Captive Commerson’s dolphins in North America

This piebald dolphin resembles a torpedo as it zips through the ocean. A known acrobat, the Commerson’s dolphin — which resembles the porpoise but bears the traits of a dolphin, loves to bow ride.

Commerson’s are late to captivity compared with other species. In North America, only SeaWorld and Mystic Aquarium have held these dolphins for public display. In Mystic’s case, the acquisition of the dolphins was entirely by accident and came about when a plane carrying four Commerson’s stopped to refuel at John F. Kennedy airport on Dec. 14, 1978.

En route from Argentina to Japan’s Sunshine International Aquarium, the aircraft stopped to refuel in the US and ran afoul of US law. Three dolphins were found in very poor health after the 35-hour trip and a fourth had died. A representative of the aquarium was charged with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the survivors were seized by US authorities and sent to Mystic Aquarium. Only one survived — Carmelita, she was the first captive Commerson’s dolphin in the world at this time. She survived for five years before dying in 1981.

Further history on Commerson’s in captivity globally, and their capture, can be found in “Captive Commerson’s Dolphins. A Historical Record and Inventory“, published by Ceta-Base.com. But back to N. America.

SeaWorld first entertained the idea of displaying Commerson’s in 1983. According to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) hosted at Ceta-Base, twelve individuals were initially captured from the wild for the San Diego-based park:

ID Numbers Sourced Died Time in Captivity
Juan 11/24/1983 ALIVE 30 years
Betsy 11/25/1983 01/10/2016 30 years
Pancho 11/30/1983 12/07/1995 12 yrs
Oreo 12/01/1983 07/07/2004 21 yrs
NOA0002772/SWC-CC-8327 11/24/1983 05/07/1991 7 yrs*
NOA0002773/SWC-CC-8328 11/25/1983 06/18/1984 < 1 yr
NOA0002774/SWC-CC-8329 11/25/1983 02/05/1984 < 1 yr
NOA0002776/SWC-CC-8331 11/27/1983 08/11/1990 6 yrs
NOA0002777/SWC-CC-8332 11/29/1983 12/13/1983 < 1 month
NOA0002780/SWC-CC-8335 12/01/1983 12/13/1983 12 days
NOA0002781/SWC-CC-8336 12/02/1983 12/19/1983 17 days
NOA0002782/SWC-CC-8337 12/02/1983 12/21/1983 19 days
* Pregnant

 

A 1988 IWC Special Report, “Biology of the Genus Cephalorhynchus,” describes the captures in further detail.  “About 33 have been live-captured and removed to marine zoological parks in Europe and the USA,” the report said. “We are aware of six episodes of live-capture of Commerson’s dolphins for public display, four in Argentina and two in Chile.”

SeaWorld included their own paper in the report. It was authored by Stephen Leatherwood, Ronald A. Kastelein and Karen W. Miller. Sea World Research Institute, Hubbs Marine Reseach.

RS469 SI09 Cephalorhynchus 1988 by battwoman

In 2004, SeaWorld took delivery of another Commerson’s dolphin from Germany. Jogi/Yoki was one of the ten original Commerson’s captured for display and sent to the Duisburg Zoo in Germany. He was the only animal to survive the capture (p.1 Ceta-Base report).  At more than 30-years-old, he was transferred to SeaWorld San Diego and died in November of the same year.

Births

All Commerson’s dolphins were born at SeaWorld San Diego. Four of them were sent to its Ohio park. Images of them can be viewed on Zoochat.com. I listed these separately because if you notice the dates of death, these animals all died in the same year. Cause of death on the MMIR is cited as colitis.

Name/ID # Born Died Age at Death
NOA0002818/SWC-CC-8526 02/21/1985 03/07/2000 15 yrs
NOA0002929/SWC-CC-8727 07/10/1987 03/09/2000 13 yrs
NOA0002962/SWC-CC-8826 09/10/1998 10/23/2000 2 yrs
NOA0005474/SWC-CC-9526 06/21/1995 03/18/2000 4 yrs

 

Other births at SeaWorld parks:

Name/ID # Born Died Age at Death
Rachel 06/08/2001 12/15/2003 2 yrs
Pepe 05/23/1993
Fabio 09/16/1993 04/16/2014 20 yrs
Jones 09/01/1998 04/14/2000 < 2 yrs
Ross/SWC-CC-9826 10/23/1998
NOA0002963/SWC-CC-8827 09/28/1988 01/02/1998 9 yrs
NOA0005471/SWC-CC-9527 07/10/1995  01/18/2004 9 yrs
Cookie 09/08/1995 12/28/2003 8 yrs
NOA0005697/SWC-CC-9726 09/25/1997 10/24/1997 < 1 month
Ringer 07/10/2000
Keebler 09/01/1998 01/08/2014 15 yrs

 

Deceased Commerson’s calves across SeaWorld facilities, stillborn/other:

Mother’s name/ID# Born  Died Notes
Oreo’s calf 04/19/1986 April 1986
Betsy’s calf 05/27/1987 Stillborn
SWC-CC-8327: Acquired 11/24/1983 05/07/1991 Pregnant at death
Unknown 12/08/1992 Stillborn
Ringer’s calf 06/30/2007 07/03/2007 Lived 3 days
Ringer’s calf 06/19/2009 Stillborn

 

Current population of Commerson’s dolphins held at SeaWorld parks:

SeaWorld Aquatica: 2; Pepe and Ross

SeaWorld San Diego: 3; Betsy, Juan and Ringer

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

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