Coral World’s announcement of the arrival of four adult Atlantic bottlenose dolphins last week was met with a mixture of reactions from the community, with some expressing hope for the new inhabitants of Coral World’s new St. Thomas Sea Sanctuary, and others raising concerns, including the health of the dolphins.
“[The dolphins] were in a facility that, for whatever reason, things weren’t going right,” said Lee Kellar, general curator at Coral World.
“There was some sort of environmental issue there,” Kellar said. “The company that owns that facility has a wonderful record and reputation around the world with their dolphins. They have about 70 dolphins in other places. Unfortunately, it was just imperative that those animals get out of that facility and to get here, and now they’re in an environment that is healthy for them.”
The four bottlenose dolphins came from Dolphinaris Arizona, where four dolphins have died. Fiona Stuart, founder of VI Dolphin Voices, said information they received from the Animal Welfare Institute indicated that three of the dolphins died from a fungal infection while the cause of death of the fourth dolphin remains unclear.
St. Thomas resident Adrianne Poe said she was concerned with the lack of quarantine, but said the V.I. Department of Agriculture informed her there was no need. Poe, however, said she still has questions about how the department made that determination.
Stuart, meanwhile, said there were no quarantine facilities on the island in any case.
In a statement, Coral World indicated that “extensive veterinary testing by diagnostic specialists from independent laboratories did not reveal any indication of infectious or contagious disease. The health parameters of all four dolphins have been closely monitored and are normal.”
According to Coral World, health monitoring was done in Arizona, during transport to St. Thomas, and is ongoing, which is why the dolphins are currently held in the smaller areas. The dolphins are held under close watch at all hours of the day, according to Valerie Peters, marketing director at Coral World, and a full-time veterinarian, Dr. Emily Hall, is on staff to look after the dolphins’ health, Peters said.
Kellar also said Coral World hired security consultants to ensure the dolphins are protected. While Kellar could not elaborate on the nature of the confidential security measures, he indicated that multiple security cameras are installed, security personnel strategically stationed and threats from multiple fronts have been taken into account.
On Thursday, Kellar said the dolphins were acclimating well after their full-day transport on Wednesday.
“They all did extremely well on the transport and they turned right around and ate after being put into their new area,” he said.
Kellar said he was pleased that all four dolphins – two males and two females – would be able to re-form their social group on the island after having lived together for two years. Kellar said Coral World also will monitor their caloric expenditures since the dolphins, which were born in human care, are not used to dealing with natural currents. This could mean increasing their food intake from 20 pounds of fish while they lived in an artificial seawater tank, to about 40 pounds of fish now that they live in Water Bay.
“Two of the dolphins have never been in natural sea water,” Kellar said. “They have never been in a natural sanctuary like this, so it’s exciting for them because they’re getting a whole new set of stimuli: the feelings of the waves and the currents, the fish that are swimming around, all of the sound, and everything is naturally enriching for them.”
According to Kellar, Coral World passed “a ton of inspections” in preparation for the dolphins’ arrival, including tests on water quality when it rains and runoff enters the bay. Recently, six dolphin facilities visited Coral World, Kellar said, and looked at best practices and gave them the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” The facility also received zero-error inspection results from the US Department of Agriculture, which conducted the most rigorous inspection, according to Kellar.
“They’re looking at the facility, how it’s operating from a standpoint of, is it a good place, animal welfare considered,” Kellar said. “Coral World did extremely well in our last inspection so we’re real happy about that.”
“In addition, they’re looking at our program overall,” he added. “They’re going to go through our water quality records, our animal behavior records. They’re going to look at how our food is managed and handled for the dolphins, the staff training and qualifications, so it’s a very, very long and extensive process.”
Kellar said Coral World is open to unannounced inspections at any time, including USDA inspections aligned with the Animal Welfare Act. As for Coral World, Kellar said the current priority is watching how well the dolphins adapt to their new environment. According to Kellar, Coral World will study the dolphins’ adjustment to the new environment and hopes to publish a paper based on the study.
Coral World is currently limited by DPNR’s Coastal Zone Management to six dolphins, but Kellar said it is expecting additions to the facility.
“We’d like to get a nice balanced population out here so the animals are in this bigger social group that we’d like to see dolphins in,” Kellar said.