LOST DOLPHINARIUMS IN THE BENELUX COUNTRIES.
PART 2: THE NETHERLANDS


BY GIE ROBEYNS

As in Belgium, only one dolphinarium now exists in the Netherlands, namely the Dolphinarium in Harderwijk. After Harderwijk opened in 1965, its success and its annually growing number of visitors, together with the popularity of the television series Flipper, inspired many people to think of starting dolphin shows, and other Dutch municipalities also took initiatives to start a dolphinarium. At about the same time as Harderwijk's first dolphins were shown to the public, Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem had been making similar plans, but the opening of Harderwijk meant that this project was abandoned.

Zandvoort, Dolfirama (1969–1988)

Harderwijk's success increased the interest of the seaside resort Zandvoort in attracting additional tourists with a dolphinarium. Construction started in 1967 on behalf of NV Bouwes, a group which already ran a hotel on the boulevard. The work took two years and cost two million guilders [Gld2,000,000]. The festive inauguration of 'Dolfirama' took place on 25 April 1969, with over one thousand people, including several distinguished guests, in attendance. The Amsterdam zoo 'Artis' was involved in operating the dolphinarium, and Dr E.F. Jacobi, Director of Artis, emphasized that the zoo was very pleased with the project.

At the time of the inauguration the building was one of the largest dolphinariums in Europe. The show pool measured 28 by 10 metres, was four metres deep and contained more than a million litres of salt water. There were also additional pools behind the scenes. Fifteen hundred people could be seated to view the show.

The animal collection at Zandvoort was larger than would later be the norm in most dolphinariums. As well as bottle-nosed dolphins (a maximum of six) and some California sea lions, many other species were kept in an 'underwater gallery' with salt- and freshwater aquariums. In the gallery the dolphins and sea lions could be observed underwater via large windows. Besides the permanent collection, a white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) which had been stranded on Zandvoort beach was transferred to the dolphinarium, where it remained alive for one year.

Shows were organized throughout the year, but from October to March only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. There were usually three shows a day, at 12.00 noon, 2.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m., each lasting about 45 minutes. From 5.00 to 9.00 the visitors could see the animals in the gallery and visit the aquarium: this was unusual, as most dolphinariums were only open from shortly before till shortly after a show.

In its first years, the Zandvoort dolphinarium attracted a lot of visitors, many of them Germans. In 1969 about 300,000 people viewed the shows, a number that increased a year later to 400,000.

The first director was Roepe van der Voort, and John Slootmaker – who had previous experience with sea lions and dolphins – was the head trainer and also manager. Despite the competition from Harderwijk, Dolfirama was successful for the first ten years, but later things became much more difficult. In the early 1980s NV Bouwes was bought by a Canadian businessman, Michael Hordo, but in November 1981 he announced that the dolphinarium was no longer profitable and that he wanted to sell the animals and transform the building into a sports centre.

At that moment John Slootmaker sprang into action. Denying that the enterprise could not be profitable, he attracted attention with a world record attempt to stay underwater. But despite various money-raising activities, an attempt by the municipality to collect the three million guilders that Hordo demanded, the sympathy of the province and the government, and an occupation of the premises by Slootmaker and his staff in protest at the threat of closure, sufficient financial support could not be obtained. Finally, in July 1982, Hordo's company' declared bankruptcy and he walked away leaving debts of almost Gld20 million. In February 1983 a large part of the Bouwes Group was sold, and in March the liquidator discharged John Slootmaker and the remaining staff and the dolphinarium was closed, though Slootmaker got permission to look after the animals at the expense of the still-existing foundation Dolfirama Zandvoort. Surprisingly, a Zandvoort businessman, Wim van der Meulen, now stepped in and eventually bought the dolphinarium for some 800,000 guilders, also agreeing to finance the necessary renovation of the neglected building.

With a festive inauguration, the doors of the renewed Dolfirama reopened on 29 April 1983 with Slootmaker as director and van der Meulen as business director. As before there were three performances a day, as well as occasional extra evening shows. Every performance was preceded by an educational film and followed by a children's film. To increase profitability the new owners also hired out the building for conferences and organized evening events such as pop concerts and boxing matches. The animal collection did not change, though there were serious plans to keep a young killer whale.

Although attendance grew from 40,000 in 1983 to 75,000 in 1984 and 175,000 in 1985, income remained too low. Later, the opportunity was given to 'dive with the dolphins' for the price of Gld30, but as this had to happen in dirty water green with algae amid floating droppings and neurotic dolphins, the interest of potential enthusiasts quickly evaporated! In 1988, the curtain finally fell for Dolfirama.

Rotterdam, Dolfirodam (1970–1973)

Both Rotterdam Zoo ('Blijdorp') and another major attraction in the city, 'Euromast', were interested in building a dolphinarium as early as 1966, but difficulties over funding and the lack of a suitable space in the zoo prevented these projects going ahead. So when Rotterdam finally got a dolphinarium neither of these establishments was involved.

In 1970, 25 years after the liberation and following the reconstruction of Rotterdam, a major cultural event, Communication '70 (C70), took place, and during the summer a large number of events were organized. In 1969, having in mind the success of Harderwijk and the newly-opened Dolfirama, the Rotterdam business community decided to participate by raising over Gld2.3 million for a dolphinarium. Since Rotterdam was known for its international port, the idea was launched to build the facility on ships – 'the first floating dolphinarium in the world'. It was named 'Dolfirodam', a combination of dolphin and Rotterdam. It got a berth in the Leuvehaven, a harbour near the city centre.

A Rhine barge, the Jama, nearly 100 metres long, was bought and converted. A show pool measuring 25 by 8 metres and 2.85 metres deep was constructed in the hold, with adjacent night quarters for the animals. In the hold was a heating system maintaining a water temperature of 20°C. In the engine room a water treatment system was built, consisting of three sand filters which could treat all 950,000 litres of water every two hours. The animals swam in artificial salt water to which chlorine was added. (The chlorine content was checked several times a day by the staff.)

A second ship was cut in half and the halves were fixed on each side of the barge. On each part was fitted a large stand with 500 covered seats. The whole construction was about 100 metres long, 60 metres wide and 14 metres high. Alongside, there was another large flat-bottomed boat housing a café with sun terrace, a souvenir shop and a chip stall. Remarkably, the trainers were housed on the barge, where the former captain's quarters were converted into three living units.

When Dolfirodam was opened in May 1970, Harderwijk cooperated in presenting the show. The dolphins, who came from the Atlantic Ocean, were trained by the famous zoologist W.H. Dudok van Heel, curator of Harderwijk. The collaboration continued the following year but was terminated by mutual agreement at the end of 1971, when the dolphins went back to Harderwijk and Dolfirodam's management became responsible for the full operation. The necessary permits were obtained and four bottle-nosed dolphins – the only species kept in Rotterdam – caught near the coast of Florida were imported. Dolfirodam now had to employ its own trainers: Dolf De Wit, one of Harderwijk's trainers who had already worked in Rotterdam, was hired and became head trainer.

During C70 Rotterdam could count on great national and international attention. In the first year, especially, this was an advantage for Dolfirodam, but afterwards there was a significant reduction in interest from the public. In 1970 the dolphin shows, usually six to eight per day, were almost always sold out. The number of visitors that year was 209,793, dropping to 131,594 in 1971 and 80,385 in 1972.

By then the city had other plans for the Leuvehaven, so the management had to look for another location, and one was finally found in Scharendijke, in the then municipality of Middenschouwen in Zeeland province. On 6 May 1973 the last show was performed in Rotterdam, and immediately afterwards the move began. The fact that Dolfirodam was built on ships and in separate parts made the move simpler: it was completely taken apart and towed to Scharendijke.

Scharendijke, Dolfirodam (1973–1980)

The move to Scharendijke took place very quickly. Within three weeks of the last performance in Rotterdam, the different pieces had been taken apart, moved to the new berth and re-assembled. On 1 June 1973 the official inauguration of the dolphinarium in Scharendijke took place: the name 'Dolfirodam' was retained.

As well as the four bottle-nosed dolphins which came over from Rotterdam, the animal collection was now increased. First came two impressive Patagonian sea lions (Otaria flavescens). Because they were untrained, an intensive training programme was started immediately and lasted for about a year and a half. The presence of these sea lions was remarkable because, due to their delicate nature, they were used in few dolphinarium shows. Later the collection was supplemented by three South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis). For a short time there were plans to keep a killer whale as well, but this did not happen because of lack of space.

Two dolphins died over the years, so the management decided to obtain some new animals. This was not straightforward, as from August 1973 on the Netherlands had increasingly restrictive regulations on keeping and importing protected animals. For a time, following extensive press coverage of the slaughter of dolphins by Japan, the import of dolphins was banned altogether, a decision which threatened the continued existence of dolphinariums in the Netherlands. In 1978, however, it was decided on an international level that a very limited number of animals might be caught again, and in August that year Dolfirodam was given permission to import two animals. There were various setbacks, but eventually a pair caught in the Gulf of Mexico arrived in Scharendijke on 26 July 1979.

Nico P.M. den Broeder, who had started and developed a leisure park in Averbode, Belgium, was hired as director, and Dolf de Wit moved in as trainer with two new assistants. In the tourist season about 15 other staff were employed. Besides the general management, den Broeder supervised a maintenance engineer and coordinated the work of the trainers, with his wife in charge of the remaining staff. Dolfirodam did not have its own veterinary surgeon, but used Dr van de Hurk, an independent vet in Rotterdam. When he reduced his activities, the dolphinarium made use of the vet at Ouwehands Zoo in Rhenen, which had also organized dolphin shows since 1971. When very serious problems occurred, the internationally-recognized British vets Andrew Greenwood or David Taylor were approached, and if necessary would come from England to examine the animals.

The shows in Scharendijke were limited to the tourist season, i.e. from the Easter holidays until the autumn. The number varied from four to six per day, with an extra performance on Wednesday nights in July and August. (Unusually, it was agreed with the municipality of Middenschouwen that the first show on Sundays would take place at 12.00 noon so that churchgoers would be able to attend a religious service beforehand.)

Because visitors came only for the shows – there were no other activities on offer – it was clear from the beginning that the public must get 'value for money'. That was the best promotion that they could make. Naturally the animals knew a lot of exercises, but there was no fixed programme. Animals and trainers were so used to each other that the trainer immediately took into account the dolphins' moods or circumstances. Shows often lasted for about 50 minutes.

Dolfirodam received quite a lot of visitors – from 140,000 to 145,000 in most years, with a maximum of 158,370 in 1977. There was much promotion through leaflets, combination packages with other attractions and cooperation with television shows. There were also many contacts with tourist services and coach companies.

The former director has many pleasant memories of his years with the dolphinarium., which he describes as 'the most enjoyable period in my career'. But there were obviously less pleasant moments – for example when they learned that the ships could no longer serve because of excessive wear and the management had to seek a new location at short notice. Another frustration was the strict rules in the Netherlands that made it difficult to acquire the necessary permissions.

Finding suitable fish for the animals was a major problem. An inspection showed that the fish which was fed included a high concentration of DDT. These herring, sprat and mackerel came from the North Sea, and a solution was urgently needed. Because Antwerp and Ouwehands Zoos used the same supplier, an agreement was made that the herring had to come from Canadian waters and the mackerel from the Irish Sea.

Dolfirodam wanted to become a bigger tourist attraction, but this was prevented by a number of factors. On busy days the capacity, even with 1,000 seats, was too small. Moreover the tourist season was too short, only a few months, but the dolphins had to receive food and training throughout the year. To attract tourists all year round other attractions were needed, so that visitors could stay for a whole day whatever the weather. To meet this requirement, cooperative deals with other attractions were developed, for example a combination of a dolphin show and a boat cruise on the Grevelingenmeer, a formula that proved very successful.

By the end of the 1970s, though, it became clear that the ships were too old and would no longer receive the necessary permits. After investigating the potential for staying on in the province of Zeeland, the management announced in September 1979 that they would open a new dolphinarium in Stein, a city in the south-eastern province of Limburg. They were able to take advantage of a substantial subsidy offered to new companies and initiatives to promote the economy and tourist industry of the province. In contrast with Scharendijke, the recreation park 'Steinerbos' in which the dolphinarium was to be built had a wide range of possibilities for visitors to make a day trip of it. Dolfirodam in Scharendijke finally closed with a last show on 26 October 1980, and the installations were mostly demolished in 1981.

Stein, Dolfirado (1981–1987)

'Dolfirado' in Stein was the sixth dolphinarium in the Netherlands that hoped to benefit from the existing 'flipper mania'. The name, a combination of 'dolphin' and 'Eldorado', was intended to suggest that it was a 'dolphin paradise' for young and old, but in reality its existence was not a success story.

The selected location, Steinerbos, was a recreation park with an area of approximately 24 acres [9.6 ha] including a playground, enclosures for monkeys and deer, and an aviary. Work finally started in June 1980: the plan foresaw a first public show in January 1981, but after various delays it at last took place in early June. The promoters invested about Gld3.2 million in the infrastructure, and the town gave the land in leasehold.

Because the management had been very satisfied with the layout of the facility in Scharendijke, the new dolphinarium was built in a plan that was almost a copy of it. Besides the show pool with around 1,000 seats, there were two pools for the animals to stay in during the night and in quarantine. The hall where the demonstrations took place measured 30 by 30 metres and the show pool was 25 by 9.6 metres and four metres deep. The night pools were 15 metres by 10.3 and also four metres deep: they could be divided by means of wire panels into smaller parts to catch individual animals. To get dolphins out of the water a movable section of floor was available. The sea lions and fur seals had an enclosure with a land area of 24 m2 and a pool of 4 by 4 metres. There was also a treatment pool (3.3 × 4.8 × 2.1 metres) with a separate filter, connected through a passage with the rest of the pools to make it easy to isolate a dolphin.

In a technical area, three sand filters were continuously in use, and all 1.4 million litres of water, to which salt and chlorine was added, could be cleaned every two hours. The temperature was kept at 19°C, and daily water samples were taken for several quality tests. Finally there was a big freezer compartment for storing a large quantity of sprats, mackerel and herring. The trainers lived at the dolphinarium and there were two residential units for them. Free parking for 500 cars was available for visitors.

The initial animal collection, all brought from Scharendijke, consisted of five bottle-nosed dolphins, a Patagonian sea lion and four South American fur seals: one Patagonian sea lion died during the transport, probably due to stress. Another fur seal was born on 29 June 1982, making Dolfirado one of the first dolphinariums in Europe where this species was bred in captivity, but the young animal died after about six months.

The owners really believed in the dolphinarium's future, as shown by their intention to bring in an elephant seal and a walrus, but these plans were never realized; nor was the plan for a killer whale, originally made in Scharendijke.

The Stein facility was not only a tourist attraction but also a sanctuary for dolphins from other places. During the winter of 1982–83 two dolphins from Safaripark Gänsendorf near Vienna temporarily stayed in Stein while their own home was renovated, and a year later Stein was used as a 'guesthouse' for six dolphins and two sea lions from Walibi Park in Belgium and Hansaland (Sierksdorf, Germany) during the winter while both parks were closed. Dolphin and sea lion show at Dolfirado, Stein (postcard).

Nico den Broeder continued as director and there were eight permanent staff, rising to about 15 in the tourist season. The senior trainer was again Dolf de Wit. For the first two years there were shows throughout the year, but from 1983 on they were limited to the summer season: each show lasted about 45 minutes.

Dolfirado was extensively promoted in various ways, both in Limburg and in adjacent areas of neighbouring countries. Because the tourist infrastructure in the southern Netherlands was limited and the dolphinarium was located near the border with Belgium and Germany, the initiators had hoped for high visitor numbers – as many as 300,000 a year, according to one document I consulted. But other expectations were more cautious. At one meeting with the council a figure of 135,000 per year was described as 'acceptable'. (In Scharendijke an average of between 140,000 and 160,000 had been reached.) But even these low expectations were never to be reached. Just when Dolfirado started, a recession hit the Netherlands, especially in Limburg, with the result that people looked more carefully at their spending. Tourist attractions felt this recession very quickly, and Dolfirado, which was just starting, little known and with a high investment, found it especially difficult to survive. Between the opening in early June and the end of October 1981 about 75,000 visitors came: the shows were attended by many groups, but day-trippers mostly failed to turn up. An attempted solution was to provide interested visitors with a combined ticket to some other Limburg attractions as well, so that a full day trip could be made. But in 1982, despite many schemes – fashion shows, boxing matches, films, lectures, etc. – to attract new visitors, attendance fell to only 83,000.

In fact, Dolfirado always had financial difficulties from the beginning, and the income from fees never equalled the operating costs. It became clear in early 1984 that the end was near, and on 2 September 1984, four years after opening, the doors of Dolfirado closed. Head trainer Dolf de Wit had already accepted another job elsewhere. Three new young trainers were recruited and de Wit taught them for a few months, but from September 1984 they were on their own. They managed to maintain the closed establishment and look after the animals until they were informed about a year later that the dolphinarium had been taken over. The new owner did not wish to continue working with them but thanked them for services rendered.

In September 1985 John Slootmaker reappeared on the scene and took over the bankrupt Dolfirado. After necessary maintenance work, the dolphinarium officially opened for the second time on 1 February 1986. Slootmaker optimistically expected that in 1986 75,000 visitors would show up, especially because he felt good about the shows and felt he had much more to offer than the previous management. He hoped that with a smaller staff and economies in other areas he could save on the monthly fixed expenses. He also thought that if he charged a lower admission rate the number of visitors would increase. The management was in the hands of his wife Isabel Slootmaker.

Like the previous owners, Slootmaker used combination tickets with several other tourist attractions; also visitors to Steinerbos received discounted admission to the dolphinarium. But despite his efforts the number of visitors was below expectations – between 40,000 and 50,000 in 1986. Depending on the time of year, there were sometimes five shows a day. The managers wanted to pay more attention to the educational aspects, so each show began with a film, either 'The birth of a white shark' or 'Seals in the Wadden Sea'. On the night of 17–18 January 1987 a fierce fire raged which destroyed the bar and conference area of the dolphinarium. Fortunately the animals were at Dolfirama in Zandvoort, where they stayed during the winter period. Slootmaker hoped to receive insurance money to rebuild, but it was not paid out because the building was underinsured, and the story of Dolfirado finally came to an end.

Rhenen, dolphinarium in Ouwehands Zoo (1971–1989)

Ouwehands Zoo originally had plans to renovate its old bovine sheds, but because of financial constraints a choice had to be made and the management realized that dolphins would attract more visitors than new enclosures. In contrast to other dolphinariums in the Netherlands, the zoo relied for many years on foreign companies who rented out dolphin shows, including trainers. The contracts between the zoo and the 'rental company' specified that the firm was responsible for the animals and the zoo for veterinary and food assistance. In return, the company provided the trainers and a number of daily shows.

The first company Ouwehands worked with was 'Tiebor', which owned various travelling dolphin shows and was based in Gänsendorf, Austria. The dolphinarium was officially inaugurated on 30 April 1971 and the zoo started with a 'Florida Dolphin Show'. In 1977 the cooperation with Tiebor came to an end and from then on Ouwehands Zoo worked with the 'Société biologique des Caraibes' (P. Bössenecker) until 1981, when the animals were taken over by the zoo.

The housing of the dolphins in Rhenen was not comparable to that of dolphins elsewhere in the Netherlands and Belgium at the time. The infrastructure in the first years was limited to a pool about ten metres in diameter and three metres deep. In fact, it was a simple plastic tank filled with almost 240,000 litres of water to which salt was added, placed in a simple wooden hall. A second smaller pool, three metres across and two deep, was used to hold animals temporarily for visits from the veterinarian. These pools were not interconnected. There was no filter – based on measurements of the water quality, part would be changed and supplemented with a quantity of salt. This simple construction remained in use until 1979, when the dolphinarium acquired a larger show pool and several smaller pools behind the scenes. These pools were interconnected through a narrow gateway. In an adjoining room a filter was built. As in most dolphinariums, chlorine was added to the water. (Stimulated by the head of the dolphinarium, Gerard Meyer, and after much debate, the use of chlorine was ultimately abandoned, but not until the last dolphin had died in 1989, when only California sea lions were kept.)

Both the first and the second show pool had seating for about 1,200 visitors. The basic collection consisted of the usual common bottle-nosed dolphins, though for a while there were also Pacific bottle-nosed (T. gilli) and Guiana dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) present. (These last belonged to the same group from which Antwerp Zoo received three animals.) One of these animals was the last to die at Ouwehands in 1989: on the basis of dentition, its age was estimated at over 30 years. Patagonian sea lions were also in the animal collection and took part in the shows.

Certainly in the early years the care of the animals was very primitive because of the limited infrastructure. In order to clean the pool, the dolphins were removed with hammocks and a crane and the water was pumped out with the help of the local fire brigade. The animals remained in the hammocks while the pool was cleaned and were put back afterwards. When the work took longer for any reason, they were taken care of in the smaller pool for a short time. After the reconstruction in 1979 the animals were cared for in a more professional manner. The total volume of the new pools was more than one million litres, and two sand filters with an automatic chlorine and acid dosing system had a turn-around time of three hours. For the animals' veterinary care Andries van Foreest, the Ouwehands Zoo vet, was called on. When assistance was necessary, he worked together with Drs Greenwood and Taylor of the International Zoo Veterinary Group. There were never any breeding successes with the zoo's dolphins.

Depending on the season, two to six, or sometimes seven, shows took place each day. On busy days with up to six or seven shows, performances were often limited to about 12 minutes so that a maximum number of zoo visitors could attend, but on days with less shows they could take longer. In the early days of cooperation with Tiebor only two dolphins were present. Afterwards, there were usually up to five, and for each show two or three animals were used.

In 1981, when the contract with Bössenecker ended, the zoo took over two dolphins from him and from then on was responsible for their care. They took these animals because they could not obtain a permit to import new dolphins from the U.S.A. In 1986 the style of the show changed: the subject matter became more educational, with special emphasis on the animals and their natural environment. In 1989, however, the board decided to stop keeping dolphins. Their last animal had died, and although the zoo had a permit to obtain six new ones it was felt that the building was no longer suitable to accommodate dolphins.

As at Antwerp Zoo, which had a great dolphinarium for over 30 years, the dolphin show at Ouwehands had been a major crowd puller, but declining attendance was a factor in its closure. The former dolphinarium still exists, but now houses only California sea lions, and several demonstrations are held daily with these animals.

Acknowledgements

Many people helped me in the compiling of this extensive article. I would like to thank in particular Marc Damen (Director, Rotterdam Zoo), Nico den Broeder (former director, Dolfirodam in Scharendijke and Dolfirado in Stein), Gerard Meijer (Curator/Registrar, Ouwehands Dierenpark), Philippe Jouk (General Curator and Curator of Aquarium, Reptiles and Marine Mammals, Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp), Martin Huygen and Jacques Smolders (former trainers and senior trainers in various dolphinariums), Harry Schram, Maria Baron (Historical Archives, Dolphinarium Harderwijk), A. Carlier (trainer, Antwerp Zoo dolphinarium), M. Heeren-Hechtermans (former owner, Maupertuus Park, Wellen) and Arnold Balk.
My gratitude also goes to the staff members of Archives Department Sittard-Geleen, Municipal Archives Schouwen-Duiveland and Municipal Archives Stein for their assistance with my research.

Photo credits: M. Heeren-Hechtermans, Antwerp Zoo www.beeldbankzoo.be, Nico P.M. den Broeder and the author.

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

 

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