Meet. Love. Protect.

Working methods of the dolphinarium

The dolphinarium at Boudewijn Seapark Bruges: more than just a presentation…
Our motto is Meet. Love. Protect.

Our highest priorities are the welfare of, respect for and love for our animals. That’s why we condemn the killing of dolphins in Taiji or mistreatment of any animal. It is unacceptable that animals are killed in a cruel or unnecessarily violent manner and without regard to the effect on the survival of that species.
Boudewijn Seapark does not support any zoo that does not make animal welfare a top priority. Modern zoos have to set an example of how we should treat animals and how we can contribute to the conservation of their species in the wild. That is why we would like to explain to you how our dolphinarium works and show the truth behind certain myths.

Living environment

Is the dolphinarium in compliance with all standards and legislation?

Belgian and European law

The dolphinarium at Boudewijn Seapark is licensed as a zoo. This means that the park meets all requirements for zoos stated in Belgian law:
We comply with the legal requirements regarding housing and care of our animals, hygiene requirements and veterinary oversight. Furthermore, information about the species kept is being supplied and there is a special educational package for schools, adapted to the different ages. In addition, there is also an educational package for our participants in the various programmes offered with our animals. We also actively participate in coordinated international breeding and exchange programs for all species. The park also meets all European requirements described in EU Directive 1999/22/EC on the keeping of wild animals in zoo.

EAAM

The dolphinarium is a member of EAAM (European Association for Aquatic Mammals; www.eaam.org). This is an organisation that shares knowledge among dolphinariums, trainers, veterinarians, researchers, and students. EAAM imposes very strict guidelines on its members for keeping marine mammals. Members must comply with the rules and are checked regularly. EAAM is the only European organisation that represents the interests of marine mammals. Its guidelines are even stricter than Belgian law on certain points. In 2016, the dolphinarium underwent such an inspection and the conclusion was that we met all EAAM guidelines.

How large are the pools for the dolphins, sea lions and seals? And how many litres of water do they hold?

The dolphinarium at Boudewijn Seapark contains almost 3 million litres of salt water. The front pool is about 37 metres long, 13 metres wide and almost 6 metres deep. There is also a rear pool that is connected to the main basin by means of a channel. This rear pool can be used as a quarantine or maternity pool in the case of sick or pregnant dolphins.

Our Californian sea lions live in their own habitat outside the dolphinarium, in the sea lion theatre. They have a total of 410 thousand litres of salt water, divided over an indoor and outdoor pool. Around the pool, there is a land area where the sea lions can rest or give birth. Here, too, a quarantine or maternity pool is present.

The common seals live outside all year round in their seal lagoon that contains 300 thousand litres of salt water. This species also lives off the Belgian coast during the winter and can protect itself against the cold winters with a thick layer of fat. Around the pools, there are several sandy and grassy beaches where our seals can rest or give birth. A quarantine or maternity pool is present here, as well.

The water is filtered and checked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our caretakers check the water several times a day for a number of important parameters. Water is the most important element in our animals’ environment.

How many dolphins can Boudewijn Seapark house?

According to Belgian law, the dolphinarium has enough space to house 7 adult dolphins. Currently there are 6 adult dolphins and 2 calves.

Animal welfare

Are the animals happy?

In answering this question, it’s important to look at it from the animal’s point of view. Animal happiness is determined by the presence of sufficient food and the absence of threats. In addition, our marine mammals live in groups in which they are socially involved. Because of that, we can say that the animals are happy. We can come to this conclusion thanks to our years of experience and specialisation in the care of our marine mammals. Many behaviours that the animals exhibit in nature (species-specific behaviour), they also exhibit with us. If the animals sometimes demonstrate abnormal behaviour, our professional team of caretakers and veterinarians notices straight away.

Do dolphins live longer in the wild?

The latest studies show that dolphins do not necessarily live longer in the wild than in captivity. In these kinds of comparisons, the median age is often used. This means the age at which there are as many older living animals as younger. The data for the studies from the wild come mainly from what are called residential groups, including the one in Sarasota bay off the coast of America. The median age from 1 year for this group is 17.4 years, while the median age from 1 year for dolphins in zoos in America is 35. But dolphins can grow even older, the oldest known living dolphin in the wild was 69. Puck is the oldest dolphin at Boudewijn Seapark. She was born in 1966! Can you figure out how old she is?

Can dolphins adapt to a smaller environment like the dolphinarium?

Although the dolphinarium pool can never match their natural habitat, bottlenose dolphins do not have to be able to swim long distances and dive deep to survive. Residential or coastal dolphins also exist in nature. These groups of dolphins live in shallow areas off the coast, often with a maximum depth of 3 to 5 meters. Swimming in nature is mainly related to the search for food, socialisation, flight from natural enemies or threats caused by humans. For example, a large group of coastal dolphins live in Sarasota Bay, a natural bay off the coast of Florida in America. The dolphins stay there in low tide and never leave. This is because this bay is very rich in fish, so the dolphins don’t have to swim for miles to find food. Other groups of coastal dolphins can be found in Sado, Portugal and Moray Firth, Scotland. The health or welfare of dolphins is independent of the number of kilometers they swim per day. Health and safety are mainly related to the availability of food and the absence of enemies or threats. Bottlenose dolphins are a very flexible species that can easily adapt to their habitat.

Do dolphins use their sonar in the dolphinarium?

Dolphins produce sound (sonar) that they transmit forward, and they capture the echo that then reflects back from the object in front of them using their lower jaw. They use their sonar to search for food, escape from natural enemies, navigate, stay with the group, and communicate with each other.

Studies of dolphin sonar use, both in the wild and in zoos, have shown that the animals can regulate the strength of their sonar and even switch it on and off.
In 2017, Boudewijn Seapark participated in a scientific study by the University of Paris. They recorded the sonar* to learn more about the communication between our dolphins.
Dolphins have a totally different hearing sensitivity than humans. For example, we humans hear low tones well, while dolphins hear the high-frequency tones better.

*Lopez-Marulanda, J., Adam, O., Blanchard, T., Vallée, M., Cazau, D., Delfour, F. (2017). First results of an underwater 360° HD audio-video device for etho-acoustical studies on bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)

Are the dolphins bothered by the music and applause during a performance?

The dolphins are not affected by these sounds. We as humans can hear sounds between the frequency range of 15 Hz to 20,000 Hz. That is different for dolphins. Dolphins’ hearing works especially well underwater. They produce high-frequency sounds for their sonar. Dolphins can therefore hear sounds between 75,000 Hz and 150,000 Hz, a range that is inaudible to humans. The hearing sensitivity of dolphins is thus far above the sound tones that we as humans produce during the performance, for example. Physically, the sound level also decreases at the transition from air to water. The dolphins are not bothered by these sounds.

Where did the dolphins that are currently in the dolphinarium come from?

70% of the European population in the various zoos were born in captivity. This will only increase in the coming years due to successful reproduction in European zoos. Wild dolphins have never been imported into Europe from Japanese hunting. Boudewijn Seapark strongly condemns these hunts and distances itself from them. That is why we actively participate in the international breeding programme from the EEP – European Endangered Species Program.

Do dolphin calves live longer in nature after birth?

Did you know that 1 in 2 newborn dolphin calves does not make it to the end of its first year of life? Many young wild dolphins die, just like other young animals that live in the wild, during the first 2 years of their lives. They are very sensitive to diseases, natural enemies and natural disasters during that time. Studies of dead dolphins that have washed ashore in the Indian River in America show that 38% die before reaching 2 years of age and 64% die before reaching 10 years of age.

In 2015, two dolphin calves were successfully born in the dolphinarium: Moana and Ori.

How it works

Why do you train the animals?

There are 4 main reasons why we train:
1. Physical and mental stimulation (enrichment)
2. Better care for the animals (medical training)
2. To educate our audiences
4. Research

Here, the animals do not have to hunt for their food. We have to fill the time they spend in nature doing that in a different way here. That is why it is necessary to stimulate the animals physically and mentally. Every day we run a very diverse programme that covers all kinds of different training types: health training, water training, physical training such as jumps, research, etc. We look at the behaviours they exhibit in nature and try to teach those behaviours to our animals.
When learning new behaviors, we work with a training method called ‘Positive reinforcement’. If the animals exhibit a good behaviour, something positive is brought into their environment. This can be a primary reward like fish. However, this can also be a secondary reward such as attention from the caretakers in the form of caressing, clapping, cheering, favourite toys for the animals, ice cubes, etc.

We also teach the animals exercises that make it easier to take care of them. This is called medical training or husbandry. An example of medical training is the weighing position. We teach the animals to lie down on a large scale. We can also take blood voluntarily to see if they are healthy. The medical training is mainly meant to monitor their health without having to catch the animals in a stressful way.
The caretakers have one goal in mind: enrich our animals’ day as diversely as possible. No day should be the same for our animals.

If the animals do not want to participate, will they still be fed?

The animals are always fed. The diet of our animals does not depend on their efforts during training or presentations, but on their body weight. All animals are therefore voluntarily weighed twice a month, so that we can determine their diet accurately.
In addition, rewards consists not only of food but also attention from the caretaker, or maybe the animals’ favourite toys. They receive these different rewards after they have done something good. We only emphasise the good and positive elements during a training. We ignore everything else and try to convert it into something positive. When an animal does not want to work with us, we try something else. That way we always manage to get the animals excited about working with us.

What kind of educational programmes does the dolphinarium offer?

The aim of the dolphinarium is to introduce our visitors to our special marine mammals. By bringing the visitors face to face with our animals during presentations and various programs, we hope that they will get emotionally involved with our animals. Visitors learn a lot about the life of our marine mammals in the park, but also about the life and way of life of their peers in the wild. This way we hope that after a visit to Boudewijn Seapark, our visitors will play a (more) active role in the conservation of different species in nature.
Visitors learn a lot during our various presentations with our animals. There are also several educational panels with information about the biology and ecology of the different marine mammal species in the wild. In 2017, a new exhibition was added with the theme ‘Belly full of waste’. Visitors learn more about the plastic waste in the sea, which poses a major threat to animals in nature.
During the programs with our animals, participants are given a lot of information about the species and their environment in nature from our professional team of caretakers.
For school children a special educational package is available with which we take the children into the world of marine mammals. The teacher receives educational worksheets in advance so they can prepare the students for their visit to the park. During their visit, there is an exclusive educational presentation with our sea lions and dolphins, tailored to the level of the students.

Does the dolphinarium participate in scientific research?

Yes, the dolphinarium regularly participates in national and international research projects.
In 2006, Boudewijn Seapark, at the European level, successfully sought a method to reduce unwanted bycatches of dolphins in trawler fisheries. More information about the research can be found here.
In 2005 and 2006 the University of Utrecht conducted a behavioural study with our bottlenose dolphins.
In 2008, the Veterinary Department of the University of Utrecht developed a method for better medical monitoring of the eyes of sea lions. A treatment method was developed for eye problems.
Thanks to years of research, a measuring method was developed in the dolphinarium for baby dolphins while they are still in the womb. This way, during pregnancy, you can perfectly see how big the unborn dolphin is already and whether everything is going according to plan. This measurement method has become an international standard in other dolphinariums.
In 2017, research began into the use of sonar as a means of communication in dolphins. Do dolphins have a certain ‘language’ they use to communicate with each other? At different times of the day, the dolphins’ sonar is recorded using underwater microphones. During this research, the University of Paris, department of neuroscience, and the University of Ghent, department of veterinary medicine, worked together to collect and process the data.

If you are a researcher or student and would also like to contribute to increasing our knowledge of marine mammals, please send an e-mail to:[email protected]

Does the dolphinarium participate in any conservation?

Boudewijn Seapark works to preserve the species in the wild in different ways:
1. Visitor education; highlighting to visitors the vulnerability of nature and the active role they can play in protecting the species in the wild.
2. Research; increasing knowledge about the species so that we can protect them more effectively in nature.
3. Cooperation with EAAM; conservation project to protect the monk seal in the Mediterranean Sea.

Does the dolphinarium offer training?

The dolphinarium also serves as a training centre. The caretakers train different students each year. Animal Care, Veterinary Medicine and Biology students from Belgium and the Netherlands do internships at the dolphinarium for several months. They follow the caretakers during their daily care of the marine mammals.

What kind of socially focused work is the dolphinarium doing?

The dolphinarium works together with the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre at UZ Gent. Under the guidance of therapists, the children continue their therapy in the dolphinarium.
The dolphinarium has also worked together for years with organisations such as Make-A-Wish®, Dreams4Kids, KinderDroomwens and BrailleLiga to make the dreams of sick children or children with disabilities come true.
We have recently started working with a local, specialised school for students with autism.

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