Dolphin education/encounter project opens to public

It's an initiative that has been launched all over the world ... human interaction with marine animals in an enclosed environment. But when the idea took root in Belize, local conservationists expressed concern that captivity would tarnish the country's image as having abundant wildlife in natural ecosystems. Earlier this week, cameraman George Tillett and I travelled nine miles from the old capital to Spanish Lookout Caye for an up close and personal look at Belize's first dolphin project.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Dolphins in the wild are a common sight in Belizean waters but starting this month, visitors to Spanish Bay Resort on Spanish Lookout Caye will get the opportunity to have a dolphin encounter.

For the past two years, officials of the Hugh Parkey Foundation have been navigating bureaucratic channels to establish Belize’s first dolphin research, education and interaction project.

In late April four Bottlenose dolphins--two males and two females--were imported from Roatan Honduras to Belize.

Mika is the acrobat; Maury is the middle child; Ronnie is the little one and Bill is the stud.

The mammals are four to six years old and each weighs around three hundred pounds. The animals will eat an average of twenty pounds of herring and capeling a day. The foundation already estimates they will have to import a whopping forty thousand pounds of fish for just one year of feedings.

Aggie Obara, Head Trainer
“Everyday I’m learning something from these animals, that’s what inspires me everyday.”

Aggie Obara is head dolphin trainer at Spanish Bay.

Aggie Obara
“Our training is on the mental stimulation, the physical stimulation, also environment enrichment. As you can see here, we have an incredible dolphin lagoon. We have the natural system of the mangrove surrounding us, we have the beach area, we have crabs running around, we have different species of fish and the dolphins are having a great time catching the mullet that’s in there that we’re having a hard time with as well.”

Janelle Chanona
“Why is that a problem, if they eat other fish?”

Aggie Obara
“Well, the interaction between a dolphin and trainer is primary upon the relationship that they have. Food is the primary enforcer but the rubdown, the eye contact is secondary. But their bellies may get full and they may be coming to us, but sometimes I think they may prefer the fish that’s out there.”

There are four daily dolphin training sessions at Spanish Bay. Before getting in the water, trainers must prepare the food in the “fish kitchen”. Special preparations are taken to ensure that it’s safe to feed the frozen fish to the dolphins.

Cesar Vasquez is one of two local dolphin trainers at Spanish Bay.

Cesar Vasquez, Dolphin Trainer
“It’s just amazing working with these animals. You just got have a lot of patience and give them a lot of attention. It’s like having a second child.”

Vasquez spent the better part of the year in Honduras becoming best friends with “Bill”.

Cesar Vasquez
“This is just one simple whistle we all have the same whistle, but it’s so amazing that the dolphin could hear exactly where that whistle is coming from, so we could bridge all four of us together and they know exactly where this is coming from. They just have an amazing hearing underwater and above as well. What we have here is not that we are keeping them blocked from the wild. This is something that a lot of Belizeans could learn from, what exactly they do and their life. Living in captivity, it’s just something that Belizeans got to watch and see what we are doing here. It’s going to benefit a lot of them as well.”

For Simon Villanueva, working with “Mika” is a dream come through.

Simon Villanueva, Dolphin Trainer
“I never thought I’d get a job like this. And actually, first time actually, touching one of these dolphins was like a “WOW!” actually being close to one. These here are born in captivity and they love to play a lot, so that was a good feeling. Feeling one, hugging them and even spending them with them diving. They actually like you around. They love the human contact.”

Teresa Parkey, Hugh Parkey Foundation
“We are not stewards ourselves in taking care of what we have, how can we expect someone else to do it for us?”

According to one of the founders of the Hugh Parkey Foundation, Teresa Parkey the “e” in encounter stands for education.

Teresa Parkey
“Like many people know, Hugh had this philosophy that he didn’t believe in preaching conservation but for the life of him he couldn’t imagine people getting in the water and people not falling in love with it. We all believe strongly that it’s the right thing to do to give back. And as long as we can continue to do that, that’s our motivation is the satisfaction we see on people’s faces, whether it’s the guests, whether it’s the kids that come out here. There’s nothing more fun than being out here and seeing the kids when they arrive on the caye or maybe they see wild dolphin on the way out or they see manatee here or just seeing them get involved, it’s the right thing to do, I can’t really explain it any other way other than that.”

Before getting in the wet, visitors participate in an information session on dolphins, learning everything from the animal’s anatomy to its future as a species. Located nine miles from Belize City, Parkey hopes Spanish Bay will become an educational base for students of all ages.

Teresa Parkey
“We have teacher training workshops that we run at least twice a year. And the teachers that have participated in those workshops, once they’ve gone through a certain number of lessons that are part of the curriculum then they are able to set up the field trips to come out.”

During the planning stages, the foundation was criticized for capitalizing on the captivity of animals. Parkey maintains that the visitors to Spanish Bay who pay to scuba dive, snorkel or kayak will subsidize the dolphin project.

Teresa Parkey
“That’s also a little of what caused some of the controversy because of the commercial activities working with our non-profit. I feel strongly, I’m not good at going out and asking for donations. So it was important to me that we put some sort of mechanism in place so that our commercial activities could help fund our research and education projects that need to happen. We believe strongly that they need to happen. We are fortunate we do have some donors, but anybody who wants to participate whether it’s an individual or a corporate donor we welcome the support. Again the more people that we can get exposed to the research, it’s the right thing to do.”

And if the News Five encounter with the dolphins of Spanish Bay is any indication, the project should enjoy a tidal wave of success.

After a thirty day quarantine by the Belize Agricultural Health Authority, the first official dolphin encounter took place today at Spanish Bay. For Belizeans, the cost of the experience is one hundred dollars, while visitors pay one hundred U.S. If you would like to arrange a trip, contact the Hugh Parkey Foundation at 223-4526.

Channel 5 News


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