MIAMI — Five bottlenose dolphins and an infant California sea lion died at Miami Seaquarium between March 2019 and April 2020 — an unusual number of deaths at a marine park that has been a frequent target of protests over the housing of Lolita the killer whale in the smallest orca tank in the nation.
Two dolphins and the sea lion died from trauma to the head and neck, while a third dolphin drowned after getting caught in a net that divides two pools at the attraction on Virginia Key. A fourth dolphin died from an unexplained gas embolism and another one was reported as having developmental abnormalities, according to federal records obtained by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There are currently 20 bottlenose dolphins living at the Seaquarium.
“These deaths occurred in just a little over a year, so it’s a very short span for so many animals. And the trauma-related deaths are clearly caused by the conditions of confinement at Seaquarium,” said Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel.
“Before another animal there dies horribly in a small tank, PETA is calling on the Miami Seaquarium to set in motion plans to send Lolita and the other remaining dolphins to seaside sanctuaries,” he said.
PETA obtained records of the animals’ deaths from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the National Inventory of Marine Mammals, a database of animals that are kept in captivity.
The number of deaths alarmed a NOAA Fisheries Services scientist, who in May 2020 sent an email to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the pattern of trauma-related fatalities among animals at Miami Seaquarium, the records show. The USDA is responsible for enforcing animal welfare laws and has the authority to cite marine animal exhibitors if there’s evidence of animal cruelty. The NOAA scientist also noted that two trauma-related deaths at the Seaquarium happened in 2015 and 2012.
A Miami Seaquarium representative said the marine park won’t share specific information about the deaths, but that “the health and safety of the animals is top of mind for us.”
“We do study the health and behaviors of our animals daily to make sure they have the best care possible,” she said. The Seaquarium currently has four pacific white-sided dolphins and 20 bottlenose dolphins, she added.
Email exchanges between Miami Seaquarium veterinarian Magdalena Rodriguez and NOAA staff describe some of the recent deaths.
A female California sea lion was just 17 months old and didn’t even have a name yet when it died in November 2019 from “acute subdural hemorrhage,” described as “acute cervical/head trauma.” The animal was housed with her mother, according to one of the emails Rodriguez sent NOAA to report the death.
Four months later, in March 2020, a 25-year-old bottlenose dolphin called Indigo died from multiple muscle injuries and hemorrhaging. “Most likely from a conspecific overnight since there had been a change in social structure,” Rodriguez’s email to NOAA reads, implying another dolphin could have caused the death.
The following month, an 18-year-old dolphin named Abaco died by drowning after getting entangled in a net that separates two pools.
“He had recently been moved from a pool with a single fenceline to one with middle pools,” Rodriguez wrote in one of her emails to NOAA, according to the records published by PETA. In April 2019, Echo, a 24-year-old bottlenose dolphin died from acute neck trauma in an incident in a pool with other dolphins, according to the records.
Animal rights activists have long protested at the Seaquarium, arguing that Lolita’s tank is too small and that she should be retired to a seaside sanctuary. Lolita was first captured off the coast of Washington 51 years ago.
Last month the Dolphin Company, a Mexico-based theme park operator, announced its intention to buy the Virginia Key marine park from California-based Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos, for an undisclosed amount. The sale is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
“We are proud to announce the addition of Miami Seaquarium to our Dolphin Family, and are pleased to have the opportunity to bring our experience of more than 25 years with marine mammals to the most popular attraction in South Florida,” Eduardo Albor, chief executive officer of The Dolphin Company, said in a statement.
The company doesn’t have any major changes planned for the park, a spokesperson said at the time. That includes continuing to use Lolita the killer whale, the park’s star attraction, in shows. First opened in 1955, the 38-acre Seaquarium hosted the TV show Flipper in the 1960s and was once home to the albino porpoise, Carolina Snowball. The park has said it draws around 500,000 visitors per year.
The park shut down in March of last year during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopened its doors in October.