|Animal and environment advocate groups at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul's Jongno District, June 26, perform a skit to portray alleged abuse on Beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins at Geoje Sea World in South Gyeongsang Province and call for the venue's shutdown. Yonhap|
By Ko Dong-hwan
Geoje Sea World faces its worst crisis since opening in 2014 as animal activists and citizens condemn how it has been abusing ecologically vulnerable Beluga whales to entertain customers ― including allowing visitors to surf aboard the animals.
Ten animal and environment advocate groups on June 26 demonstrated at Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square demanding the port city venue in South Gyeongsang Province be closed and release its animals. The protesters also demanded the central government ban animal experiences at leisure sites to prevent zoonosis and introduce laws that protect endangered animals from being imported and exhibited.
The activists said the animals, which dive as deep as 700 meters in the wild, are not suitable to live inside an aquarium 4-6 meters deep and with ambient noises from the venue reaching 80 decibels ― above the maximum safety level of 70. The animals' "mental distress from being exposed to the visitors visually and audibly is unimaginably high and will weaken their immune systems," according to activists.
Hot Pink Dolphins, Sea Shepherd Korea, the Korean Animal Welfare Association and other groups said that when visitors "experience" the animals by surfing, hugging and kissing them, it creates the risk of tuberculosis, leptospirosis and brucellosis.
The venue's programs, disregarding preservation of ecological diversity, have no educational value but only offer fun to visitors, according to the activists.
"Marine mammals in Korea are protected so poorly that it falls behind the current global movement of banning whales from being locked and forced to do exhibitions or performances," according to activists.
On June 29, Geoje Sea World issued a disclaimer on its homepage in response to last week's protest as well as mounting attention from citizens whose petitions on the presidential office website demanding legal protection for the animals reached 41,000 as of Monday. The disclaimer largely tried to clear the company of any guilt.
The marine park said it tried to relieve the animals' need to move around with "social training" and "emotional interactions with trainers." It also said International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine's president-elect Michael Briggs was "managing the venue" and that it adhered to Five-Freedoms, animal welfare guidelines adopted by global animal-friendly groups.
"We are proud to say that our visitors can learn marine biodiversity's importance and nature's significance," the company said.
|A visitor rides on a Beluga whale at Geoje Sea World. The animal experience was promoted by the marine park on social network as "VIP ride experience." Korea Times file|
The whole Beluga brouhaha began on June 19 when Geoje Sea World promoted on its social network its "VIP Ride Experience" which allows customers to ride on the back of the whale and a bottle-nosed dolphin for 70 minutes and have themselves photographed for 200,000 won ($167). The company has been offering the program before the date.
But the online post drew mounting criticism for animal cruelty because Beluga whales are classified "near threatened" by the World Wildlife Fund and "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Red List.
Public ire increased after people learned that six dolphins died at the venue from 2015 until 2017. A joint government-civic inspection group checked the site and concluded that "20 to 30 meter-large artificial habitats are too small for dolphins that travel more than 100 kilometers a day in the wild."
The group also saw a dolphin repeatedly hitting itself against a wall and jumping up and down on the same spot, which they saw as "symptoms of extreme distress."
Geoje Sea World, a foreign capital enterprise by Singaporean Lim Chee-yong, who also owns Manila Ocean Park in the Philippines, opened in 2014 with four Beluga whales and 16 bottlenose dolphins.
Shortly after the opening, Lim was mired in an attempted shipment of Beluga whales to the Philippines, which the media called "laundering the whales' nationalities" by abusing lax wild-animal import regulations in Korea. But the Philippines government refused to allow the whales to be imported, because the country's climate was not suitable.
In 2015 the marine park sold five bottlenose dolphins, which it had bought from Japan's Taiji town, to The Land of Legends in Turkey for entertainment purposes. The approval from the Korean environment ministry to resell the animals under the Least Concern category of both the WWF and the Red List took only two weeks.
The Korean Animal Welfare Association said Turkey bought the dolphins from Korea because it wanted to avoid global criticism by buying them directly from Taiji, infamous for traditional dolphin slaughtering.
Hot Pink Dolphins said Korea, from 2002 until 2013, imported the fourth-most dolphins from Taiji in the world. The group said Korea was "red-tagged not just the leading dolphin importer from Taiji but also the world-top dolphin launderer."
The South Gyeongsang Provincial Office on Monday told the Hankyoreh daily it was looking into the alleged abuse of Beluga whales at Geoje Sea World and were "in the process of confirming the issue and planning to inspect the venue."