The Russian Dolphinarium – Introduction

ArcticIce01“I have a very positive attitude to anyone who is protecting the environment, but it’s inadmissible when people are using it as a means of promoting themselves, using it as a source of self-enrichment. I don’t want to name any specific examples… but often, environmentalism is used to blackmail companies.”

Vladimir Putin

In late December 2013, Putin released 30 activists associated with Greenpeace who had been detained for protesting a Russian oil rig.  The 30 had faced up to fifteen years each in a Russian prison.

The release solidified Greenpeace as a pawn of Russian government publicity and was carefully orchestrated to provide a distraction from three controversial government decisions.

First was the arrest of the Greenpeace protesters themselves, who had not been arrested on the oil rig, but rather on the seized Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. Following a reduction of charges and the issuance of bail, amnesty was awarded by the Putin government as part of a wider initiative that included the granting of amnesty to numerous other political detainees, including members of the anti-Putin rock band Pussy Riot, in a move the Guardian called “a Putin masterstroke ahead of Olympics.”

Then there’s the matter of the Russian economy, which is reliant almost entirely on gas and petroleum sales and exports.  Any development outside of Russia that results in competition in the market could have a devastating effect upon Russia’s economic stability. Therefore, it’s necessary that Russia be gracious in some respects to Greenpeace, especially since, as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced in a speech in London in 2014, “I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations – environmental organisations working against shale gas – to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”  Among the NGO’s Russia is believed to have financed through donations from government shell corporations is Greenpeace Germany.

The third reason for the release of the Greenpeace detainees goes back to 1773.


The modern circus began in 1768 in England when Phillip Astley, a former military man turned trick rider, laid out a ring on a surface and discovered by having the horse follow the ring, he could maintain his balance standing on the horse.  He eventually added clowns, musicians, and other entertainers to round out the show.

In 1773, a former Astley performer, Charles Hughes, brought a two ring circus to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg.  Some consider this the birth of the Russian circus, though because it only offered horse tricks, others date it to the 1820’s and the arrival in Russia of Frenchman Jacques Tourniaire and his circus.

Circus spread throughout Russia and with it, as in most other parts of the world, animal acts.  After the consolidation of Communist control, all of Russia’s circuses were unified into a single state-run company.

The Russian dolphinarium industry had a much different origin than its Western counterpart.  It is with the establishment in 1966 of a Soviet Navy dolphin program in Sebastopol on the Crimean Peninsula that all dolphinariums in the Ukraine and Russia have their roots.

By the mid-1970’s “public demonstration” dolphinariums had opened in a number of locations within the Soviet Union, all attached to scientific research institutions.  The trainers at these dolphinariums either came from or had been mentored by trainers involved with the Navy program and took their expertise, combined with the showmanship of the Russian circus, to create something uniquely Russian, particularly with traveling shows.

Although a few belugas began popping up over the years in Russian shows, it was not until the 2000 moratorium on commercial beluga hunting that beluga capture for aquariums and theme parks in Europe, North America, and Asia came into fashion. The industry of capturing orcas for these types of facilities was a direct result of the success of the beluga trade.

The typical Russian or Ukranian dolphinarium is comprised of one part government, one part private industry, a dash of corruption, a splash of organized crime, and an operational mentality at least fifty years behind the West.


Over the years, as a journalist covering the attractions and museum sectors, I have profiled venues as varied as a sourdough bakery visitor center in San Francisco and a next generation botanical garden in Singapore. In 2013, I was covering the construction of Sochi Park, a US$371 million theme park being built directly adjacent to the main Olympic venues.

I had my doubts that the park, designed to showcase the best of Russia by the same firm behind Abu Dhabi’s massive Ferrari World, would open in time.  This was primarily driven by a conversation I had with a friend who was in Sochi to cover the lead up to the Olympic games. He told me about how his brand new hotel room had no water hooked up to the toilet, so the management had recommended he come use the restroom in the lobby when he needed. That idea became highly unmanageable when the inside doorknob fell off his room’s door and he was unable to contact anyone due to there neither being a phone in the room nor a reliable cellular signal.

My doubts became reality as construction on the park was halted while construction workers were reallocated to other, more pressing projects, such as hotels and Olympic venues. When the games came in 2014, the only part of the park to open was a kiddie land with off the shelf rides.

So in late 2013, when I heard about two orcas that would be “participating in the Olympics,” I started wondering if they were headed to Sochi Park in a stopgap measure to actually have something there to pull in the crowds.

This is how I learned about the Sochi Dolphinarium and White Sphere, and how I embarked on a three-year long odyssey to understand the Russian/Ukranian dolphinarium scene and its relationship to China and Taiji.

Along the way, I have been grateful to a number of tourism and zoo professionals and government officials in both Russia and China who have shared background information. As neither of these countries provide the same liberties as we experience in the West, I have opted to keep these sources confidential to protect both their livelihoods and freedom.

I am also grateful to animal activist Jim Smith of Oregon for his exceptional research on Vladivostok and Sebastopol, to the posters on the Russian Orcas forum, and to the staff of Ceta-base, who through personal correspondence helped identify a link between Taiji and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

And this brings us back to Putin releasing the Greenpeace activists.


The third reason that Putin released the 30 Greenpeace detainees was to draw attention away from the two orcas destined for Sochi, which was turning out to be a controversial action, news of which was being played in the mainstream international media.  Only a month prior to the Greenpeace release, the whales had been rerouted, almost in secret, to Moscow, where they would wait for over a year in rusting tanks under an inflatable structure for a new “temporary” home to built at the All Russia Exposition Center.  I use the term “temporary” as Narnia and Nord remain the property of White Sphere, which owns the Sochi Dolphinarium.

In the days following the discovery of White Sphere’s involvement, conspiracy theories began to envelope the internet showing a direct connection between White Sphere and SeaWorld.

The most common conspiracy goes something like this: White Sphere lists IAAPA, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, as a partner on its website. SeaWorld, in January 2014 hosted IAAPA for a private function.  Therefore, logic dictates that IAAPA must somehow be an intermediary between White Sphere and SeaWorld.  But in this case, logic’s wrong.

Both SeaWorld and White Sphere are members of IAAPA, but IAAPA is a membership organization for the attractions industry, with tens of thousands of members worldwide. Anyone in the industry can be a member.  I’ve been with museums, attractions, design firms, and publications that have all held IAAPA membership.  At one point, I held an individual membership myself.

The January event in question is an annual one.  As part of the IAAPA Institute for Leadership Education, which takes place yearly at San Diego State University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, delegates attend private events and tours of both the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

Why White Sphere management would spend $5000 per person for a six day seminar in attraction management skills just to meet with SeaWorld about how to capture and train orcas is beyond me when all they’d need to do is send an email or make a direct call.

In a November 2014 article in the Russian paper Izvestia, White Sphere’s Yulia Frolova (who had made a number of confusing and contradictory statements during the relocation of the orcas), stated that SeaWorld was assisting with the animals’ training.

As SeaWorld itself has never confirmed working directly with these animals, it should be taken under consideration that she may have been implying current or former SeaWorld trainers working independently of the company, with or without SeaWorld’s knowledge or consent.  It is common for SeaWorld staff to interact with their Russian counterparts through scientific conferences, veterinary associations, and IMATA.


In the next part, I’ll look at three dolphinarium companies that are making their mark on the rest of the world – NEMO, Ultrish, and White Sphere.


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