I started out there in the education department as an animal educator. My duties included some of the same things Shelby Martin Dean and Danielle "Dani" Davidson do in my soon-to-be-published contemporary romance novel, The Shore Thing. Shelby is a volunteer at the fictional Gulf Shore Aquarium, while Dani is on staff there as an education specialist.
Because of a reorganization, Clearwater Marine Aquarium's education volunteers had the opportunity to transfer to the hospitality department, which focuses on "the guest experience." I do a lot of the same things for hospitality that I used to do in education, primarily interacting with guests and teaching them about marine creatures. Being with the hospitality department has allowed me to expand my horizons and also lead behind-the-scenes tours, host story time and give presentations on sea turtle anatomy, stingrays, Winter's prosthetic tail and pelicans.
Dani and Shelby also have other education department duties such as leading "eco" kayak tours and speaking at schools and other venues. And because of their personal relationships with folks in other departments at the aquarium, they get to help train the dolphins and care for a rescued baby dolphin. Except for speaking at a school once for the Great American Teach-in, I've done none of those "other" things for CMA. I just want to make that clear so people don't think that if they volunteer at their local aquarium, they'll spend their time playing with dolphins. Wouldn't we all love to do that?
While talking to dozens of guests in the course of my four-hour shift, I'm often asked my opinion about what I'll call "the marine mammal dilemma." That's a euphemism for the contentious topic of keeping dolphins, whales and other marine mammals in captivity, or "human care," as the industry prefers to call it. Specifically, I'm asked what I think about SeaWorld and the killer whales there.
I walk a fine line with my answer because, obviously, I'm representing Clearwater Marine Aquarium. I'm a very small cog in that big wheel, and I'm also no expert on the topic.
Ask me that question when I'm not on duty at CMA, and I'll tell you I've been visiting places like SeaWorld for most of my life and have always enjoyed them. Until fairly recently, I've never had any qualms about it. In fact, such places helped spur my love for dolphins particularly and marine life in general. That, by the way, is the argument that the "pro" contingent of the captivity debate uses: that the more people get to know these animals, the more they'll want to protect them in the wild. This point is a bit skewed given that SeaWorld and other aquariums in the United States used to pluck dolphins and whales from the wild, usually culling the more malleable babies from their family groups, causing panic and heartbreak in those ranks. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act now prohibits such practices in this country, but that's still business as usual in other parts of the world.
Now, however, after reading the book Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity and watching the documentary Blackfish, plus doing my own research, I've reconsidered my position. I'll unequivocally state that orcas do not belong in concrete pools. Even stripped of all the emotions swirling around this issue, that conclusion is, to me, a logical one.
I'm not ready yet, however, to say that dolphins, porpoises and smaller species of whales absolutely shouldn't be on display at aquariums. But I'm leaning in that direction when it comes to animals that are healthy enough or possess the necessary survival skills to live wild.
Those last two qualifiers are an important distinction. Clearwater Marine Aquarium currently has three resident dolphins: Winter, Hope and Nicholas. None of them could survive if released because they have no clue how to be wild dolphins. They were rescued as babies, too young to have learned all they'd need to know from their mothers. (Hope and Nicholas' mothers both died. Nobody knows what happened to Winter's mother. Did she die before her calf became hopelessly entangled in the crab trap line? Was she among the group of dolphins seen swimming nearby when Winter was found, helpless to do anything about her unfortunate circumstances?)
The aquarium has had other resident dolphins over the years, including Sunset Sam and Panama, that lived in the wild as adults but suffered physical problems that prevented their release after their rescue and rehabilitation. (Sam was partially blind. Panama was deaf and her teeth had worn down with age, making it very unlikely she'd be able to hunt successfully.)
I don't ever worry about "the marine mammal dilemma" where Clearwater Marine Aquarium is concerned because most of its resident animals wouldn't be there if they could survive in their natural habitats. (The exceptions are the fish, stingrays, crabs, sea snails, urchins, etc. that are kept for educational purposes, plus the two performing pelicans that played Rufus in Dolphin Tale.) CMA isn't a breeding facility or a commercial aquarium. It's a nonprofit marine animal hospital that welcomes visitors through its doors to help support its primary mission of rescue, rehab and release.
When I started writing my new Gulf Shore contemporary romance series, of which The Shore Thing is the first book, my conscience nagged me to address the "marine mammal dilemma." It's simply part of the equation when talking about aquariums. The fictional Gulf Shore Aquarium is a commercial enterprise, but it also actively participates in the three R's. Yes, I drew on a lot of things I've learned through my volunteer work at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but I am NOT writing about CMA. Or The Florida Aquarium. Or SeaWorld. Or any other real place.
Gulf Shore Aquarium is blend of fact, fiction and idealism. It's the kind of place I wish all commercial aquariums could be. The dolphins there are residents because they can't be wild. GSA doesn't breed them. And although the aquarium director expresses an interest in acquiring whales, his staff isn't wild about the idea.
In book two, tentatively titled Shore Feels Right, I introduce an animal activist named Tara Langley who heads a group called Stop Whale and Dolphin Suffering. Tara resents being compared to the crazies who ram whaling ships or throw paint at people wearing real fur. The farthest she'll go to express her displeasure is to picket across the street from the aquarium. When GSA's director foists her off on underlings, she begins a verbal and physical dance with head dolphin trainer Paul "Flipper" O'Riley. Sparks and intrigue ensue and carry over into Gulf Shore book three.
So this is how I've resolved my "marine mammal dilemma." In general, when Clearwater Marine Aquarium guests ask my opinion, I tell them that SeaWorld and other such places aren't the enemy; that they also do good things (such as the three R's). As a longtime newspaper journalist, I learned to keep an open mind and that a lot of issues aren't black or white. There are many shades of gray. (No, not that kind!)
Do you have your own "marine mammal dilemma"? I'd love to hear your opinion. There are just two rules: Be civil, and no personal attacks. This is an important issue, so let's get the dialogue going.