Former trainer shares heartbreaking story of Makaiko the dolphin
I met Makaiko the dolphin while working as a marine mammal trainer at an attraction in Mexico in 2001, 19 years ago. This is the story of his life performing for people. But it’s also the sad reality for thousands of other dolphins trapped in captivity for tourist entertainment
By Lorena Kya Lopez, a former marine mammal trainer
Early years in Japan
Makaiko (meaning ‘inner strength’), a bottlenose dolphin, was born in 1996 in the waters of Taiji, Japan. He lived with his large family: around 80 members belonged to his pod.
They socialised with other pods and spent their days playing and roaming the Pacific Ocean’s reefs, enjoying the large amount of food available to them.
The pod demonstrated solidarity and cooperation with each other, which helped to protect them and make them stronger. If a dolphin from their pod fell ill, they would all join forces and help the dolphin recover.
Life was exactly as it should be.
But one dark day, as the dolphins were going about their daily business, loud motorboats approached the pod.
They were trying to get away from these boats. Mothers were trying to find their young. The leaders of the pods whistled to urge their family members to get away too.
During the chaos, something heavy started falling around some of the dolphins, including Makaiko. It was the hunting nets people use to capture dolphins to slaughter and sell them for their meat or for other parts of the cruel global wildlife trade. This trade includes using live dolphins to be sold to dolphinariums for tourist entertainment.
While the water turned red from the blood of the dolphins who tried to escape or were killed, Makaiko was lifted out of the water, unable to move in the net.
Makaiko had been captured. And so began the rest of his life in captivity.
The first days of captivity
After Makaiko was captured, he was transported in a stretcher that hurt his fins and belly. He was sprayed with water to keep his skin from drying out. Knowing what we know about dolphins, this must have been a painful, stressful and scary moment for the dolphins.
After arriving at his temporary new home, he was placed in a small tank. The water in this tank didn’t come from the ocean, and was treated with chemicals to keep it clean.
This place was just very different from the ocean. Very empty, sterile and quiet.
It took a few days in the new place before Makaiko – and his sibling Kumiko, who was also there – got food for the first time. They had been swimming in their tank, looking for food, but there was nothing in it.
It wasn’t until they went to the surface and people approached them and started throwing dead fish at them that they had a chance to eat. The dead fish were not as nutritious as the food they would normally get in the ocean, but at that point, it was better than nothing.
The people who looked after for them tried to teach them tricks right from the start, rewarding Makaiko and the other dolphins with food only if they complied.
Transport to Mexico
Makaiko stayed at the dolphinarium in Japan for 10 months. Then, one day all of a sudden, he and his sister were pulled out of the water, put in the transport stretcher again, after which they were put in a dolphin transportation box.
In that box, they couldn’t see anything, they could only hear. They were in that box, out of water, for a full 56 hours. The people taking them put a special cream on them which prevented their skin from drying out, but it also meant their skin couldn’t breathe.
Makaiko started bleeding and was clearly hurting but nothing was done to alleviate his pain.
After 56 hours, they arrived in Mexico.
Living in Mexico
After Makaiko and his sister Kumiko arrived in Mexico, which is when I first met them, they were put in an even smaller tank than the one they been living in in Japan. They got to meet other dolphins who lived there as well: Miku, who was only two years old – she was mischievous but very sweet – and Rocko, a young male who was strong and kind. Both of them were born in captivity in tanks in Japan so they had never seen the ocean.
In this dolphin venue in Mexico City, called Six Flags, different people took care of them and also taught them the tricks they had been trying to learn in Japan.
I was one of the carers of both Makaiko and Kumiko. Another time, I can tell you more about Kumiko, but for now, I will just say that Kumiko became depressed after her arrival in Mexico, and did not live very long.
After staying a while at Six Flags, Makaiko – together with Miku and Rocko – was once again put in the transport stretcher that hurt him so much, and was transported to another dolphin venue in Isla Mujeres, taking over 16 hours.
The dolphins were bleeding upon their arrival at this dolphin venue where I was also taking care of them as I moved with the dolphins from Mexico City to Isla Mujeres.
As I said, this journey brought them to the Caribbean waters at Isla Mujeres, where the tanks were slightly bigger and the water warmer.
Becoming an entertainer
This is where they were properly trained to become entertainers in the dolphin industry.
They were trained for hours on end, forced to do tricks such as jumping up and down, pushing people at their feet. They had to endure us touching them and getting in the water with them for hours and hours.
The dolphins had to push us, the trainers, with their noses, lifting us on their dorsal fins, and even jumping over our heads. And like in Japan, if the dolphins weren’t complying with what was asked of them they would be denied food.
I would always come back at night to give them some extra food so they wouldn’t be as hungry.
The water was too warm, leading to skin irritations and fungus infections. The sun was too bright, causing skin burns.
The dolphins were getting weaker each day.
I would take care of the burns and the skin problems as much as possible and I would try to be soothing and calming towards the dolphins. I would even go in the water and just hang out with them, rather than asking them to perform tricks all the time.
I like to believe that it made a difference to their physical and mental well-being, but of course, the overall circumstances were very difficult for the dolphins.
There was no doubt that they were suffering.
At some point, there was talk of rescuing the dolphins and bringing them to a seaside sanctuary, but this mission failed. Someone had alerted the dolphin venue that the government would be confiscating the animals, so they had time to move them to a legal shelter and as such, stop the confiscation of the animals.
Not a ‘good enough’ entertainer
At the same time, I got fired from the job because I was involved with the rescue mission, which the dolphin venue found out about.
After I was fired, the dolphins had been left behind without food or clean water. I came back one more time to say goodbye, and it was one of the hardest days of my life. The dolphins stayed in their place for about two months, with people only coming in to feed them and to train them.
Then, once again, Makaiko’s live was turned upside down: he was left behind in his home, alone.
The other dolphins had been taken to another dolphin venue on a Caribbean Island, to start their lives as entertainers, but Makaiko was said to be a ‘foolish’ dolphin who didn’t listen to orders and was too big and heavy so he wouldn’t be transported to the other dolphin venue.
He stayed alone for some time, without food, and with a growing sense of anxiety he started banging his head against the walls. At some point, people would come in with dead fish, and to clean the water. This was the only time Makaiko wasn’t alone.
Makaiko was rescued by the government after Miku and Rocko had been taken away and I then had the chance to look after Makaiko again.
After his rescue, Makaiko was placed with a company called Aqua World that was supposed to take better care of the dolphins. Me and another person were hired by Aqua World to rehabilitate Makaiko. This is when Makaiko’s rehabilitation process started.
We took care of him, fed him, kept him company and made sure he was as well as he possibly could be in captivity, mentally and physically. We also filled his pool with sea water, instead of the water treated with chemicals, and we spent hours cleaning the pools to avoid the seaweeds from growing too rapidly.
It was clear that Makaiko was sad, as he once again started banging his head against the walls and we tried everything to stop him from hurting himself.
Through the rehabilitation, he eventually did start to feel better. More and more kind people helped out with his care. Overall, the rehabilitation took 12 months.
Finally, Makaiko was transported to Dolphin Discovery at Isla Mujeres, where he would spent the last four years of his life.
At this new venue, he could swim in sea water but was still confined to only a very small part of the sea due to the barriers in the water.
There, every day, he performed tricks for many people, only being fed during the performance sessions and afterwards as a reward. It must have been so boring, the same thing day in day out, knowing that he loved roaming the ocean in Japan.
Makaiko’s final days
Makaiko and the other sea animals at the venue that were working as entertainers had to be temporarily moved to the place where he had been rehabilitated because of Tropical Storm Emily.
On his return to the venue, which was partially destroyed by the storm, he was put in the water, which was still quite rough from the storm. Nets had been put down due to the destruction and Makaiko got tangled up in them.
The people looking after them didn’t see any of this, so Makaiko died. He lay tangled up in the nets in the dolphin venue where he was exploited to entertain thousands of people.
No dolphin should have to endure the same sad life and death that Makaiko did.
That is why I joined forces with World Animal Protection: to share the story, to raise awareness and to work against the dolphin entertainment industry.
This cruel industry is part of the global wildlife trade, which subjects millions of wild animals to suffering every day, and puts people and the planet at risk too.
Help end it by signing World Animal Protection’s petition urging global leaders to end the trade. Forever.