Disney’s Dismal Dolphins — No Make Believe Here
We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. Walt Disney
If there is one thing that can be said about Walt Disney the man, he was a visionary. The artist and pioneer of cartoon films even credited the foundation of today’s multi-billion dollar empire to one mouse — Mickey.
Many animals are portrayed through Walt Disney’s magic screen — “Bambi”, “Dumbo”, “Lady and the Tramp”, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”, are just a few of them. The irony of these films rests in the same underlying theme, all of them feature animals who in some form, encounter the worst of humanity.
Which is why we don’t understand why Disney’s Epcot Center continues to keep captive dolphins when public support for keeping large marine mammals in captivity, is rapidly waning.
Brief Epcot History
Named E.P.C.O.T or the, Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow by Mr. Disney himself, the project didn’t actually get underway until 1979, over a decade after his death. The ‘Living Seas Pavilion’ opened in Jan. 1986. According to an article in the “Evening Independent” dated Jan. 28, 1986:
Until now, Walt Disney World was forgetting something … Disney wizardry had overlooked oceans. Living Seas … is a huge ocean environment that takes aquariums and Sea World-type attractions a step further. Dolphins don’t jump through hoops in the ocean. They won’t do it here.
In fact said a Disney spokesman, “We won’t commercialize sealife. There are no tricks here.”
Today, Living Seas has had a name change and is now known as, ‘The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion.’ For $199, you can interact with the dolphins in waist-deep water for around 30 minutes. The other 2.5 hours of the tour, Epcot writes, is educational.
Living Seas Early Days
Several dolphins have passed through Epcot’s pavilion since it first opened. The first six, all captured in FT. Meyers, Florida didn’t live long at all. Captured by Jay Sweeney, a veterinarian who sourced dolphins around the globe, the ‘Sun Sentinel‘ reports that Sweeney founded Dolphin Quest and:
Caught at least 80 dolphins in the 1980s … “Will deliver to your size and sex specifications … 90-day replacement guarantee.”
The capture of the four male and two females dolphins for Epcot by Sweeney, is featured in the documentary, ‘A Fall From Freedom.’
The dolphins’ names were Bob, Geno, Tyke, Toby, Christie and Katie.
Bob was known to have aggression issues and was implicated in the death of Katie, who allegedly suffered with a lung condition. In 1990, the ‘Orlando Sentinel‘ wrote:
The only female dolphin at Epcot Center’s Living Seas Pavilion died early Tuesday, the fourth of six dolphins to die at Walt Disney World since 1985.
Kym Murphy, Disney’s corporate vice president for environmental policy, told the Sentinel, “Bob probably contributed to the 1987 deaths of two other dolphins at the Living Seas.”
Bob caused further issues when he was shipped to the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 2003. In this report of his own death two years later:
The death of the 500-pound dolphin named Bob follows the deaths of two dolphin calves last year. In April, an unnamed 10-day-old male calf died from bacterial meningitis. In July, a 4-month-old calf named Bridget died after she was roughed up by older male dolphins. Her death was blamed on pre-existing pneumonia.
Geno lasted less than one year in captivity. The Sentinel — citing Fisheries Service records, said the male became trapped in a net and suffocated. As for the other dolphins:
Two animals died within three days of each other after being injured in October 1987. A 9-year-old female died of a brain hemorrhage and a 6-year-old male died after its vertebrae were fractured.
It was a harsh lesson for Epcot. You can’t force an artificial dolphin pod and expect them to get along, particularly in a contained environment.
Epcot courted further controversy in 1993, when it accepted three surplus Navy dolphins for breeding purposes. The dolphins, Nina, Snapper & Noriko, were tipped for release by congress. The move had not been approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service and irked the agency considerably. According to the ‘Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘ and Fisheries agency spokesman Scott Smullen:
The Navy is supposed to get permission from the Fisheries agency to take, maintain and move marine mammals … Mullen said it had no clue the Navy was shipping dolphins around the country.
Unable to find the records for these dolphins, I turned to Ceta-Base.com, a massive online website dedicated to tracking captive marine mammals. Ceta-Base told me that according to records, Noriko, Nina and Snapper were all formerly wild dolphins captured off Mississippi. Noriko and Nina in Aug. 1984, and Snapper in 1988. They were sent to Epcot on May 25, 1993.
Noriko was transferred back to the Navy in June 1997, and died in November. Nina went back to the Navy in Oct. 1998, and died in Nov, 2001. Snapper was transferred back to the Navy with Nina, and is still alive.
There was one calf born during the breeding loan. Noriko was pregnant when she arrived at Epcot and delivered Naia on May 7, 1994. Owned by the Navy, Naia was sent back to them on June 11, 1997. From there, she was sent to Sea Life Park in 2005, and then went back to the Navy in 2009.
Today, Epcot houses four dolphins in its pavilion — Ranier, Khyber, Calvin and Malabar. Ranier was captured in the Gulf of Mexico in July 1988. He was transported to Epcot in July 2002, having left the Navy in 1988, Dolphin Connection in 1996 and Brookfield Zoo in 2000. He has been at the pavilion for 13 years.
Khyber (1998) and Calvin (1993) were born at Dolphin Connection. Khyber was in service at Dolphin Quest Bermuda before being shipped to Epcot in 2005. Calvin, went to Brookfield Zoo in 1996, back to Dolphin Connection in 1999, and finally to Epcot in 2003.
Malabar was born at Dolphin Quest Bermuda in June 2000, and was sent to Epcot in 2005.
Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future. Walt Disney
The need to keep dolphins in a captive environment in order to study them is unnecessary and limiting, particularly for education purposes. Any marine mammal biologist or conservationist who participates in research on wild dolphins, will often speak to you freely. Naturalists are also well educated in their respective regions and can tell you far more than any aquarium about the animals that inhabit those areas. The experience is genuine, realistic, and more importantly, the animals get to stay in their natural environment.
You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality. Walt Disney
The only reason dolphins are still held in captivity is because of public demand. You can end this. Take the pledge: Don’t buy a ticket.
*Dolphin Project would like to thank Jordan Waltz for providing the scans. All scans are taken from the book, “Dolphins, Our Friends in the Sea: Dolphins and Other Toothed Whales (Books for World Explorers) Hardcover”. Judith E. Rinard; 1986. Images/Henning Christoph.
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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.