show all the tricks he had learnt in Harderwijk. Then, he has learnt to throw balls at children and to do somersaults. This training had already begun in Harderwijk, but it couldn’t be completed there. One wonders what he has learnt in SeaWorld, during all that time after his « rescue »…
For Beachie, many things have changed. He has long lived in the Dolfijndomijn, in Harderwijk, among a group of other males. They had not chosen to be together either, but at least they were all males. At the Boudewijn Seapark, our stallion is now sharing a really small space with 3 young dolphins – including a skinny male – and 2 females older than him. In addition, Beachie no longer has the possibility to go out in the open air, or to feel the sun on his skin, in a sea where fish can survive. The dolphinarium in Bruges is completely covered by a dome. Its waters are entirely artificial.
Beachie is not healthy. Like so many captive dolphins, he sleeps on the bottom of his basin during hours. He is so alone ! No alliances, no friends, no travels. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just shows and sleep, sleep and shows.
That’s not a male dolphin life.
Is it even necessary to conclude ? Is the simple detail of these two life styles not enough to condemn a business that should no longer exist in Europe or anywhere in the world : exhibition of captive dolphins ?
To know more :
Thanks to Christelle Bornauw Waiengnier for the translation.
– Information about Beachie’s was taken from an interview of the chief trainer of Bruges, Sander van der Heul, published on a now securised (after my first visit !) professional website ruled by Harderwijk Dolphinarium.
– Please note the swimming Trio shown on the top of this page are part of the family of the 2 golden geese of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter and Hope. These new inmates are claimed to have been saved from stranding. It’s the new way to get captive dolphins in the USA. All stranded dolphins are supposed to be deaf.
Let’s remind that for more than 2 decades, Gulf of Mexico was the focus of a live-capture fishery for Bottlenose dolphins which supplied dolphins to the U.S. Navy and European dolphinaria. « During the period between 1972-89, 490 bottlenose dolphins, an average of 29 dolphins annually, were removed from a few locations in the Gulf of Mexico, including the Florida Keys. Mississippi Sound sustained the highest level of removals and 202 dolphins were removed from this stock during this period, representing 41% of the total and an annual average of 12 dolphins. It may be biologically significant that 73% of the dolphins removed during 1982-88 were females. The impact of those removals on the stocks is unknown ». (NOAA)