Lost Dolphinariums in the Benelux Countries.
Part 1: Belgium and Luxembourg



by Gie Robeyns

Whales and, in particular, dolphins have inspired people for thousands of years. Examples of this are the images of these animals which are found on all kinds of art objects, the existence of the constellation Delphinus ('the Dolphin') and the bronze coins bearing the image of a dolphin produced from about 550 BC in Olbia, a Greek city state by the Black Sea. Exceptional, also, is the manuscript The Whale Book that was completed by Adriaen Coenen in 1585 (Egmond et al., 2003). This work contains some of the earliest European drawings of whales and other sea animals. And, last but not least, the numerous tales – often but not always romanticized – in which whales and dolphins play a leading role. These are only a few examples of the fascination of man for these sea mammals.

But in spite of the tales and the images, the animals remained unknown to most people, even though there was a lot of interest in them. Direct public experience of cetaceans became possible for the very first time in 1860, when P.T. Barnum showed a couple of belugas in a large aquarium in his museum in New York. It wasn't until 1938 that the first commercial dolphinarium was opened in the Marine Studios, Saint Augustine, Florida. By coincidence members of staff discovered that it was possible to train the animals to perform all kinds of tricks. The 'dolphin show' was born.

The real hype as we know it now started in 1963 with the first 'Flipper' movie, followed shortly afterwards by the successful television series. As a result keeping these animals became very popular. From that moment on at a lot of places, first in America and shortly afterwards in Europe, dolphinariums shot up like mushrooms. The public could not resist these animals because of their playfulness, their 'eternal smile' and their high level of cuddliness. People could not only go and watch the animals in dolphinariums but – just like the travelling menageries in former days – there were also travelling dolphin shows which appeared in a lot of cities. But leaving aside the travelling shows, altogether there have been twelve dolphinariums in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, of which only two still exist.

Even though dolphins were, and still are, enormously popular, their popularity did not always lead to commercial success. So dolphinariums – with a few exceptions – have had to deal with a lot of financial problems. The high mortality rates, the sometimes far from ideal conditions in which the animals were kept and the high levels of commerciality evoked criticism from several organizations whose sole purpose it was to close all dolphinariums. Most of the ones in the Benelux countries, however, have experienced only minor hindrance from these organizations. By the time questions were asked about their right to exist, they had already closed their doors. In some European countries, though, the impact of the protest activities was much more drastic.

Collecting information for this overview was not always easy. Among other things, some dolphinariums closed down from 25 to 40 years ago, and as a result much relevant data does not exist anymore. Fortunately, however, some former owners or employees reacted very enthusiastically when they were asked to collaborate. This was not always the case, however – on several occasions no answer was given to my questions. Distrust might be a possible reason. Especially in the past, keeping dolphins went hand in hand with a lot of problems. Also catching, transporting and selling dolphins did not always conform to impeccable standards, so some people probably do not want to be reminded of that period.

I will not examine this last aspect any further. My only aim in this article is to give an overview of the dolphinariums which existed in these three countries but which disappeared for various reasons.

BELGIUM

In Belgium as elsewhere, the television series Flipper attracted a lot of viewers. Together with the success of the dolphinariums in the Netherlands and further afield, it aroused a wish not to be left behind. Of the five dolphinariums in Belgium, four were part of a recreation or amusement park, and only one part of a zoo with an educational and scientific objective. In Belgium, just like in the Netherlands, only one dolphinarium is still active nowadays, namely the Boudewijn Seapark in Bruges, which opened in 1971. It initially belonged to the 'Dolfinarium Harderwijk B.V.' holding, which also managed the dolphinarium in Harderwijk in the Netherlands. The current owner is 'Aspro', which runs 39 parks in eight European countries, among them aquariums, dolphinariums, sea animal parks and zoos.

Wellen, dolphinarium in Maupertuus Park, 1968–1969

In May 1968, in a small country village called Wellen, the first dolphinarium in Belgium opened its doors – surprisingly, some months before Antwerp Zoo started to show dolphins to the public. For a short while three dolphins were shown here, though it is fair to say that they were kept and looked after in a terribly amateurish way in comparison with current standards.

The initiator was Paul Heeren (1937–1987), who decided that a dolphinarium would make his amusement park, Maupertuus, more attractive during the summer season. In preparation for this he visited the dolphinariums in Harderwijk (the Netherlands) and Duisburg (Germany). He also got in touch with Antwerp Zoo, but as they were preparing their own dolphinarium the staff were not very ready with any advice. Heeren persevered, however. Grounds bordering the amusement park were purchased, and with the little information he had he managed to construct a building in which the animals could be kept.

Heeren's first attempt to buy animals in Italy failed. Finally five bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were bought in America and flown over from Miami to Brussels, a flight which did not run smoothly – during the landing water overflowed from the transport containers with the hammocks into the cockpit. Of the five dolphins, three (2.1) went to Wellen and the remaining two – a mother and her young – were sent to Kortrijk and rented out to a fairground attraction.

Paul Heeren managed to persuade Richard Seher, the dolphin trainer at Duisburg Zoo, to come and work for him in Wellen. Seher started working with the animals immediately. The first problem to be overcome was feeding, as the animals were not used to eating dead fish; they got by on a diet of whiting and mackerel.

Shortly afterwards, on 30 May 1968, the official inauguration took place and the first Belgian dolphinarium was opened to the public on 2 June 1968.

The Maupertuus recreation park included among its attractions a fish pond, a children's playground, an open-air swimming pool and a sandy beach. The building where the dolphins were housed had a rather low ceiling and measured about 25 by 15 metres. The dolphinarium had an inside and an outside pool, but the outside pool was empty and was never used. The inside pool measured approximately 15 by 10 metres and was three metres deep. There was no seating for visitors – they just stood around the pool behind a simple balustrade. For the show Heeren or the trainer stood on a plank rather like the diving board in a swimming pool.

The pool was filled with groundwater to which salt and probably also chlorine was added. The technical infrastructure was extremely limited: a filter designed for Heeren by a physicist acquaintance was housed in a separate room. No other space was available for storage or food preparation, which was done simply behind a curtain in the pool area.<P>
At regular intervals, of course, maintenance had to be carried out, such as cleaning the pool. That took place in a very amateurish way in comparison with how these things are done nowadays. Without much fuss the animals were pulled out of the water and laid in hammocks, which were also used for their transport. Dirty and salt water was simply drained to a nearby brook.

One early morning seven weeks after the arrival of the dolphins a dead infant was found in the pool. During the night the female had given birth to a living baby 75 cm long. Nobody had known that when she was caught and transported the animal was pregnant. During the autopsy water was found in the lungs and it became clear that the little dolphin had died shortly after birth. A correct cause of death was not established, but the small pool could have been a possible cause.

Richard Seher, who had been hired for the trainings and shows, stayed only a short time in Wellen. After his departure Paul Heeren replaced him as trainer. Since the dolphins were wild-caught their training had to start from zero. The show remained restricted to feeding the animals and, after a short time, some simple exercises such as swimming in circles, jumps and swimming through a hoop. The restricted height of the building allowed for no high jumps.

The shows took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, always in the afternoon. Depending on the time of year a first show would start at 14.00, but generally there were shows at 15.00, 16.00 and 17.00. During the winter period 1968–69 no shows took place.

At Maupertuus other animals were kept as well, for example fallow deer on the island in the middle of the fish pond, several species of duck, white and black swans, bean geese and swan geese. Two enclosures with some rocks were constructed for pelicans and penguins (probably Humboldt's). These two species were specifically bought for a practical purpose. Because every day fish was cleaned to be given to the dolphins, there was a lot of fish offal, so Heeren decided to buy these birds and feed them with the waste – an easy way to get rid of it. Dolphins were not the only sea mammals at Maupertuus: there was also a California sea lion, Johnny, who was bought for about BFr40,000, but I have found no details about how this animal was housed.

Apart from the owner and, in the early period, the German trainer, the number of employees varied. In the busier summer period there were up to seven people present, most of them students who earned an additional income that way.

The dolphinarium stayed open for about a year and a half. According to some newspaper bulletins the closure happened in September or October 1969. The reason for closure was that the number of visitors, and hence the income, had decreased. We must not forget that Wellen was a small village and that there were hardly any other tourist attractions in the vicinity. Shortly after the opening a popular show on Belgian television broadcast a feature about the dolphinarium. As a result a whole lot of visitors flocked to Wellen, but this interest was short-lived. Another problem was the limited promotion and advertising.

Last but not least, at virtually the same moment Antwerp Zoo also opened a dolphinarium which, with regard to infrastructure and animal performances, offered a lot more possibilities. The dolphinarium in Antwerp could count on much more public interest and the dolphin show was included in the zoo's admission charge. The Wellen dolphins were sold and moved to the attraction park 'Parc de la Galoperie' in Anor, France, where another dolphin show had been set up. After renovation the building at Maupertuus was used as a public swimming pool, but soon had to close its doors because planning permission was not obtained.

Antwerp, dolphinarium in Antwerp Zoo, 1968–2000

When the small dolphinarium opened in Wellen, Antwerp Zoo were still busy with the last preparations for their own one. The decision to build a dolphinarium in the zoo had of course been taken much earlier than the spontaneous initiative in Wellen, but Antwerp was 'beaten' by some months.

The dolphinarium was part of the jubilee complex which was built in 1968 to highlight the 125-year history of the zoo. This complex replaced the old carnivore building. Besides a dolphinarium it also housed enclosures for nocturnal animals and new enclosures for the larger cats and bears.

The official inauguration took place on 17 December 1969, but the dolphinarium had already been brought into use a year earlier, on 19 December 1968, at first without shows because the animals had to be trained. Possibly they started earlier than planned because of the dolphinarium in Wellen.

At the time of the launch the Antwerp Zoo dolphinarium was one of the few which were built far from the sea. The staff had to take this into account in dealing with the technology and the care of the animals.

The dolphinarium consisted of several parts:
– a large hall with a show pool and a terrace for about 800 people. The large kidney-shaped pool, 28 metres long, seven metres wide and three metres deep, could hold about 600 m3 of water. As the public left the building after the show they could observe the animals underwater through ten large windows.
– some smaller pools behind the scenes, linked by a channel to the large show pool. These included two training pools, the smaller of which had a movable floor enabling the animals to be easily removed from the water. Finally there was a small round quarantine pool. By means of watertight wooden locks the pools or some of them could be completely closed or even emptied.
– a filter chamber in the cellar, under the pools, where the installation for water purification was divided between two rooms. Thus the filtration for the quarantine pool could be kept separate from that for the other pools. The total volume of water to be filtered was about 850 m3, and the system had a maximum capacity of 600 m3 per hour.
– an office and laboratory, where water control and other management tasks took place.


A promotional poster for the dolphinarium at Antwerp Zoo

To purchase the first dolphins Antwerp Zoo cooperated with Jerry Mitchell, who was given the job of providing 1.5 bottle-nosed dolphins, though in the end the dolphinarium started with three males and three females.

In August 1977 three (2.1) Guyana dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) were added. Because the zoo wanted to cooperate in a scientifically-supported breeding project, the two surviving Guyana dolphins were moved to the dolphinarium at Nuremberg Zoo, Germany, in December 1988. For a number of years an Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin (T. aduncus) was also kept.

Certainly in the early period keeping dolphins was no sinecure. First of all not a great deal was known about their nutrition and care, and secondly good water quality was essential. Not all the animals that arrived in the zoo survived, but by working with them every day the staff gradually gained more and more experience. After some time Antwerp Zoo became known for its expertise in the field of water management in the dolphinarium, and lectures were given about this at many international congresses.

Because adults of both sexes were kept, there were a number of births, but each time the young dolphins died shortly after birth. Generally no cause of death was found. In the early period one young animal survived for some months, and later, during a peak of births, a second youngster stayed alive for two years, but finally died from a distemper virus infection.

The number of shows per day varied, from two in the quiet winter months to four in the busy summer season. Each show generally lasted for about 25 minutes.

At Antwerp Zoo, just as in other zoos and dolphinariums, the understanding of keeping and housing dolphins changed, partly under pressure of public opinion but especially as a result of newly-acquired knowledge about the animals in the wild and in captivity. Also, new materials and techniques offered possibilities of keeping animals in a better-adapted environment. Although in 1968 Antwerp's building and equipment were an example for others planning to build dolphinariums, 20 years later this was no longer the case. Breeding and especially raising dolphins proved very difficult, and the pool had limitations because of its size. New EU directives and Belgian zoo legislation stipulated that when housing new animals in the future the pool must be five metres deep for 20% of its surface and 3.5 metres deep for the remaining 80%. Moreover the pool would need to have a surface of 275 m2 for from three to five animals and an extra 75 m2 for each additional animal, with a separation pool of 125 m2 and a depth of 3.5 metres. In Antwerp, where the filter installation was situated under the large pool, adaptation was not possible.

It was thus decided to stop keeping dolphins and to give the building a new function. In consultation with the studbook keeper the last two dolphins moved to the dolphinarium at Duisburg Zoo, Germany. The building now houses California sea lions with whom a show is put on a few times a day.

Although the dolphins have not been a part of the animal collection for several years now, visitors still regularly ask for them. As in other zoos, the departure of the dolphins had a negative by-effect on the number of visitors which lasted for several years, but thanks to many changes at the zoo the number of visitors has been increasing again for some years now.

Waver, dolphin show in Walibi Park (1977–1984)

The name 'Walibi' originates from the three municipalities in which the park lies, namely Waver, Limal and Bierges. Situated about 15 km from Brussels, the c. 50-hectare amusement park opened on 26 July 1975. The initiator was Eddy Meeus (1925–2001). In the first year about 50,000 visitors came to the park: a year later attendance rose to 250,000, and in 1977 to 450,000. It is now one of the most popular amusement parks in Belgium, and belongs to the 'Compagnie des Alpes', which is also the present owner of the dolphinarium in Harderwijk.

Although the park could be visited at a fixed price, visitors had to pay extra for some special attractions in the early years. One of these was the dolphin show, whose operators were present in the park 'at their own risk'. The importer and owner of the bottle-nosed dolphins in Walibi was Bruno Lienhardt, who managed several other dolphin shows in amusement parks in European countries.

The park only opened to the public for the summer period, and shows were staged daily, each lasting about 40 minutes. In the early years there was a large tent, but after it was destroyed by a storm shows took place in the open air. The visitors could watch the show from a stand placed around a part of the show pool.

I have found little reliable data about the dolphins and the infrastructure in which they were kept. Walibi did not respond to my repeated requests to make information and photographs available.

Huy, Dolphinarium in 'Parc de Recréation et de Loisirs' (1977–1978)

In 1975 Frank den Herder senior, administrator of the Dutch company Dolfinarium Harderwijk B.V. and director of the dolphinarium in Harderwijk, proposed to set up a large 'dolphin palace' on the Plaine de la Sarte in Huy. This was not the firm's first expansion – as well as Harderwijk, they already managed other dolphinariums in Bruges (Belgium) and Münster (Germany). In Huy (Hoei) this initiative was not unanimously welcomed, but nevertheless the town council thought the plan offered the town an interesting attraction from which local tourism could profit.

The firm's plans were rather impressive. They wanted to set up a dolphinarium similar to that in Bruges, with about 1,600 seats. Initially they expected an average attendance of 300,000 visitors per year. Before effective renovation work on the convent (which stood in the grounds, and had been vacated by Dominican friars in 1973) and construction of the amusement park could be started, F. den Herder died, and the initiative in Huy was discouraged from various sides, but the company nevertheless decided to continue with the project.

The opening of the 'dolphin palace' was planned for March 1977, but the new installations of the recreation park were inaugurated on 1 May 1976, including a rebuilt playground, a safari park for children, an exhibition about sea mammals and a sea lion show in the renovated convent. The company also organized boat excursions on the river Meuse.

In June 1977, a year after the park's opening, two dolphins arrived. The shows (at least four per day, but six on very busy days) were held in a covered pool behind the convent. This simple building measured about 25 by 25 metres, with a concrete pool about 15 by 10 metres and about 1.5 m deep. A part of the pool had been covered with a platform on which the trainers stood during the shows and training sessions. Another part was separated off as a 16-m2 holding pool. A sand filter was installed that could process the water from the pool in about four hours. A stand for visitors surrounded three sides of the pool and seated about 750 visitors. A show lasted roughly 15 minutes.

The number of workers at Huy was limited. The first year there were only one trainer and one assistant trainer. When there was sickness or other problems with the staff, trainers from the Bruges dolphinarium would come to assist.

Because the targeted number of visitors was not reached the ambitions of the Dutch company diminished rather quickly. Also, running this attraction – very modest in comparison with the original plans – produced less income than expected, and the plans to build a larger dolphinarium were dropped rapidly.

Running the amusement park with its different attractions was a loss-making activity. In 1978, a year after their arrival, the dolphins left Huy and were moved to the dolphinarium at Boudewijnpark in Bruges which, at that time, was managed by the same owners. The show in Huy continued with only California sea lions.

One of the reasons for removing the dolphins was the difficulty of cooperation with the town authorities of Huy. The park suffered from inadequate water and electricity supplies, and the water piping and electric cabling were never upgraded as agreed. As a result, for example, problems arose each time the sand filter was rinsed out: staff had to open a tap for five hours, and the rest of the park was without water during this period. There were also regular power failures, some lasting several hours.

The promises made by the Huy town council to publicize the park and provide funds to improve the infrastructure were never carried out. It also proved to have been a mistake to buy the disused convent, which was only used for the sea mammal exhibition.

For these and other reasons the management decided to pull the plug on all its activities in Huy. This happened at the beginning of the tourist season in 1981. Frank den Herder junior excused it afterwards by stating: 'Huy was a good location for a tourist attraction, but we made mistakes where the "Belgians" were concerned. Almost simultaneously the amusement park Walibi started, and because they had a much larger promotional budget they managed to attract almost 900,000 visitors during the first years. So people no longer visited the dolphinarium in Huy, and that is why we have gone under.'

Some years later, in 1983, the dealer George Munro wanted to establish premises on the site to coordinate his international trade in exotic animals. In spite of the fact that this gave the town a chance to recoup part of the sum of BFr3,000,000 it was still owed by Harderwijk B.V., Munro's plan was not approved because of opposition from animal lovers and local residents, as well as Belgium's accession to the CITES convention on 1 January 1984. Finally the totally neglected park was sold to the former assistant trainer of the dolphinarium. He has worked day and night to construct the present 'Mont Mosan', a combination of an amusement park and a small animal collection where seals and sea lions are still kept. The old convent was demolished in 1997, to make way for tennis courts.

LUXEMBOURG

Hosingen, dolphinarium in Wildlife Park Hosingen (1977–?)

In Hosingen, a municipality in the north of Luxembourg, a wildlife park which included a dolphinarium existed for while. In 1968 N.V. Silvalux, a real estate company, bought grounds there, previously the property of an abbey, to make a wildlife park. The firm had initially intended to create a bird reserve, but rapidly realized that the estate offered numerous other possibilities. About two years were spent preparing the site – constructing roads and paths and building enclosures for the animals. A playground and some larger attractions were added, and finally catering for about 500 visitors.

On 14 June 1970 the wildlife park was officially inaugurated. It had an area of almost 150 ha. Robert van den Kerckhove, the owner of N.V. Silvalux, was responsible for managing the park. In spite of the high cost of creating it, the entrance fee remained fairly low, and in the first six months there were almost 120,000 visitors.

The park had a lot of species which are found in the region or lived there in the past. Large enclosures housed, for example, fallow deer, roe deer, red deer, mouflon, wild boar, badger and several species of goat. There was also a bee hall, and plans to keep a pack of wolves. Although the owners had a large estate, the managers deliberately chose not to lay out a safari park. Cars were kept out and visitors could explore the park and learn by using several walking trails to view the animals in the park in natural surroundings.

Already in the year of opening the original idea of creating a bird reserve was carried out. In particular 16 interconnected ponds were laid out in a valley. This 'bird paradise' was inaugurated officially on 13 June 1971 and a lot of wildfowl quickly began to make use of the ponds.

In 1976, the park was sold to another firm which was involved in tourism. Up until then it had been exclusively a wildlife park, but afterwards it was converted over a few months into an entertainment centre. As far as possible nature was still taken into account, but the new management provided several new features – a skating rink for the winter period, a slide 250 metres long, a monorail and many smaller attractions and playground equipment for children.


A postcard from Hosingen Wildlife Park, Luxembourg, which for a short period housed a dolphinarium.

The main new attraction, however, was a dolphinarium which was set up in 1977. Four dolphins, probably bottle-nosed ones from Walibi, were kept. At the opening two animals were already trained. In a newspaper report I read that the owners wanted to concentrate especially on a 'dolphin school', which implies that after their training the animals would be sold to other dolphinariums. Whether this actually happened is unclear. According to the same report, training a dolphin took between six and 12 months.

The dolphinarium was open all the year round. Although visitors had to pay to visit the wildlife park, there was a further charge to see the dolphin show. Every show could be attended by about 700 visitors. At the start, the proprietors expected that about 500,000 visitors a year would see the shows, but in July 1977 there had already been 220,000. To achieve this attendance the management counted on interest from the neighbouring countries as well as from Luxembourg itself.

A former staff member told me that the show pool was of a reasonable size, but a second pool behind the scenes was much smaller. There was no connection between the pools, so when the trainers needed to clean the large pool they had to use a stretcher and tackle to move the animals from the show pool into the smaller pool. And afterwards back again.

I was not able to find out when the dolphinarium closed. 'Bad financial policy' was given as a reason for the closure, but further details are lacking. At the time of writing no traces of the wildlife park and the dolphinarium can be found in Hosingen. Although it was the first and only dolphinarium in Luxembourg, only a few data about it have turned up. A vast search for information had, apart from a few newspaper bulletins, almost no result.

Reference

Egmond, F., Mason, P., and Lankester, K. (eds.) (2003): The Whale Book: Whales and Other Marine Animals as Described by Adriaen Coenen in 1585. Reaktion Books, London. [See review, IZN 51 (4): 228–230.]

Gie Robeyns, Borkelstraat 120, 2900 Schoten, Belgium (gie.robeyns@telenet.be).






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