Virgin Holidays has today announced a three-year deal worth $300,000 with the US National Aquarium to move their dolphins to a sanctuary site – and hopes the ground-breaking project will pave the way for more natural, humane environments for cetaceans in tourism.
The National Aquarium plans to relocate its seven dolphins (Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Foster and Beau) from their indoor pool in Baltimore, to a much larger and more natural sanctuary habitat.
With this investment, Virgin Holidays is the first UK-based company to offer its support. The tour operator has spent the previous year assessing the various sanctuary projects currently in development around the world, and after consultation with experts decided on the National Aquarium’s ground-breaking initiative.
The exact location of the sanctuary site is yet to be determined but site selection is focused on Florida. The sanctuary will provide the dolphins with a much bigger living space, and allow them to enjoy a fully natural seaside location including ocean tides, temperature variations, and other natural ocean life such as fish, crabs and seaweed.
Virgin Holidays is the number one British tour operator to Florida, and is hopeful that the sanctuary will eventually welcome visitors when it is completed in 2020 – and lead to a significant industry shift in the way tourists currently interact with these animals.
Joe Thompson, Managing Director of Virgin Holidays, commented: "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."
As understanding of these animals grows, there has been a seismic shift in public opinion as to whether traditional forms of captivity are humane. In a poll of 1000 UK consumers*, 95% wanted to see tour operators change the way they work with attractions featuring whales and dolphins.
One of the major dilemmas for the tourism industry is the argument over whether those whales and dolphins currently in captivity can thrive in more natural settings – and Virgin Holidays and the National Aquarium hope this new project will show that more natural alternatives are viable.
The Aquarium has now embarked on a three-year "acclimatisation" plan to teach their dolphins new behaviours and prepare them for the eventual move. This includes encouraging them to drink water so their system can be flushed if they eat the wrong thing, raising the temperature in the tank to 26 degrees Celsius and allowing algae to grow, and teaching them to swim onto stretchers so the eventual transportation to their new home is successful.
In early 2017 Virgin Holidays announced the next evolution of its policy on captive whales and dolphins, which included a commitment to evolve its product offering to reflect changing consumer tastes and support the creation of coastal sanctuaries for whales and dolphins in captivity. This commitment to the National Aquarium fulfills that pledge.
John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium, commented: "The National Aquarium and Virgin Holidays share a global vision to reimagine how humans experience and connect with animals. We are committed to creating new options that allow animal welfare, conservation and education to naturally and responsibly intertwine. The Dolphin Sanctuary reflects our commitment to provide our animals the most natural environments through which to inspire the public to care for our ocean planet."
The National Aquarium Dolphin Sanctuary is complemented by a separate initiative that encourages the development of responsible wild whale and dolphin watching. Virgin Holidays has committed to a new two-year partnership with the World Cetacean Alliance that will see newly created Responsible Whale Watching Guidelines rolled out to all Virgin Holidays suppliers.
Suppliers will be encouraged to enhance the experience for customers by educating them about the marine environment while keeping a respectful distance from the animals. Excursion providers will also be given the opportunity to get involved in research projects to track the health and distribution of cetacean populations.
CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance, Dylan Walker 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."