An unnamed scuba diver has been blamed by a Maltese marine park for an oversight that led to the deaths of all three of its captive female bottlenose dolphins last summer.
According to a series of reports in the Times of Malta, the Mediterraneo Marine Park at Bahar ic-Caghaq on Malta’s north-east coast had failed to inform the public of the deaths but, a year on, claims that while cleaning the tanks the support diver had “presumably left unattended” a weight-bag that split and shed the lead shot it contained.
Female dolphins Mar and Onda, originally caught off Cuba and held captive at Mediterraneo since 2000, died of lead poisoning over the space of a month after ingesting the pellets. A third female, Melita, who had been born in the park in 2014, also died. The park’s other five dolphins, all males, survived following some three months of treatment by its specialist veterinarian team.
The dolphins’ deaths came to light only after a member of the public asked park staff about them and was informed that they had been moved to Spain. The person had informed UK-based charity Marine Connection, which checked and found the claim to be untrue.
Earlier this month activist group Animal Liberation Malta (ALM) accused Mediterraneo of concealing the deaths from the public. It said that the park had ignored the requirement of registering cetacean deaths on the non-profit register Ceta-Base – where they remain listed today (14 August) as living dolphins.
ALM also called for an investigation into why Mediterraneo was allowed to operate under a zoo licence despite its dolphin shows constituting a “permanent aquatic circus” of the sort theoretically banned in Malta since 2014. The group wants the marine park, which in 2008 had been listed by PETA UK as one of seven “cruellest” destinations, to be closed and turned into a dolphin rehabilitation centre.
Mediterraneo’s supervising manager Pietro Pecchioni eventually confirmed to the Times of Malta that the dolphins had died of lead poisoning but said that the marine park observed “scrupulous protocols”, with the use of such lead weight bags having been “strictly forbidden” for many years.
He said that, unnoticed by maintenance employees, the lead had probably been sucked in by the aspiration system and pushed into the pool during a reverse-flow cleaning procedure before being released into the dolphins’ tank.
Protocols for cleaning the tanks and filtration system had since been “updated and stiffened where deemed necessary”, said Pecchioni.
Malta’s Ministry for Animal Rights told the paper that Mediterraneo had informed the Veterinary Regulation Department about the deaths, and said that the department was monitoring the marine park’s animal welfare standards.
ALM has further commented that the support diver blamed for the incident had not been directly employed by Mediterraneo and was “not even properly supervised”.