BAYWORLD‘S beloved dolphins Domino and Dumisa have arrived safely in Hong Kong after leaving Port Elizabeth on Wednesday night.
Spokesman Sandra Sampayo said the dolphins were doing "great".
With great care and military precision, they were transferred on Wednesday night from the pool where they have spent their whole lives, loaded into a specially designed crate, trucked to the airport and then lifted into a waiting DC8 chartered aircraft.
They left at 9pm bound for Hong Kong. Bayworld senior curator Robyn Greyling and many in her team were in tears.
Lying next to each other in their stretchers beneath a covering of wet towels, the dolphins occasionally lifted their heads and chirruped quietly, but they seemed calm.
Security around the operation has been super-tight because of concerns about the dolphins‘ welfare.
The Herald did not know when they were leaving until Tuesday and agreed to keep the departure time secret to avoid crowds at the airport upsetting the dolphins.
The operation started at 6pm with Greyling summoning Domino and Dumisa to the medical pool with a special whistle, a procedure they have practised for years because they need to regularly be checked by a veterinarian. Two stretchers were lowered into the water and at another instruction the dolphins swam into them.
With an icy wind blowing, Greyling, her colleagues and Ocean Park general curator Grant Abel and chief veterinarian Paolo Martelli waded around, easing the dolphins into position and ensuring their flippers were positioned correctly through holes cut for the purpose.
Members of the team took turns massaging their heads, which they love. They were then winched out the water and half a dozen helpers carried them into the Bayworld carpark where they were winched up again and lowered into their crate.
The bottom of the crate is lined with a layer of foam, and three tons of water will be pumped in beneath this foam to ensure that there is minimal pressure on the dolphins‘ tummies and that they also stay cool.
Because dolphins are mammals, they can breathe out of water for an indefinite time, but their skin has to remain moist.
Although they are mammals, they will not be enjoying a snooze the way we would cooped up on a long flight. This is because dolphins are conscious breathers, meaning that in order to breathe they have to be awake. Instead, they have perfected the technique of cat-napping by “closing down” half their brains.
Abel, an Australian with 30 years‘ experience in similar operations, explained that dolphins also cannot sweat, so it is important to prevent them getting too warm. For this reason, efforts will be made to keep the water pumped into their crates at a constant 18°C.
There are 300 staff at Ocean Park and 44 in the marine mammal department alone.
They are not as “academically inclined” as Bayworld and do not have an historical or cultural section, but they do have other creatures ranging from pandas to many birds.
They receive about five million visitors a year and their blue-chip environmental education centre includes a “theatre” which seats 3500. As part of their education programme, they have established a trust which funds outside conservation projects.
Martelli is one of four resident vets. Talking to The Herald before the operation on Wednesday night, he explained that he and Dr Andrew Mackay, Bayworld‘s consulting vet, would be monitoring the dolphins constantly on the plane to check their anxiety levels. They will use a stethoscope and listen for any untoward signs, and watch out for any irritable moving around.
Sedatives will be administered if necessary, but the dolphins have been well prepared. Greyling and her team have practised the move out of the Bayworld pool, into the crate and across to the airport many times.
Scientific debate on whether there were any genetic differences between Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins in different parts of the world was still raging, Martelli said.
“These dolphins and ours at Ocean Park are the same sub-species, but dolphins are very tribal in terms of what they eat, for instance.
“This depends on what the prey fish migrations are in that part of the world. But we feed them very similar things as you do, so there should be no problem with them adapting,” he said. “Here, they eat pilchard. There, they will eat herring or squid.”
The partnership established between Bayworld and Ocean Park revolves around introducing Domino and Dumisa into a breeding programme with other dolphins of the same sub-species, to strengthen the genes of their offspring and to avoid possible second generation in-breeding between them.
Bayworld director Sylvia van Zyl said she and her team had been hugely relieved to have found Ocean Park as a partner in this regard. “They are an institution with the will and the means and the experience to make this move a great success.”
The challenge now was for Bayworld to “think out of the box” and find a way to showcase their other hugely valuable animals and exhibits, ranging from historic artefacts to rare fish and endangered creatures like the African penguin, she said.
Just as things were getting busy prior to the start of the operation yesterday evening, a rainbow appeared and hung in the heavens for 15 minutes, right over Bayworld.
Delighted members of the local trans-location team said it was a good omen that the trip would go smoothly and that their beloved dolphins would be happy.