The beluga whale show at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

China's Marine Park Boom Is Driving the Capture of Whales and Dolphins

For the first time in decades, orcas are being hunted to supply the rapidly expanding industry's marine mammal shows.
Jun 14, 2016· 22 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

ZHUHAI, China—If Dr. Seuss designed a marine park, the result might look something like Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. On a sweltering Saturday in June, I join thousands of people—families pushing strollers, grandparents with toddlers in tow, gaggles of teenagers—streaming through the portal to the park, an undulating faux-coral canyon the size of an airport hangar called Deep Sea Fantasy. Tree-high anemones in Day-Glo yellow, pink, and orange sprout from the sandstone-colored walls. High above hovers a football-field-long manta ray, its belly a horizontal LED screen pulsating with gigantic hammerheads and psychedelic-colored fish that swim toward the 10-story-tall statue of a bright blue whale shark that looms over the Ocean Kingdom as if it had just burst from the sea.

A techno-color meld of SeaWorld and Six Flags, Chimelong’s roller coaster and splash rides snake around the world’s largest aquarium and exhibits of whales, dolphins, seals, polar bears, walruses, penguins, and manatees. Seeking relief from the double-digit heat and humidity, I stroll past the Happy Bump Bump Bump bumper cars toward the Polar Horizon section of the sprawling 326-acre park on the southern China coast in Guangdong province. Inside a building adorned with fake snowflakes and icicles, people are crowding around a picture window, peering into a dimly lit tank. After a minute, a ghostly white beluga whale glides up to the window and is soon joined by four others, provoking gleeful cries from onlookers as they raise their selfie sticks and start snapping away. It’s easy to see why. The belugas’ flexible necks allow them to nod their heads, and their otherworldly facial expressions give them the appearance of friendly and inquisitive aliens. A Chimelong employee tells us that 13 of these Arctic marine mammals live in this small rock-lined tank. In the wild, belugas, which are classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, typically dive 1,000 feet or more in search of prey. But their tank at Chimelong is barely deep enough for the 13-foot-long, 3,000-pound animals to plunge more than three feet. These white whales live in a fluorescent world—no natural light penetrates their tank or the adjacent 4,000-seat Beluga Theater, where the animals perform 30-minute Las Vegas–style shows up to five times a day.

It’s time for the first show, and the stadium-style seating that faces the stage—a raised semicircle-shaped pool with a see-through front—is filling up. While an announcer keeps up a rapid-fire patter, eight belugas swim into the pool and face eight trainers standing on a ledge. The whales dive, raising their tails to “wave” to the clapping and cheering audience before diving again, gathering speed and leaping high out of the water, falling on their backs with a splash. At the trainers’ signal, the belugas prop themselves up against the glass front of the stage and start “singing” to the audience. (The highly social animals live in family groups and communicate with one another in the wild through whistles, squeals, chirps, and clicks, but not in unison and not in a chorus line.) Submerging themselves and gulping, the whales jump up into the air and spit jets of water toward the front row of the theater. Four audience members chosen at random come down to pet the whales and receive a “kiss” from the animals. Two white spheres are lowered from the ceiling of the theater, and belugas leap out of the water to tap them while other whales use their tails to catapult big red and blue balls into the audience.

FULL COVERAGE Captive: The Movement to Free Marine Mammals

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. (Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

One by one, the trainers, who reward their charges with a fish after each task, dive into the water to be pushed across the pool by the belugas, two of which beach themselves on concrete platforms. The trainers stay in the water to “dance” with the whales, which lift their bodies out of the pool and twirl around. For the grand finale, the trainers turn the whales into living surfboards, balancing on the animals’ backs just behind their necks as they ride around the pool waving to the audience. Taison Chang, a research associate at the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society who has accompanied me to Chimelong, shakes his head as he takes photos with a long-lens camera to document the whales’ treatment. “Those are not natural behaviors,” he says grimly.

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Nor are they isolated ones. China is in the midst of a marine park building boom, with 39 facilities in operation and at least 14 more under construction. They range from Disney-size parks like Chimelong—considered the industry’s flagship—to shopping mall aquariums that shoehorn belugas and other animals into tiny tanks. China holds some 500 marine mammals in captivity, according to government records and an investigation by the China Cetacean Alliance, an international coalition that includes the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. The alliance’s goal is to persuade the Chinese public of the immorality of keeping highly intelligent and social animals in captivity. It’s a tough task: A year after its opening, Chimelong became the world’s 13th-most-visited theme park in 2015, attracting 7.5 million customers paying $53 a ticket. That’s a 40 percent increase in attendance from 2014. China’s seemingly insatiable demand for whales and dolphins is driving a shadowy international trade in the capture of wild marine mammals that conservationists fear threatens the survival of several species.

(Map: Getty Images; Marc Fusco)

The country has yet to perfect the captive breeding techniques that allowed marine parks in the United States to stop capturing wild marine mammals 30 years ago. Here, when a dolphin dies it must be replaced by one captured from the wild, keeping in business the brutal annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. Taiji has supplied at least 70 dolphins—each worth between $150,000 and $1 million—to Chinese marine parks over the past four years, according to Ceta-Base, a nonprofit that tracks the marine mammal trade. The country has also imported 209 wild bottlenose dolphins since 2010, along with dozens of other dolphin species. The United States government last year prohibited the Georgia Aquarium from buying 18 beluga whales from Russia owing to uncertainty over the impact on the wild population. China, meanwhile, has imported as many as 114 wild belugas from Russia since 2010, including the 13 being held at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. A single beluga can fetch a quarter-million dollars or more.

Even as SeaWorld moves to end breeding of killer whales and activists hope to resettle captive orcas in sea pens, the ocean’s top predator is being hunted in Russia to supply marine parks in China willing to pay $3 million to $5 million or more for an orca. Decades after other countries banned the capture of killer whales, the Russian government permitted the catch of more than a dozen between 2013 and 2015, according to Ceta-Base. That deeply worries marine mammal experts. Killer whales are highly social marine mammals that live in lifelong family groups. The particular population targeted by hunters for sale to Chinese and Russian marine parks may number only in the hundreds. “If there’s only a few dozen being caught, that’s a lot of captures,” says Erich Hoyt, a renowned killer whale expert who serves as senior research fellow at the conservation group Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom and codirector of the Far East Russia Orca Project. “You’re not just eliminating a breeding unit, which is significant in itself. You may be affecting the future of the species.”

That’s another reason Chang and I have come to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. No killer whales so far have appeared at any marine park in China. Yet records from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species show that seven killer whales have been exported to China from Russia since 2013. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has confirmed to activists that nine killer whales have been imported from Russia to Guangdong province, and multiple industry sources have told them the buyer is Chimelong.

So where are they?

The Russian Connection

Jeff Foster made his living in the 1970s and ’80s capturing killer whales in the Pacific Northwest and Iceland for SeaWorld and other marine parks. He quit the business in 1990, increasingly troubled by tearing orcas away from their families. Then in early 2011 came the call that almost lured Foster out of retirement.

On the line was a European animal broker who said his clients were prepared to pay Foster $7 million to capture eight killer whales off Russia’s Pacific coast. “He was working for the Chinese and the Russians,” says Foster, who had embarked on a new career as a marine mammal researcher and anti-captivity advocate. “The Chinese were the buyers, and the Russians had the permits. They wanted to bring me in to do the capture and transport and initial training of the animals. The Russians had been trying to capture killer whales for 15 years, and they just didn’t have qualified people showing them how to do it.”

Marine biologist and former orca hunter Jeff Foster. (Photo: Jeff Foster/Facebook)

Foster never learned the identity of the Chinese buyers. “The broker kept it very vague. He just said they were Chinese, and they had a lot of money.” Apparently so. On top of the $7 million capture fee, the buyers would have had to pay the Russians between $25 million and $80 million for the orcas and bear the multimillion-dollar cost of transporting the giant animals thousands of miles. Foster’s job would be to capture the killer whales and train them to eat dead fish and to perform basic “behaviors,” such as submitting to a medical exam. “You blow the whistle and give them a fish when they do something right,” he says. When the orcas were ready, Foster would oversee their transport to China.

With the capture of wild orcas banned in the United States, Canada, Iceland, and Europe, the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East has become one of the last legal hunting grounds for killer whales. “They felt they would only be able to catch animals for two or maybe three years before the environmental activists would become a problem,” Foster says of his potential clients. “It was more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime, so it was tempting. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”

The hunt, however, went on.

Russian companies learned how to capture killer whales, and in October 2013, seven orcas were taken in the Sea of Okhotsk, Ceta-Base records show, and at least five more were taken in 2014 and 2015. Obtaining information on the hunts and the fate of captured killer whales in a remote region of Russia is difficult, according to activists. Outsiders are not welcomed, but Hoyt and other scientists at the Far East Russia Orca Project have spent 17 years studying the area’s killer whales and receive data from informants about the hunts. It is known, for instance, that after capture the animals must endure a more-than-600-mile journey by truck to small holding pens in the port city of Nakhodka. “It’s really difficult to get into the holding facility, but people have sent us photos,” says Hoyt. “The pens are always small, but that’s part of their game. They’re trying to get the orcas used to living in a little box.”

Orcas are captured in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East and then put in small containers for transport and eventual export to marine parks in China or Russia. (Photos: Russian Orcas/Facebook)

A series of photos show an orca being lowered by crane into a box barely bigger than the animal. The shipping container is lined with a blue tarp, and two men are filling it with water. A crane then lifts the closed container onto a tractor-trailer. In other photos, an orca floats in a small holding pen. “It looks like some of them are going fairly quickly to China,” says Hoyt. “We don’t know much about how they get there. That’s the stuff done in the dead of the night.”

Mitchel Kalmanson knows. “Some of them get flown, some are shipped by truck, and I was involved with one of them that moved by barge coast to coast,” says Kalmanson, a Florida-based marine mammal consultant and broker who specializes in the transportation of animals. He says a London insurer hired him to monitor the preparations for transport of killer whales from Russia to China in 2014. By truck. The journey took seven to 10 days. He won’t reveal the identity of the buyer and says he doesn’t know the fate or the orca that was subjected to what must have been a grueling ordeal.

“Transporting by truck puts far more stress on the animals,” says Kalmanson. “In a truck, you have road hazards, you have to change the water in the container, you have to filter out urine and feces, and you have to have a lot of ice. And the animals can only lay down so much. You have to go over mountains on narrow roads.”

It sounds insane. Why take such risks with a multimillion-dollar “asset” and make a killer whale suffer distress? Money, for one thing. It can cost several hundred thousand dollars to put a killer whale on a plane, according to Kalmanson. Activists, for another. “Most people won’t talk about the marine mammal trade because it’s underground—not because it’s illegal but because of the activists,” he says. “We use unmarked aircraft, unmarked airlines, and out-of-the-way runways to move these animals because they don’t want activists to know about it. A truck is a lot easier to hide than a plane.”

And so, apparently, are nine killer whales.

The Sea Lion in the Bathroom

Once marine mammals arrive in China they’re kept out of sight until they’re trained to perform in shows. “They have a lot of holding areas, and they’re marginal,” says Kalmanson, noting that he has worked as a consultant to Chimelong. “I was in North China one day, and they had just brought in 11 beluga whales. They were being held in a pool with a bad water-filtration system that was inside a building that you’d think was an apartment complex if you were walking by on the street.”

Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist and a veteran anti-captivity activist with the Animal Welfare Institute, which participated in the China Cetacean Alliance’s investigation of Chinese marine parks. “These marine parks look like they’re from the ’60s, and they’re brand-new,” says Rose. “Paint is chipping, and everything is rusting. There appears to be no construction standards.”

Taison Chang surveys for pink dolphins. (Photo: Todd Woody)

One mainland investigator working for the alliance went into a restroom at one marine park and encountered a sea lion pup in a stall, according to Rose. “She thought it must have escaped, but an employee told her that they were deliberately holding the sea lion there as they had run out of space.”

Photos published in the alliance’s December 2015 report also show beluga whales, an Arctic species, housed in a tank adjacent to one holding bottlenose dolphins, which live in temperate and tropical climates. “Whatever the temperature, it’s too cold for the bottlenoses and too hot for belugas,” Rose says.

Chang, 28, worked at Hong Kong Ocean Park monitoring water quality until he became disillusioned with captivity and joined the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. “It’s very difficult for a person who loves animals to work there,” he says. While Ocean Park’s veterinarians were well trained, he notes that many mainland marine parks lack the staff and expertise to properly care for marine mammals. “In some facilities in China they don’t even have a vet for the animals,” says Chang. “They don’t have the professional staff to care for belugas or know what is a suitable environment for them.”

Even at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, considered to have the highest standards of the mainland marine parks, we see conditions that would trigger protests by animal rights activists in the U.S. or Europe. The opening act for the beluga show, for instance, is a performance by five Pacific white-sided dolphins. Again, the animals, accustomed to temperate to cool oceans, are swimming in the same pool as cold-water belugas.

Chimelong representatives did not respond to requests for comment on conditions at the park.

A polar bear stares stoically at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. (Photo: Todd Woody)

We head over to Polar Horizon, walking past North American and Asian brown bears lying on rock ledges outside the exhibit building as the sun beats down. Inside, a polar bear paces along the perimeter of its enclosure while another polar bear floats, Buddha-like, in a glass-bottomed pool, its back to a glass wall. A parade of people files past, snapping photos inches from the Arctic predator. Others stare up at the bear from a viewing area beneath the pool. Behind another glass wall, five Arctic wolves run endless circles around a small room outfitted with rock walls and painted-on snow. Arctic foxes lie limp over a rock wall in another small enclosure.

Samuel Hung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, says it’s difficult to assess how many marine mammals have died at China marine parks, unlike in the U.S., where such facilities are required to report deaths to regulators. But comparing import records to the number of animals held at the parks gives a rough estimate. For instance, Chimelong has imported 18 belugas, according to the cetacean alliance investigation, but only 13 are on display.

“They’re simply consuming them,” says Rose of China’s marine parks. “Russia has been exporting on average 20 belugas a year to China. There isn’t enough capacity in China to absorb that many beluga whales, meaning that they’re dying and being replaced.”

Visitors watch a whale shark at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. (Photo: Todd Woody)

Chang is particularly interested in Chimelong’s whale sharks. The park boasts of holding eight of the world’s largest fish in the world’s largest aquarium. It is visually impressive. On the other side of an acrylic window 130 feet long and 27 feet high, majestic 40-foot-long, 40,000-pound whale sharks sail through the 6-million-gallon aquarium amid giant manta rays and a plethora of tropical fish. We only count six whale sharks, which are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The supersize fish can live as long as 100 years in the wild, but a study of whale sharks at a Japanese aquarium found they only survive an average of 502 days in captivity. A Chimelong staffer insists there are eight whale sharks in the aquarium. “You just can’t see them all,” she says. Then it’s feeding time, and all the whale sharks gather around a boat at the surface, each shark holding its body vertical and motionless, its mouth open to receive food. We count again. There are only six.

As we roam around the park looking for where the nine killer whales might be held, I learn the orcas have indeed been sighted in China—on Instagram.

Where Are China's Orcas?

The photo shows a killer whale floating in a darkened pool, its head peeking above the surface, the water reflecting fluorescent lights. The location is tagged "Chimelong Ocean Kingdom," and the image was posted in February on Instagram by Chen Guoliang, a marine mammal trainer at the park. One of Chimelong’s Russian trainers, Maria Mirtova, “liked” the photo. A second photo posted by Chen shows two orcas side by side poking their heads out of a pool. Chang says the photos were quickly taken down, along with other photos of the marine park and any indication that Chen worked at Chimelong—but not before activists took screen shots.

A trainer at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom posted photos of orcas believed to be held near the marine park. (Photos: Instagram)

Chang says a source who works for Chimelong told the activists that the orcas were being held nearby. “We have solid information that the killer whales are being held on a military base, though we don’t know the exact location," he says.

A Chimelong Ocean Kingdom representative told TakePart in an emailed statement that the marine park does not have "kill whales for shows." There are indications, however, that Chimelong is preparing for orca exhibits. The marine park’s director of training and zoological operations worked as a killer whale trainer at Loro Parque, a Canary Islands marine park affiliated with SeaWorld. Chimelong’s former director of aquatic operations was another SeaWorld alum. As part of a $7.5 billion expansion, Chimelong Group, the marine park's parent company, began construction in January on a marine park adjacent to Ocean Kingdom to be called Chimelong Ocean World; it's set to open in 2017 and transform Zhuhai into the “Orlando of China.” “Before the opening of Chimelong, we saw a theme park map showing a place called ‘Orca Stadium,’ ” says Hung.

When the world’s biggest marine park, Haichang Polar Ocean World, opens in Shanghai next year, it will feature killer whale shows, according to an environmental impact statement the China Cetacean Alliance obtained.

Marine mammal scientists worry that once Chimelong or Haichang puts on orca shows, competitors will follow suit and rush to acquire wild killer whales. Such fears are well founded, according to theme park consultant Dennis Speigel, who has worked on projects in China. “What typically happens in China is that when something is introduced and accepted, it inspires copycats,” says Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Other parks will want their own killer whale shows, and that will drive up the price of those animals.”

“Quite frankly, I’m not sure you could do this anyplace other than China, given the current feeling about captivity and the Blackfish aftermath,” he says, referring to the 2013 documentary that alleged mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld.

The only places left for China to acquire wild marine mammals are Japan and Russia. “China has the highest number of marine mammals in captivity, and it’s still expanding,” Hung says. “If the industry keeps growing in China, it’ll give us no hope to stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji.”

Keeping the Cove in Business

Thousands of dolphins are rounded up each year and driven into a cove at Taiji, where some are killed for their meat and others are spared for sale to marine parks and aquariums. With the sale of dolphin meat in decline, demand from marine parks willing to pay six- or seven-figure prices for live dolphins underwrites the slaughter, according to Ric O’Barry, founder of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, which has fought the hunt for the past 13 years and tracks the dolphin trade. (The Dolphin Project is a member of the Social Action Network run by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.)

“China’s dolphins are coming almost exclusively from Taiji,” says O’Barry. “You can go to Taiji or contact brokers on the internet. There’s three different brokers there, and you just place your order. You can get them turnkey, so they’re fully trained and ready to do a show. For a so-called green dolphin right out of the ocean, untrained, the price is much lower.”

Men in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, Japan, on Jan. 20, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

In Russia, marine scientists fear demand for killer whales threatens the survival of a distinct type of orca called transients, which eat marine mammals and display behaviors different from fish-eating orcas, which are called residents. (Nearly all the 56 orcas in captivity are residents.) Hoyt and other scientists who have spent years studying killer whales in the Sea of Okhotsk believe the population of mammal-eating orcas is small, given that they have only identified 55 transients in the area, while they have counted more than 1,500 individual residents. The researchers have determined that most, if not all, of the orcas captured for export to China are transients.

“The live capture of killer whales raises concerns because it takes place in a limited area in the western Okhotsk Sea,” Hoyt and his colleagues wrote in a 2014 paper. “All killer whales encountered there during studies belonged to the transient ecotype. In that area whales often travel close to shore looking for seals, which makes them susceptible to being captured from small boats.”

Hoyt says that while the Russian government, which estimates there are 3,130 orcas in the region, sets yearly quotas for the capture of killer whales, it does not distinguish between the two types of orcas. In other words, the government is allowing transients to be caught without considering the impact on the population. “Absolutely, Chinese interests are driving capture of killer whales,” he says.

Robin Baird is a wildlife biologist at the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, who has studied transient killer whales in the Pacific Northwest for 30 years. He notes that transients live in tight-knit social groups and work together to hunt seals, porpoises, and whales. “They’re similar to elephants really, as the older animals carry a lot of cultural knowledge, and killer whales are slow to mature and reproduce,” says Baird. “Taking nine animals out of a population is a substantial number when a lot of these populations number in the low hundreds. Depending on the age and sex, it could have tremendous implications for survival of the rest of the populations.” He noted that the Pacific Northwest’s resident populations are still recovering from captures in the 1960s and ’70s for SeaWorld and other marine parks.

Another concern: The survival of the captured transients depends on trainers’ ability to get the animals to forgo a life of hunting and consuming seals and other tasty marine mammals and persuade them to eat frozen fish. Hoyt and Baird note that at least one transient captured in the Pacific Northwest died after rejecting a fish diet.

“It’s a very lucrative business,” says Hoyt of the orca trade. “If Chimelong follows the SeaWorld model, they will want to start breeding killer whales and selling them off. It could get very messy and awful for years to come.”

China's Anti-Captivity Movement

Before SeaWorld announced in March—amid falling revenues and attendance—that it would stop breeding killer whales and making them perform, the anti-captivity movement spent decades agitating against a single company to raise public consciousness about the morality of exploiting marine mammals for entertainment and profit. That was the easy part, given the hurdles the nascent anti-captivity movement faces in China.

An authoritarian government that controls the media and polices the internet will not exactly tolerate protesters dressed in orca suits waving signs and urging people not to buy tickets, activists acknowledge—especially because provincial governments are eager for the jobs and tax revenues that marine parks generate amid a slowing industrial economy and a growing middle class seeking diversions. Local governments often provide land for marine parks as part of economic development deals, according to industry executives. “We are being very, very careful,” says Hung. “Whenever you become an opponent to anything in China, you’re taking big risks.”

Marine mammals attract visitors to zoos, aquariums, marine parks, and other facilities worldwide. Click to enter this gallery of more than a dozen species that are or have been held in captivity.

The biggest challenge here, as in the U.S., is changing people’s attitude toward the morality of keeping animals confined in cages, activists say. “You’re talking about a country that eats everything on this planet,” says Hung, half joking. “They think putting animals into captivity is better than eating them.” Chang is more diplomatic. “People still believe everything the parks are telling them, that they’re doing conservation, that they’re rescuing animals because they’re not doing well in their natural habitat,” he says.

The China Cetacean Alliance issued its report at a media event in Beijing last December that attracted scant media attention in the country. The alliance now has a presence on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service used by more than 260 million people. (Though the government blocks Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, there are ways to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall of China.) “It’s very difficult to get the message out,” says Chang. “Weibo is always watched by the government, and activists can be caught. We still have our freedom in Hong Kong; we have the internet. We can say anything.”

Hong Kong may offer a blueprint for changing hearts and minds on the mainland. The 1997 agreement that handed Hong Kong to China after 140 years of British rule largely preserved its autonomy under the guise of “one country, two systems.” The city of 7 million people is home to Hong Kong Ocean Park, a nearly 40-year-old nonprofit U.S.-style marine park that is owned by the local government. Ocean Park ended its orca shows when the last of two killer whales it owned died in 1997. When it sought to import beluga whales as part of an expansion, the dolphin conservation society and other animal rights activist groups opposed the move. Ocean Park, which stopped importing wild dolphins more than a decade ago and operates a captive breeding program, paid for a four-year study to determine whether the belugas could be taken from the wild without harming the viability of the population. The research, reviewed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, determined the take would be sustainable. Activists kept the pressure on, and in 2011 Ocean Park decided not to import the whales, the company’s chief executive, Tom Mehrmann, tells me when I visit his modest office outside the park entrance. “At the end of the day we said it was not worth the battle and the negative sentiment we would have to deal with, even though it’s a minority,” says Mehrmann, an American and a veteran of the California amusement park industry. “The facility itself can still tell the environmental messages through other animals.”

“Our acquisition policies are very clear: We will only acquire animals that are surplus stock from other facilities that are born under human care or that are rescued and cannot be released,” he adds. “As China is entering this new world of themed entertainment and animal parks, there is a bit of a throwback, I think, to what we all probably knew in the United States in the ’50s and ’60s—you go out in the wild and get more animals if you need them.”

Mehrmann says he is working with mainland marine parks to improve their care of whales and dolphins and educate mainland customers, who accounted for about half of the 7.4 million visitors to Ocean Park in 2015. “Sometimes we have to reeducate our own market because our guests somehow think we have dolphins jumping through hoops or touching balls, behaviors that were eliminated years ago,” he says. “As market sentiment shifts, and it will over time, mainland parks will adjust their offerings to be more conservation oriented and educational.”

Despite mainland marine parks' promotion of whale and dolphin shows, Speigel, the veteran theme park industry consultant, thinks “the clock is ticking on that type of entertainment.”

“If you look at SeaWorld and the issues they dealt with, it was the millennials that voted with their feet and stayed away from their parks,” he says. “At some point in time those sentiments will get to China, and it will come with the education of the young people and their ability to access the web and see what else is happening around the world as it relates to this type of animal entertainment.”

Saving the Pink Dolphin

Before I leave China, I join Chang and three other young members of the dolphin conservation society on a boat as they survey the waters of the Pearl River Estuary around Hong Kong for the rare Chinese white dolphin. As mainlanders flock to amusement parks to see marine mammals from faraway places, the pink-hued dolphin is disappearing before their eyes. Since 2003, the white dolphin population around Hong Kong has plunged 60 percent to just 62 animals, in part because of a series of development projects designed to bring tourists and commerce to Zhuhai and to other mainland destinations.

A pink dolphin is spotted near Hong Kong. (Photo: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images)

As we motor out of a marina, we see Hong Kong International Airport across the estuary. Dredging is set to begin next year to build a runway in an area frequented by most of the surviving dolphins. “It will almost destroy their whole habitat,” says Chang. Heading toward the southwest, we cross near the huge pylons of a $10.6-billion, 31-mile project under construction that will connect Hong Kong, the casino mecca of Macau, and Zhuhai. It consists of a bridge, a tunnel, and two artificial islands dredged from the estuary.

Rounding the tip of Lantau Island, we see a pair of pink dolphins leap in the air, and Chang and his colleagues jump up to snap photos with long-lens cameras so the animals can be later identified. Over the next few hours we see six more of the diminutive dolphins as they dodge the nonstop high-speed ferries plying the waters between Hong Kong and Macau, along with freighters and barges delivering sand to the mainland for construction projects.

“We have wild cetaceans living along the coast of China, but no one really pays attention,” says Hung. “No one wants to clean up the water or stop development. People just want some entertainment sugarcoated with education.”

The day after I visit Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, new subjects arrive there from a Singaporean marine park: pink dolphins.