Animal rights activists and dolphin zoo set aside enmity to collaborate on sea sanctuary

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Long-running battle ends as coronavirus takes its toll on Coffs Harbour dolphin park

On the north coast of New South Wales, two traditional enemies have put aside their longstanding differences for a common goal: dolphins.

As the impact of coronavirus has hit the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park in Coffs Harbour, the zoo’s owners and animal rights advocates have come together to propose a radical plan – housing the animals in a semi-open sea enclosure.

Under a proposal from the marine park, the group Action for Dolphins and World Animal Protection, the zoo’s dolphins will be released from their concrete pools and live into a sectioned-off area of the Coffs Harbour marina.

Terry Goodall, the managing director of the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park, said it was like “polar opposites working together”.

Jordan Sosnowski, advocacy director of Action for Dolphins, said it was a “very unique collaboration” between the marine park, and her group, which opposes keeping animals in captivity.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the world,” she said.

“They were our nemeses in the past,” Goodall told Guardian Australia. “Now we are holding hands and walking down the road together, trying to solve the problem. It’s just a complete and utter turnaround. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree on the wellbeing of the dolphins.”

The marine park currently houses three bottlenose dolphins: Zippy 32, Bella, 15, and Jet, 11, and it has been hit hard by closures enforced by Covid-19 restrictions.

Because all three have been raised solely in captivity, they cannot survive in the wild, Goodall said. After becoming manager of the park in August 2018, Goodall said he spoke to Sosnowski, who proposed the idea of the open sea enclosure.

This would give the dolphins 10 times the space they currently have, and visitors would be able to see them in the marina.

“We have had a long-running battle with them over the past few years, quite a few years in fact. When I came on board, I met with Jordan from Action for Dolphins. I invited her in, and we just sat down talking.

“They had always wanted the dolphins released back into the wild. I said they simply can’t be released back into the wild. They had never seen a shark. So they wouldn’t last two minutes … Ideally, they would be wild in the ocean, but they can’t be, so the sea sanctuary is the next best option.”

Sosnowski agreed the dolphins could not be safely released into the wild because they didn’t have the necessary skills needed to survive.

“A sea sanctuary is a humane compromise which will allow the animals to live in the ocean and have a lot more autonomy, whilst still ensuring they are looked after and fed by caregivers,” Sosnowski said.

Together, the groups have been approaching the government for funding, and promoting the benefits of the idea.

He said that as well as being a tourist attraction, the enclosure could act as a “halfway house” for the rehabilitation of stranded wild dolphins or whales.

“This little park generates something like $15m a year into the local economy,” he said. “So we don’t want to lose it.”

“A sea sanctuary like this one has huge potential for the city of Coffs Harbour, providing much-needed jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic, boosting tourism and most importantly, providing a better life for the dolphins,” Sosnowski said.

And as they wait, the dolphins have been missing their human visitors during Covid-19, Goodall said.

“They do like human interaction. Far be it for me to more anthropomorphic about this, but you can see it. They swim around looking out of the pool all the time. They have balls they play with – they throw them out, expecting people to throw them back in. They end up playing ball with themselves.”

The unlikely allies have made several approaches to the local federal MP Pat Conaghan, the state MP Gurmesh Singh and the local council.

“You have got to build the breakwalls, you have to build the nets – so we are probably talking $9m to $10m,” Goodall said. “We are probably going to end up putting a Go Fund Me program together.”

But both the park and the activists are determined to push ahead.

“We can’t release them into the wild because it would be a death sentence, so what other options are there?” Goodall said. “Nobody wants to see them swimming around in concrete lagoons. Whilst it is expensive, and politically fraught, it is a solution. And it’s a bloody good one.”

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