From large mammals like manatees to small crustaceans like shrimp, people enjoy learning and interacting with the otherworldly creatures who live in the watery deep. Aquariums satisfy that curiosity, letting the general public look inside the world’s most unexplored habitat — the ocean.
While aquariums give animal-lovers a peek into marine life, only some have been able to directly witness the life of a dolphin named Honey. After hardships hit her aquarium, video footage of the dolphin revealed an unfortunate reality that forever changed the way people see marine parks…
It all began in 2005 during the annual dolphin drive in Taiji, Japan. This controversial event is when fishermen trap dolphins in the “killing cove” by banging on boat hulls to create a confusing sound wall.
Adrian Mylne / Reuters
Once the dolphins are trapped, fishermen handpick the most “attractive” dolphins to be sold to marine parks around the world, while the other dolphins are killed for their meat. Honey was deemed a beauty, so her life was spared.
It can be assumed that Honey was then put through 6 to 12 months of training, where she learned circus-type tricks before being sold to Inubosaki Marine Park near Tokyo, Japan for some serious cash.
For years, Honey spent her days providing entertainment for guests of the park with several other dolphins in a very small enclosure. But that all came to an abrupt stop in 2011.
The park fell onto hard times after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area, and over time, her fellow dolphins passed away. The two natural disasters ultimately led to a nuclear meltdown, which deterred tourists from visiting northeast Japan altogether.
Eventually, the Inubosaki Marine Park was forced to close their doors. The owner of the park was tasked with the responsibility of finding new homes for the animals with little to no regulatory guidance over the relocation of its residents.
The public paid no mind to the closure of the marine park — that is, until one activist group, Put an End to Animal Cruelty and Exploitation (PEACE), captured an eerie sight from inside the abandoned marine park…
Video footage showed Honey the dolphin floating in her small enclosure months after the abandonment of the aquarium. She was showing signs of stress, weakness, and strange behavior not normally seen in dolphins.
Honey, who was estimated to be around 20 years old, also didn’t have any shade to protect her from the sun. Thus, the small, shallow tank resulted in the development of skin issues. But activists were horrified to see that Honey wasn’t alone…
Also visible were 46 penguins cramped into a small holding area with an even smaller swimming pool. The only other sign of life at the abandoned marine park was one lone car in the parking lot of the facility.
Activists later discovered that hundreds of fish, reptiles, and other small marine animals had also been left behind inside the facility. And the car? Well, it belonged to a trainer who was solely tasked with only feeding the abandoned animals.
Angel Aquatics and Reptiles
Activists grew increasingly worried as the quality of food and quantity was unclear. When they tried to reach out to the aquarium owner for comment, they heard nothing.
Sachiko Azuma from PEACE stated, “I get feelings of danger and doubt from the fact that they are so silent about this.” Honey and the other animals’ fates were looking grim, and so Azuma and his team knew they needed to do something.
PEACE captured more video and photos of the animals trapped at the abandoned facility and spread the news online. They hoped to cause enough commotion to alert other organizations, so they could all join forces and get justice for Honey and her fellow friends.
The organization was able to get the attention of Ric O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project, who released this statement online, “The footage we have reviewed demonstrates the need to take action immediately in order to save Honey from a miserable death. The same is true for all of the abandoned animals at Inubosaki Marine Park Aquarium.”
Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP
From there, word quickly spread to animal welfare organizations. As of 2018, a proposal for Honey’s rehabilitation and release to the wild has been drafted. Ric O’Barry’s team has also been working hard to put pressure on the marine park to release Honey from their custody.
Although Honey remains at the park, under the close watch of multiple animal welfare organizations, Ric stated, “There’s definitely a bigger awareness about captive marine mammals in Japan that’s just starting to grow.”
At least Honey’s story has brought the long-debated topic of captive animals in aquariums back into the public eye. Now, aquarium goers must ask: were the animals purchased strictly for commercial use and gain, or were they rescued from a life-threatening situation?
Many times, the travelers who visit aquariums are unaware of the conditions animals live in; footage of Honey and the rest of the mammals at the Inubosaki Marine Park might change that.
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
And it already has. The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently withdrew its support of the annual dolphin hunt. Akiko Mitsunobu stated, “Honey is a symbol of both the problem of marine parks and Taiji’s hunting practices.”
While the initial footage of Honey stuck at the abandoned aquarium was disquieting to say the least, a Chicago-based aquarium’s video footage of a dolphin named Katrl captured a pure, beautiful moment that had guests cooing in awe.
It was 6:02 on a Monday morning when zoologists at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago noticed something poking out of the beloved resident dolphin, Katrl. Lisa Takaki, the museum’s senior director of marine mammals, was ecstatic.
Tail flukes jutted from the dolphin’s abdomen, a sign that she was giving birth! “As soon as those little tail flukes appear,” Lisa said, “you know it’s only a matter of time before you are about to witness something incredibly amazing.”
Shedd Aquarium / YouTube
In the wild, no one had ever seen a Pacific white-sided dolphin give birth. So over 40 veterinarians and training staff at Shedd Aquarium watched the dolphin intently—it was a scene they knew they wouldn’t see anywhere else.
Calmly and gracefully, the 28-year-old mother-to-be swam through her habitat, pushing the flukes—and baby—further and further out. She even visited the trainer’s platform for a herring snack at one point. (Hey, giving birth is hungry work!)
At 9:14 a.m., Katrl pushed out all three feet and 25 pounds of baby boy dolphin! Onlookers cheered when the baby took his first breath, the second milestone in a dolphin’s growth (the first being birth itself). The scene afterwards continued dazzling Shedd Aquarium employees.
Shedd Aquarium / YouTube
“To watch a dolphin be born is beautiful,” Lisa said, “but to also see its natural instincts fully take over in a matter of seconds as it kicks its tail to propel its little body to the surface to take its first breath is overwhelmingly emotional.”
Shedd Aquarium / YouTube
Shedd Aquarium’s CEO, Dr. Bridget Coughlin, felt the same way. “It was incredible,” she said. “Plus it was personally exhilarating. I was amazed at how big the calf [was] in comparison to Mom—nearly half her length.” Still, there was work to do…
Classic Chicago Magazine
Though Pacific white-sided dolphins are not seen in the wild, this was the third successful birth at Shedd Aquarium—and Katrl’s first. The zoologists, trainers, and veterinarians knew they’d have to help out the new mother.
“We’re watching both animals carefully,” Lisa said, “and recording their behaviors minute by minute to ensure their progress aligns with what we have seen in other successful calf births at Shedd.” Could Katrl cut it as a mother?
Shedd Aquarium zoologists knew that nursing would be the toughest thing for the newborn. It required the new mother to guide him to her recessed mammary glands—all while swimming. Luckily, Katrl had some practice…
Shedd Aquarium / YouTube
Before she gave birth, Shedd Aquarium trainers used a calf-shaped puppet to teach the pregnant dolphin how to present her mammary glands to her baby, something that wasn’t actually instinctual to newborn Pacific dolphins. Would the training pay off?
In a beautiful moment, the baby successfully latched on to his mother and began drinking her milk! Not only did the milk provide much-needed fat and proteins, but it contained colostrum, an antibody that would help stave off infection.
Shedd Aquarium / YouTube
Katrl immediately succeeded in other aspects of motherhood, too. She showed “signs of protectiveness,” Lisa said, “by steering her calf away from the sides of the habitat.” In the future, she would need to help her baby reach yet another milestone…
Of course, the baby had to grow! Whenever he wanted to eat, he nudged his mother’s belly to stimulate milk flow. As time passed, the baby’s “fetal folds” filled out, a sign he was gaining healthy weight. And then…
Next, Katrl and the trainers helped him achieve yet another milestone: discovering fish. Between one and three months old, trainers gave him toy fish to chew on. The first time he swallowed one was the trainer’s cue to begin the transition to an all-fish diet. This meant only one thing…
Brenna Hernandez / Shedd Aquarium
At about a year old—and with an all-fish diet—the calf could be fully weaned from his mother, the final milestone in dolphin adolescence. But before that happened, Shedd Aquarium had one pressing matter to take care of…
The baby needed a name! So the aquarium’s staff turned to their guests. Kids under 18 years old could vote on a few chosen names for the calf—Taashuka, Katnaanu, Kukdlaa, Kusti, and Lekwaa. After a week of voting, the results were in…
Meet Kukdlaa, pronounced KOOK-dlah. It was a name that meant “bubbles” in Tlingit, the language spoken by natives in Southern Alaska and Western Canada. These are both places where you might find a Pacific white-sided dolphin!
The birth of Kukdlaa was more than just the beauty of nature at work: it increased the Pacific white-sided dolphin population at accredited aquariums to 16, an important feat in helping scientists better understand the species.
And you can better understand the species when you check out the video below! Just witness the stunning moments before and after the birth of Kukdlaa that had Shedd Aquarium zoologists jumping with excitement!