Do 'Dolphin Encounters' Depend on Inhumane Captures?

ByABC News

Oct. 27, 2005 — -- The enticing Mexican beach resort city of Cancun is one of the hottest vacation destinations for Americans. From the luxurious hotels that line its white-sand beaches to the antics of spring break, its turquoise-colored waters draw thousands of tourists from the United States every year.

As this top-notch vacation destination continues to gain in popularity, more tourists are coming to Cancun with a very specific purpose: an up-close and personal encounter with a dolphin.

"People demand more and more," said Mauricio Martinez, director of Parque Nizuc, a Cancun water park that features dolphins. "People love it."

But as the number of tourists demanding time with the animals continues to swell, so does the business of capturing them, sometimes under what activists consider deplorable conditions.

At places like Parque Nizuc, tourists pay more than $100 each for a chance to pet, kiss or even be propelled through the water by dolphins.

With a single dolphin capable of generating $1 million a year, business is good. But is life good for the dolphins?

Martinez thinks so.

"I think they are very happy here," he said. "They have customers who enjoy being with them -- they are enriched, they are motivated."

But when animal activist Ric O'Barry visits a dolphin park, he sees a much darker reality.

"The dolphin smile is nature's greatest deception; it creates the illusion they actually like doing this job," O'Barry said. "But if this dolphin were laying up on the dock dead, it would still look like it's smiling."

During the 1960s, O'Barry became the man who introduced a generation of Americans to dolphins as the trainer for the television show "Flipper."

Five dolphins were used to play the role, and O'Barry says he captured all of them himself, something that eventually made him hate his work.

"The concept of a humane capture is an oxymoron -- there is no such animal," he said. "I've captured over a hundred dolphins myself, humanely, and I can tell you it's a lot like rape. It's a very violent procedure."

For O'Barry, the final straw was when his favorite "Flipper" dolphin died in his arms from what he says was stress and depression.

That was 30 years ago, and ever since he and other activists have fought tirelessly to put an end to dolphin captures.

He and his peers have helped produce changes in the United States and Mexico, which have banned or restricted the taking of dolphins from the wild.

In fact, no dolphin park in the United States has brought in a captive dolphin in more than 10 years. Yet, in other parts of the world, the demand for captive dolphins remains high.

Brokers, who can make up to $100,000 per animal, are scouring the globe for new supplies all the time.

That's why Chris Porter, the biggest dolphin broker in the world -- a man hated by animal activists, but who considers himself a friend and protector of dolphins -- says his conservation efforts are so important.

"What I provide is an alternative," he said. "I think in order to impact change you need to provide an alternative."

Porter has made a business of buying and selling dolphins -- a practice he says is in the interest of conservation, not profit.

"If it wasn't good for the dolphins, I wouldn't do it," he said.

But O'Barry says Porter is nothing more than a greedy businessman looking to make a profit from a detestable trade.

In 2003, Porter came to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific where every year hundreds of wild dolphins are hunted and killed by native fishermen.

He bought up almost a hundred dolphins -- the largest single dolphin capture recorded -- and quickly found himself under siege as activists began showing up on his doorstep, demanding to see the animals.

"Prior to my arrival no one was even aware of the Solomon Islands, or that they actually killed dolphins on such a large-scale basis," Porter said.

But Dave Phillips, environmentalist and executive director of the Earth Island Institute, says what Porter did was not bring attention to a barbaric practice or save the animals as he claims, but instead lined his pockets with blood money.

"The Solomon captures by Porter were horrific," said Phillips. "Really the worst instance of capture for dolphin trafficking in the world."

Phillips says Porter came to the little-known Solomons to buy dolphins under the radar.

"At a time when most countries would have thrown Porter in jail for engaging in the activities," he said, "here he had found a place where he could slip out 100 or 200 dolphins a year. This was the Mecca of dolphin trafficking."

But Porter insists he's looking for a humane solution and says a properly run marine park is a great alternative that gives a dolphin a home and allows people to gain respect and appreciation.

"I think in order to impact change you need to provide an alternative," he said. "You can simply not abstain from it and that's where I differ with the activists."

O'Barry doesn't trust Porter in part because, as a former trainer, he says he would often deceive the public about his role in captures.

"How is he saving them? He might be saving that one, but he's contributing to the slaughter of 20,000 more by keeping them in business," he said. "He's not an environmentalist, he's a dolphin hunter -- he's a dolphin dealer."

O'Barry says activists have found that many of Porter's dolphins were actually caught in parts of the Solomon Islands where no hunt exists -- a claim Porter denies.

Porter, however, downplays his plans to resell many of the dolphins to parks around the world.

In his first deal, 28 of the Solomon Islands dolphins made the trip halfway around the world to Parque Nizuc in Mexico. The incredible profit Porter is believed to have made from the deal is something he is not anxious to discuss.

"I'm not shy about the number," he claimed. "We're a private company and we have confidentiality agreement with different organizations."

Porter claims that, regardless of the number, any profits he makes from selling dolphins are recycled into his various conservation efforts, including a new dolphin resort he's building in the Solomons.

Meanwhile, the Earth Island Institute has convinced the Solomons government into slapping a ban on any future dolphin exports

"What were the Solomons getting out of Porter's plans? A few dollars and a lot of bad public attention." said Phillips.

With Porter insisting his business was intended to help dolphin conservation efforts, "Primetime" investigated what exactly happened to the 28 dolphins that were shipped to Cancun.

According to documents obtained from the Mexican Wildlife Department, in just 1 ½ years, six of the dolphins died from a variety of causes. Martinez, the director of Parque Nizuc, said his facility gave the dolphins the best care possible, and had a difficult time explaining the deaths.

"That's one of the realities of the business of dolphins, monkeys, horses, whatever," he said.

As far as the dolphins left behind in the Solomon Islands, Porter admitted that in May, seven of the animals died from food poisoning and all 12 of a special breed known as spotted dolphins also died in captivity.

Despite the creatures' deaths and accusations that he simply shouldn't be dealing in dolphins, Porter sees the alternative for the animals as unacceptable.

"Apathy is terrible, and by doing nothing is terrible," he explained. "If I have the opportunity to save 12 animals from a hunt, I really question why am I a bad guy? I think it's worse to leave those 12 animals knowing that they're destined to die."

O'Barry sees things a little differently, saying that fighting to stop what is wrong is the only way.

But O'Barry's biggest opponent may not be brokers like Porter, but the growing streams of tourists eager for a close-up peek at the dolphins' friendly faces.