I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say that I feel really uncomfortable looking back to past holidays where we’ve interacted with captive dolphins. We all love dolphins (I spotted this one off the coast of Agadir from a cruise ship), and I’ll the be first to admit that the chance to interact with them was just too tempting, but I know I’m not alone in looking back now and feeling quite sad that we played a part in supporting an industry that, even at the time, made us feel uneasy. Now, I feel that times have changed for the better, and there really has been a shift in what we feel is acceptable with regard to the welfare of dolphins and whales in captivity (in fact, in a poll of 1000 UK consumers* last year, 95% wanted to see tour operators change the way they work with attractions featuring whales and dolphins). I wanted to be the first to tell you about a fabulous new initiative that’s going to make you love Virgin Holidays even more than you do already (if that’s possible). Yesterday, Virgin Holidays announced that they’re going to be investing into a wonderful new project: North America’s first dolphin sanctuary. I asked them all about it and here’s what I found out:
A ‘dolphin sanctuary’ you say?
A few years ago, when we visited Winter the Dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of our group asked the question about whether dolphins can be released into the wild. We were told that often this was a potential death sentence for the animals, especially when they had been born in captivity. We were also told that Keiko, the star of Free Willy, never managed to find a pod and died alone from pneumonia after animal rights groups lobbied successfully for his release**.
The project by the US National Aquarium, which should be completed in 2020, will aim to create a ‘large outdoor natural environment’ for their seven dolphins (Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Foster and Beau – currently in an indoor pool in Baltimore), to allow them to enjoy a much bigger living space at a natural seaside location, including ocean tides, temperature variations and other natural ocean life. The exact location of the sanctuary site hasn’t yet been established, but the search is focused on Florida. The hope is that this ground-breaking project will show that more natural alternatives are viable and will pave the way for the creation of more of these kinder, natural, sanctuaries.
Why have Virgin Holidays decided to invest in the project?
Let’s face it, as the number one British tour operator to Florida, Virgin Holiday have a vested interest in tourism in the area. I think it’s brilliant that they’re using this power to do great things. You may remember that in early 2017, they announced a commitment to evolve their offering with regard to captive whales and dolphins and support the creation of coastal sanctuaries, so this investment (of $300,000) is a logical next step.
As Managing Director, Joe Thompson, says: ‘We strongly believe the way tourists interact with captive whales and dolphins needs to change – and have been engaging with existing suppliers to improve their product offering and encourage a move away from theatrical shows. Today we’re pleased to announce our second focus – which is working with the wider industry to develop alternative forms of tourism that place a greater prominence on the welfare of these animals.’
So what IS the future of responsible tourism where whales and dolphins are concerned?
Well, Virgin Holidays are involved in that too. As well as the National Aquarium Dolphin Sanctuary, Virgin Holidays has committed to a brand new initiative that encourages the development of responsible wild whale and dolphin watching. In partnership with the World Cetacean Alliance, there will be new Responsible Whale Watching Guidelines rolled out to all Virgin Holidays suppliers, encouraging them to enhance the experience for customers with an emphasis on education while keeping a respectful distance from the animals. Dylan Walker, the CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance said: ‘Responsible whale and dolphin watching tours in the wild offer inspirational experiences for millions of people and provide a vital platform for research, conservation, and environmental education. We are delighted to be working with Virgin Holidays on this pioneering project – the outcomes will ensure that Virgin customers will benefit from high quality and
responsible whale and dolphin watching experiences with these incredible animals.’
A brave new future
I think this is such incredible news and really hope that it paves the way for a brave new future in responsible tourism. Well done, Virgin Holidays!
Many, many thanks to Virgin Holidays for letting me have all this information. You can read more about Virgin Holidays’ commitment to improving animal welfare in tourism, at virginholidays.co.uk/cetaceans
*Conducted by Verve for Virgin Holidays in 2017