In its heyday, the Miami Seaquarium was one of the first marine-life parks in the country and the set for episodes of the popular 1960s TV show “Flipper.” It’s where Miamians went on school field trips and what helped put Miami on the map as a tourist destination.
But today, the Seaquarium’s outdated facilities sit on Virginia Key as the symbol of a bygone era. Marine animal shows, once seen as just another form of entertainment, raise the question of whether it’s still appropriate to breed marine animals for our amusement, especially after the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” reported the harsh treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld and other facilities.
The Miami Seaquarium has its own high-profile killer whale: Lolita, captured about 50 years ago, lives in the smallest orca tank in America and has been the subject of a lawsuit, protests and a campaign by animal-welfare groups to retire her. To a layperson, Lolita’s pool looks painfully small, even if it complies with federal regulations, as the company and federal officials have said. The problem is, helping her isn’t as simple as moving her to a bigger space, many experts say.
The facility now has another public-relations issue: Between 2019 and 2020, five bottlenose dolphins and one California sea lion died, the Herald reported. Two dolphins and the sea lion died from trauma to the head and neck and a third dolphin from drowning after getting caught in an underwater fence. The other two had an unexplained gas embolism and developmental abnormalities, respectively.
We didn’t know about these deaths, and probably would never have, had the Seaquarium’s biggest foe, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, not obtained and released federal records. This “pattern of deaths” alarmed a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who flagged it to regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After the deaths, a USDA veterinarian conducted an inspection on Sept. 3, 2020 and found no issues, records show.
Public perceptions about marine mammals in captivity have changed since the Seaquarium opened in 1955. Canada’s Parliament in 2019 banned whales, dolphins and porpoises from being bred or held in captivity. SeaWorld announced in 2015 it would refocus its orca shows on education and end its killer-whale breeding.
The Miami Seaquarium has withstood these controversies and the test of time, but as Miami becomes a more environmentally conscious community, how can the dated facility fit into that vision?
Lack of transparency
There’s no simple answer.
PETA wants Lolita and all dolphins to be sent to seaside sanctuaries, but there’s debate among scientists whether that would do more harm than good to the aging whale. Most experts told the Herald in 2017 that the stress of moving Lolita could be catastrophic. Also, killing a business that has been so intertwined with the history of Miami is unrealistic, and these attractions, if done right, serve a purpose in educating the public about the perils facing marine mammals in the wild.
But the least the Seaquarium can do is be more transparent.
To be clear, there’s no indication the company engaged in wrongdoing. PETA says it’s awaiting more records to find out whether a federal investigation was conducted. Still, it’s unconscionable that these six deaths occurred in our back yard without public knowledge.
Transparency is a tough ask when we’re talking about a private business. But Miami-Dade County government played a crucial role in helping the Seaquarium thrive. Since 1954, the county has leased land to the attraction and, in mid-October, the County Commission is expected to vote on whether to approve transferring the lease to new owners, the Dolphin Company.
This is the County Commission’s chance to ask tough questions and demand more transparency. For example, county-owned Zoo Miami lets the public know when it loses an animal. On Thursday, the zoo announced that Kumang the orangutan had died after being put under anesthesia to remove two teeth infecting her gum. She stopped breathing after she returned to her enclosure. In August, Zoo Miami shared that a meerkat named Gizmo had died.
Public disclosure is “something we talked about,” Plante told the Herald Editorial Board, whose writer Isadora Rangel accepted an invitation for a tour of the facilities. But the Seaquarium has every incentive to keep that information from the public: It’s already a target of groups like PETA, and any information that gets released will surely cause a headache and more protests on Virginia Key.
The county already is pushing for changes. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Board the Dolphin Company has a “long history” of conservation compared to the previous operators, Palace Entertainment, who are more focused on entertainment. The sale is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
“I mean, for me, obviously, this has been a problematic site, and you know I’m very hopeful that this will be our pathway to creating something unique and wonderful, for Lolita especially,” Levine Cava told the Board. “She is the victim of another era. And you know the best that we can hope for is for her to have humane treatment and better conditions.”
She said the department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces and Zoo Miami Director William Elgar will have “an active role to oversee conditions at the facility.”
Elgar is a former director at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and current president of the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association. He told the Editorial Board some improvements under way include better seating in the stadium where Lolita lives and patching up her pool. The Seaquarium also is seeking accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the industry’s gold standard, according to Elgar. That multi-year process has required the attraction to invest $2 million in habitat improvement, water quality and record keeping, General Manager Bill Lentz said. The Seaquarium is also building stronger fencing to avoid entanglement in the pool where the 18-year-old dolphin drowned.
Who’s at fault?
Plante said he suspects some of the dolphins who died might have had “underlying conditions,” but that didn’t come up in necropsies or the reports the Seaquarium sent to NOAA. When the Editorial Board asked him whether six deaths in a short span of time were just a sad coincidence, he said, “that could be it.”
Whether that’s actually the case depends on whom you ask.
PETA believes the “trauma-related deaths are clearly caused by the conditions of confinement at Seaquarium,” Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel, told the Herald earlier this month. Goodman later told the Editorial Board that enforcement of federal regulations is lax, and aquariums are treated as “customers” instead of regulated entities.
Elgar, the Zoo Miami director, said aquariums and zoos usually go beyond the accreditation standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. He added Lolita is “one of the most well cared for whales in the world.”
Industry leaders and those who believe marine mammals don’t belong in tanks will forever disagree on what “care” means. But for as long as the Miami Seaquarium, both beloved and anachronistic, continues to operate, it must get its job right.