The first thing I noticed flying in to St Petersburg was that they had a lot of seagrass beds…
“How in can a place with so many people have so much more seagrass than Stuart?” I thought to myself. “Well, number one, they don’t have releases from Lake Okeechobee destroying their estuary every few years, and they are known for the state’s most successful estuary restoration program–of Tampa Bay (http://www.tbep.org) something we are trying to emulate for the Indian River Lagoon (http://www.irlcouncil.com).
It was the new year’s weekend and Ed and I had decided to “get away.”
What I had forgotten is that Clearwater, our destination, is home to Winter and Hope, Indian River east coast dolphins who were rescued by Harbor Branch (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/) based in St Lucie County who were then rehabilitated at Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the west coast. These dolphins could not be released. Winter, an amputee due to a crab trap cutting off her tail, and Hope, an orphan who was suckling on her dead mother when found never learned life skills…
Today these dolphins are alive, friends, inspiring thousands of people including a multitude of veteran and children amputees, have starred in two feature films, and have made Clearwater a favorite nationwide family destination: (https://www.seewinter.com)
The experience of visiting the aquarium, made me think about how connected we all really are. How much we can do together. If Harbor Branch had not saved these IRL dolphins, Winter and Hope would not be the worldwide ambassadors for their species that they are today.
Yes, we are all connected across our great state! Happy 2018 Florida!
I have been told, that this Yiddish expression, used usually during a toast, means “to life!” I can’t say that I really understand the full essence of the word, as I am not Jewish, but I like the saying very much, and find myself exclaiming it all the time.
After all, life is good, isn’t it?
The story I am going to write about today, is one I have been wanting to write about for a very long time….it is the story of my struggle with the ethics of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Off the bat, I must say I am “not for such”…and the movie “Blackfish” was horrifying, but due to one very personal experience I have had, for me, there are exceptions….
First, I must go back…
In 2008, my husband Ed and I had only been married three years. After talking to friends who had had a good time at Sea World, we decided to visit Discovery Cove in Orlando. We were the typical clueless “tourists” and we looked forward to “swimming with the dolphins.” At the time, I did struggle a bit with the idea of marine mammals in captivity, but it was years before I became so wrapped up in the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon movement all all that comes with it, and honestly, at the time, I did not give it enough thought. I was just happy that I finally had a husband….
Once at Discovery Cove, Ed and I dressed in wet suits, and along with about twelve others, including young children, were introduced to our dolphin; she was just beautiful; her name was “Natasha.” She seemed happy and did what her trainers asked her to do. She kissed each one of us, “talked” to us, and took us for a short “ride.” The time was short, but indeed, we all felt as though we had bonded with her…
About half way through the show, Natasha was told to jump simultaneously with another dolphin. She jumped high and her body arched over the pool. Then I heard the slam of two bodies hitting hard and knew something had gone very wrong…Natasha and another dolphin had collided!
Natasha died there in the water as the Discovery Cove crew scrambled to get children and adults out of the pool. There was no explanation. They were trying to keep things in order. We went home. I was numb, and felt a sense of guilt and of anger…..
The next day, I pulled my “elected official card,” calling Sea World to get information; I got nothing. I was furious. I swore to myself that “never again” would I attend such a show, and “never again” would I support Sea World’s “Discovery Cove.”
Fast forward four years…
I had matured as an elected official and wife; I had become very involved in the river movement through the River Kidz of the Town of Sewall’s Point; and, I had become a volunteer in the marine mammal department with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Then came September 1st, 2012.
On September 1st, a call came in to all volunteers. 22 short finned pilot whales had stranded at Avalon Beach, in Ft Pierce, just across from the east side of the Indian River Lagoon. It was a weekend. Ed and and I sped up there meeting throngs of people from the public that had gathered. The state agencies of NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and FAU/Harbor Branch all came, but it was the public that was there first,and it was the public that shone that day— carrying bucket after bucket of water to cool the ailing whales’ skin, and covering them with towels to abate the hot, hot sun…
It was a scene I will never forget, as the huge mammals lost their lives to the elements in great writhing agony, with the public watching on in a dreadful sadness…many of the whales expired naturally while others had to euthanized —-these whales, once beached do not return to sea, beaching again, and again, and again, if they are returned….
The social bonds of pilot whales are one of the strongest in nature, and they stay together at all costs, even if it costs them their lives…strandings are thought to be caused by sickness or disorientation, but no one really knows. Families die together, never apart.
The most touching of all was that there were five calves that day. Four were juveniles and one was probably only a few days old. Their parents did not live and the whales had not the skills to be released…
After great thought, NOAA (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/) made the decision to place the four calfs in the Harbor Branch ambulance and take them to the institution’s facility. The small whales were carefully nursed and cared for day and night, one died but the rest made it. They were later officially deemed “unreleasable,” by NOAA and then transported to Sea World— the only facility fitted to care for the animals.
I have to admit I was happy for them when the took them away to Sea World. I was happy that they didn’t die. I was happy that they had each other no matter how horrible the past few days had been. I was happy that human beings have a heart and that I had witnessed it on the beach that day with strangers that suddenly were working together for a common cause…..
I did think about Natasha that died at Discovery Cove—but…..
Fast forward to 2015….
I receive a phone call. “The pilot whales are performing at Sea World. ” I am sent pictures. Their names are the same are as they were when named by the public that day…. I am happy for them. I am proud of them. I am a hypocrite. I can’t help myself. I choose life—I do. With all its complications, with all its imperfections….