Rare objects have tremendous monetary and emotional value—and, sadly, this applies to living creatures, including dolphins. Amid the global uproar over the latest round of dolphin killings in Taiji, Japan, one young calf, an extremely rare albino bottlenose dolphin nicknamed Angel by activists, has captured the hearts of people around the world. But with her mother probably now dead, her future is bleak.
The pinkish-white female calf (her exact age is unknown) was one of 250 bottlenose dolphins forced into the deadly cove over the weekend. Fishermen slaughtered 40 of them yesterday, while 52 were selected for sale to aquariums, including Angel. The others were released.
Albino cetaceans are exceedingly unusual. Only two others have reportedly been identified: a female bottlenose dolphin named Carolina Snowball, caught off the coast of South Carolina in 1962, and a killer whale named Handsome, who was photographed off the Alaskan coast in 2010.
It's precisely this rarity that makes Angel so special, not only to anti-captivity activists but also to Taiji fishermen and the aquariums that will likely bid top dollar to put her on display for gawking tourists. “People pay good money to see oddities,” says Ric O'Barry, star of the Oscar-winning documentary feature The Cove, which first put a global spotlight on Taiji’s dolphin slaughter in 2009.
A Taiji-caught dolphin can fetch more than $150,000, but we won't know Angel's actual monetary value until the bidding process begins. She is being held in a small tank at the Taiji Whale Museum, O'Barry says, and it is conceivable the museum could keep her as part of its collection.
Then again, she may not live long enough to bring in crowds.
“I doubt she will survive very long,” says Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Unfortunately her life may just be a brief punctuation mark in the ongoing conflict in Taiji.” O'Barry agrees. “I'm afraid she will end up as fertilizer or pet food,” he says, referring to a common practice of sending captive dead whales and dolphins to rendering plants. “It's a gut feeling based on 54 years of being around captures and seeing how many do not survive their experience, especially one that young who was taken away from its mother.”
Extreme stress from the drives—both the capture and the witnessing of family members having their spinal cords severed—can have a deadly effect on dolphins. “It's too stressful; their immune system starts going down, and then they stop eating,” O'Barry says.
Then there's the question of how Angel's mother died. Was she killed by Taiji fishermen? Did she die of stress? Or did she kill herself? Like all cetaceans, bottlenoses are voluntary breathers, meaning they are capable of holding their breath until they expire.
“There's no way to prove or disprove it,” says O'Barry, who watched a video shot on Jan. 17 of Angel's mother in the thralls of being “absolutely panic-stricken,” seemingly racked with grief after being separated from her calf. “I've seen dolphins in the cove many times committing suicide, and I think I saw it again with this dolphin's mother,” he says. “I could be wrong; it’s just an educated guess.”
Cetacean scientist Dr. Naomi Rose, of the Animal Welfare Institute, doubts Angel’s mother committed suicide. “She could have surfaced right away, 10 feet from where she’d been, and no one would have been able to tell,” she says. Regardless, she adds, “removing a dependent calf from the mother is wrong on so many levels. It’s unethical, it’s poor biology because the calf’s survival is very much in doubt, and it’s poor conservation.”
O'Barry, who used to capture and train dolphins, including several who interchangeably played Flipper on the 1960s television show of the same name, says Angel reminds him of the only other albino dolphin he's interacted with, Carolina Snowball, whom he helped capture in 1962. She was subsequently shipped to the Miami Seaquarium, where she was renamed Popcorn and died less than three years later. “She was the last dolphin I ever captured,” he adds. “Now with Angel, it's Groundhog Day for me to relive all that in my mind.”
For now, Angel is the poster child for the resurgence of international outrage at the killings at the cove. Whatever becomes of her, she is having an impact.
“It seems like the whole world responded to her sad story with empathy and compassion,” wrote Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, in an email. “Unfortunately it took the capture of this Angel to shine a light on the dark side of the captivity trade.”