Threatening an unprecedented confrontation on the high seas reminiscent of the plot of the movie “Free Willy,” animal rights activists have vowed to launch a flotilla of protesters to block Chicago’s world-renowned Shedd Aquarium from capturing dolphins off Southern California.
To expand its exhibit of ocean creatures, the aquarium will attempt to collect three Pacific white-sided dolphins between the coast of California and Santa Catalina Island, setting sail perhaps as early as Friday. It will be the first effort to capture dolphins in U.S. waters in four years.
California animal protection groups have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to pinpoint when and where the vessel will embark, while Shedd Aquarium officials remain vague, hoping to avert a spectacle at sea that they fear could turn dangerous.
Calling the aquarium caretakers “terrorists” and “kidnapers,” Peter Wallerstein, who heads the Whale Rescue Team in Malibu, has begun reconnaissance to track the aquarium’s activities. Volunteers are stationed in boats from San Diego to Ventura searching for the vessel, a pilot is periodically flying over the ocean and Wallerstein says he even has a spy inside the Chicago aquarium.
The activists’ goal is to keep the vessel’s nets empty, or at the very least, create a made-for-TV spectacle and broadcast it around the world to try to embarrass the aquarium into abandoning the effort.
“Ideally, we would like to physically block the capture. But it is a big ocean to defend and we only want to deploy methods that are nonviolent,” said Suzanne Roy, program director of In Defense of Animals, a group based in San Rafael.
“So the secondary goal is to at least document it so the world can see what the Shedd Aquarium is doing,” she said. “The capture process is very violent and we feel if people see that, it will add a new perspective to their thoughts when they go to the aquarium and see the dolphins in the tank.”
For its part, the Shedd Aquarium will have its own security force and has asked the Coast Guard to assist at sea to ensure that other boats are kept at a safe distance.
“We know they are geared up to try to prevent us from doing our collection, but we’re committed to our educational mission. We feel this is so important that whatever the animal rights people plan, it won’t stop us,” said Debra Fassnacht, an aquarium spokeswoman.
Protesters might not be the only obstacle facing the aquarium because the dolphin roundup can begin no sooner than Friday and must end by Dec. 31 under the conditions of the aquarium’s permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Capturing three in six weeks may be difficult because few Pacific white-sided dolphins have been seen in Southern California in the last year. The aquarium hopes to net one male and two females to join four of the same species now displayed in its 3-million gallon Oceanarium, which simulates a Pacific Northwest coastal ecosystem with sea otters, beluga whales, penguins and other marine animals.
The purpose of expanding the exhibit, Shedd officials say, is to increase the chances of breeding the animals, educate the public about conservation and allow researchers to observe their behavior. The dolphins, which have a black back, white belly and light-colored stripes on both sides, are not as familiar to the public or scientists as bottlenosed dolphins.
To catch the animals, the team will drop a hoop net in a dolphin’s path as it swims by the boat’s bow. The metal breaks off and the animal swims off with the net draped around its head and half of its back. When it becomes tired, it is tethered by a diver and put on a stretcher that is hoisted onto the boat. A veterinarian will examine and monitor it.
“It is considered the most humane and safest way of doing it,” said Jim Robinett, the Shedd Aquarium’s curator of marine mammals. “I’ve never heard of any injuries or deaths occurring using this method. We wouldn’t be undertaking this if it wasn’t safe.”
The dolphins will be held temporarily in an unidentified pool in San Diego before being flown to Chicago, said Ann Terbush, chief of permits for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Terbush said Sea World is not involved.
Final details of the aquarium’s plan--including which waters can be searched for dolphins and the location of the holding area--are expected to be approved by the federal agency early this week and made available to the public.
Aquarium officials have declined to reveal such details because of their concern over what the protesters might do. Robinett said he does not mind them videotaping the capture, but he said he is very concerned about their threats to interfere at sea.
“I suspect they will not go so far as to intentionally hurt the animals, but if they indeed have a flotilla of boats out there, the dolphins and people could inadvertently get injured,” said Robinett, who will be aboard the capture boat.
Wallerstein said at least eight boats operated by the Whale Rescue Team will be involved in the threatened blockage and perhaps “50 to 100 others” piloted by volunteers. Mainstream environmental groups have stayed out of the fray, leaving the generally more radical animal rights groups to lead the “Keep Our Dolphins Free” campaign.
“I’m not about violence,” Wallerstein said, “but I will do anything in my power to keep those dolphins free.”
The aquarium’s plans have been in the works since 1988, when it obtained a five-year federal permit to capture eight animals. Five were caught in 1989 off Monterey, but the controversy only emerged in recent months, fueled in part by the release of “Free Willy,” which depicts a boy’s efforts to free a captive whale.
The capture site was switched this year to Southern California because waters off Monterey were designated a national marine sanctuary. Waters near the Channel Islands also are off limits.
The animal rights activists feel so strongly in part because of a study this year by the national fisheries agency that showed many marine mammals have died prematurely in captivity, especially Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Of the 58 Pacific white-sided dolphins captured since 1973, 36 are dead, including one at the Shedd Aquarium that died of pneumonia six weeks after it was captured and 27 of 35 at Sea World venues, the report says. The average life span of those dying in captivity was 3.74 years, compared to about 30 years in the wild.
Aquarium officials say the data is deceiving because it is largely based on dolphin deaths in the 1970s and early 1980s before better caretaking methods were developed. The most recent death of a captive white-sided dolphin was in 1992, and the animal had lived in captivity for 12 1/2 years, the federal report said.
Capturing marine mammals for educational and research purposes is allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only with the permission and oversight of the national fisheries agency. An observer from the agency will be stationed aboard the vessel.
“People have a right to protest and we appreciate their opinions, but it is a valid permit,” said Terbush of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “It’s our job to proceed with the permit in a responsible way.
“Our main concern is for the animals. We don’t want any situation to make it more dangerous for the dolphins. Although the technique has been used before, there is always some risk to this.”
Terbush said if the aquarium is unable to complete its mission by Dec. 31, it must apply for an extension. Permission may not be forthcoming because the agency has proposed new guidelines for the permits, which require more public comment. Also, the Marine Mammal Protection Act is up for reauthorization by Congress next year and activists are pushing for a ban on captures.
“This is the end--the last chance that Shedd will have before this permit expires,” Terbush said.
Times staff writer David Dorion contributed to this story.
Here is a look at the Pacific white-sided dolphin:
Where: Often found near deep canyons, from Aleutians to tip of Baja California.
Markings: Black back, white belly with light-colored stripe on sides that begins at forehead and continues past dorsal fin.
Size: At 7 feet, 6 inches long, the smallest dolphin species off California
Numbers: Considered one of most abundant cetaceans along the California coast, but less familiar than the Common dolphin and Bottlenosed dolphin.
Captivity: Twenty-one are now in captivity.
Shedd Aquarium’s capture team will use a hoop net technique to catch the dolphins.
1) Nylon hoop net will be positioned at boat’s bow. When dolphin swims by, net will be lowered. Net will break away from metal hoop and animal will swim off with net draped around its head and just behind its dorsal fin.
2) As dolphin tires, usually within 200 feet, member of capture team retrieves animal using rope tether.
3) Dolphin is hoisted by stretcher onto deck. If animal is in poor health, pregnant or very young, it will be released.
4) During transport, animal’s skin will be kept moist. Lanolin will be spread on head and neck and protection will be provided from sun.
Sources: The Audubon Society’s Pacific Coast Nature Guide; National Marine Fisheries Service permit application for Shedd Aquarium.