The Dolfinarium projects crumbling coral reefs on the large screens behind the basin. During the “educational presentation”, a voice-over explains how nature is getting worse at the hands of humans. The families in the stands mainly stare at the rippling water, in which dolphins swim circles. “Dolphins also make beautiful jumps in nature,” says the voice.
Three of the animals pace along the edges of the bright blue lit pool. Once up to speed, they jump out of the water in sync. Children cling to seats: Woahhh! One dolphin does a backflip, another swings a flipper. The public in Harderwijk is always impressed. The audio wallpaper also tells about the problems that the plastic soup causes in the ocean.
The unfamiliar combination of plastic soup and somersaults stems from criticism of the Dolfinarium, which is increasingly playing tricks on the organization. The ANWB, HEMA and several supermarket chains have already ended their cooperation with the marine mammal park. At the beginning of this month, a new setback followed: the NS decided at the end of September to no longer offer so-called combi deals, after action group Bite Back had brought its concerns about animal welfare to the attention.
Does the Dolfinarium still have a future? The park seems to be caught between changing public opinion and visitors who mainly pay for spectacular jumping dolphins. The director, who answered questions by email, is trying to shift the park’s focus to ‘edutainment’. At the same time, he is convinced that dolphins will retain a central position in the park for the next fifty years.
Thanks to the movie Pinball (1963) and subsequent television series dolphins became popular. The Dolfinarium was founded in 1965 by Frits den Herder, owner of a shipping company and a playground. He collected marine mammals and wanted to teach “knowledge and respect” about the animals with the park.
The Dolfinarium attracted 400,000 visitors in the first year, which doubled in the second year and approached the Efteling, where more than a million guests per year came at the time. Polygoon newsreels showed dolphins tapping balls with their noses.
In the course of the 1990s, the view of zoos changed. There was increasing criticism of the confinement of animals. “Whereas the emphasis in zoos was previously primarily on earning money, it shifted to a socially idealistic organization,” says zoo expert and higher professional education teacher at the tourism course at Breda University, Goof Lukken.
The Dolfinarium, where visitor numbers declined, moved along with that development. At the end of the nineties, it built a lagoon for 25 million guilders, which was considered revolutionary at the time. It was a closed ecosystem with seawater. The Dolfinarium built a story around the enclosure about how humans and animals should live together, inspired by the Kwakwaka’wakw population group in Canada.
The innovative structure was a wish of the former Dolfinarium director and owner Ruud de Clercq, who wanted to build an enclosure that approximated the natural habitat of the mammals. The lagoon turned out to be a crowd puller: around the noughties the Dolfinarium again attracted more than a million visitors a year.
In 2001, De Clercq, who was also director of Efteling, sold the park to the French Grévin et Compagnie, which later became part of Compagnie des Alpes, a company that rented ski lifts and was looking for a summer addition to their winter portfolio. According to a recent reconstruction of The Gelderlander things went the wrong way from then on. Former employees tell that newspaper that the French considered the shows more important than animal welfare. They saw investments in playgrounds, restaurants, shops and a 3D screen for the dolphin show. But not in renewing the outdated basins.
Changing public opinion made investment decisions difficult, says Paul van Rijswijk, who hosts the ZooInside podcast. “Building new facilities is extremely expensive, with the risk that dolphin keeping will be banned within a few years.”
Visitor numbers fell again. In 2015, the French sold the animal park for 18 million euros to the Spanish Aspro Parks, owner of several dolphinariums, aquariums, water parks, swimming pools and spas in Europe. To get an idea of the amount, the news site compares Looopings.nl that with other investments in amusement parks: it is about the same as one roller coaster in the Efteling. In the early 1910s, the park suffered millions of losses every year and was technically bankrupt in 2017. An investment of 2.5 million euros from Aspro Parks kept the Dolfinarium alive, but some of the employees had to leave.
Since then, the company has opted for a two-track policy for Harderwijk, says tourism researcher Lukken. “On the one hand, they want to see how long dolphinariums can be kept in society in their current form, on the other hand, they are focusing on entertainment, for example building a water park that dolphins have nothing to do with.”
In 2018, the Dolfinarium developed such a water park with open-air water slides. Visitors can also go to a mermaid show about the plastic soup. Animals do not play a role in the performance. According to director Alex Tiebot, this should be seen as a “new form of entertainment”, replacing the entertainment in the animal shows.
The lack of investment in improving animal welfare is worrying action groups such as Bite Back. Animal rights activist Raymond Olivers, involved with Bite Back, has been handing out flyers at the entrance of the Dolfinarium every month for ten years now. He believes that animals should not be locked up in small basins, certainly not intelligent animals that are very active in the wild, and the Dolfinarium does not pay attention to this. “They swim between fifty and eighty kilometers a day. They need a lot of space,” he says in a telephone conversation.
Bite Back talks with partners of the Dolfinarium. She requests them to end the partnership with the park. The action group was recently successful at the NS. Bite Back has momentum, the activists feel. “Visitor numbers are declining, awareness is growing. It is the right time to step up the pressure,” says Olivers.
In 2020, the park was told by the ministry that it had to change course. The then minister Carola Schouten (Agriculture, CU) was critical after an investigation by the Visitation Committee Zoos. He rated the level of animal care and training as high, but was critical of the shows, the enclosures and the interaction of the public with the animals, including the photo opportunities. The light at the shows was too bright for the animals, which also had to display unnatural behaviour. Schouten thought that had to change. The Dolfinarium promised improvement.
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It also clashed with other Dutch zoos. In 2019, the Dolfinarium left the Dutch Association of Zoos and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Part of the membership is visiting other zoos, researching and investing in animal welfare. In the opinion of the other zoos, this happened too little and caused tension between the parks. At the time, director Tiebot registered the Stentor that step to the broadening course towards entertainment, for example with the water park. Now he says against NRC that canceling the memberships was a way to become financially healthy. But the Dolfinarium has not saved more than 15,000 euros per year per membership. Incidentally, the dolphinarium is a member of the European Association for Aquatic Mammals trade association.
The Dolphinarium also faced a lawsuit over a possible relocation of eight dolphins, two walruses and two sea lions to Hainan Ocean Paradise water park in China. The intended result: more space for the remaining animals in the park. Animal welfare organizations, however, were afraid that the dolphins in China would have a less good life. The judge ruled that one dolphin was not allowed to go abroad anyway. For the other animals, the situation in China had to be further investigated.
Karen Soeters, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of animal welfare organizations Sea Shepherd and House of Animals, says that no information has yet been provided about this. Director Tiebot does not want to comment on the possible move, as long as procedures are still underway.
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The Dolfinarium wants to inspire a new generation of conservationists with the park, Tiebot writes in his e-mail NRC. It continues to develop for that, he says. “In 2015, we made an important shift from pure entertainment to edutainment, with a focus on animal welfare and education.” No more shows with unnatural behavior, according to the director. The company developed teaching programs for primary schools and the plastic soup is also mentioned on social media. And the park collaborates with universities such as Utrecht University, the director writes.
And the instructions of zookeepers who make seals jump in exchange for food or sea lions roar on command? “When a child sees a Steller sea lion roar at the request of our caretaker, curiosity arises. This leads to deepening, and this leads to a better understanding of nature.” Dolphins in captivity are part of this, is Tiebot’s conviction. “Our animals live to a great age,” he writes. “Our lagoon is one of the largest dolphin habitats in Europe, and I believe we can continue for many years to come.”
Since 2017, the Dolfinarium no longer publishes visitor figures and since 2018 no annual accounts. So it is difficult to determine how the park is doing now. Tiebot says that the Dolfinarium has been making a profit for several years now.
Those profits are only gradually invested in the park, according to visitor Ferry Tang (72), who is visiting with grandson Xavi (11). He sees peeling paint in playgrounds and wooden dolphins that almost fall off the wall. He used to visit the Dolfinarium with his children and now finds it outdated. “It feels like faded glory.”
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A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on August 23, 2023.
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