Gushes of “oohs” and “aahs” came unsynchronized amid clapping and laughter from the youthful crowd at Ocean Adventure Park’s El Capitan Theater in the Subic Bay Freeport on April 19.
A disciplined pod of five dolphins and a false killer whale had just performed choreographed numbers set to music at the park’s lagoon near Subic’s rainforests – proof that the creatures not only throbbed with life but are also capable of thinking.
What they possess are “grace, agility, power and intelligence,” said Dr. Lemnuel Aragones, a marine zoologist of the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (UP-IESM) and one of the park’s two consultants.
This was not all about amusement, though.
Janet Rodriguez, the program host, assumed the teacher’s role and made sure the message of conservation reached her audience. Planet Earth, especially its oceans, seas and rivers, must be protected from pollution so creatures like whales, sharks, dolphins and fish can live and sustain the web of life underwater, she said.
One person’s act of throwing garbage into the right places can help water bodies stay clean, Rodriguez said.
Those at risk need help as well, she said as she called in “Fin” and “Sam.” Injured when found by local fishermen, the two dolphins were nursed back to health at the park’s rescue center.
Fin, a rough-toothed dolphin, was entangled in a fishing net in nearby Morong town in Bataan, on March 20, 2006. He has not been returned to sea because of his affection for caregivers. His name was taken from the phrase “fishing pen,” which a Visayan caregiver pronounced as “fishing fin,” said Aragones.
Sam, a spotted dolphin, was trapped in a pen with two of his companions already dying in Samal town, also in Bataan, on Sept. 14, 2004. With no more social group to rely on, Sam was brought by veterinarians to the park.
Fin, 15, and Sam, 5, are helped out daily by caregiver-trainer Carlo Magno.
Aragones said he had “no issue” about some marine mammals being kept in captivity.
“They are valuable for education and conservation,” he said, in reaction to past protests by animal rights activists.
He took a great liking for animals while spending his younger years in Africa where his father, an economist, served his stint in the United Nations.
Working with fishermen in researches on sea cows (dugong) in northern Palawan and on marine mammals around Calauit Island in Busuanga were the tipping points in his decision to help in marine conservation.
Fin and Sam have so far survived on the nurturing of the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network (PMMSN). Aragones said the group was the first of its kind in the country.
Initiated in 2004 by Aragones and the Subic Bay Marine Exploratorium (SBME), which operates the park, the PMMSN was created under an agreement with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, UP-IESM and the Wild Life in Need.
It has responded to 19 stranding cases since then. Aside from Fin and Sam, two other dolphins have been returned to the sea.
According to the PMMSN, the Philippines is home to 28 confirmed marine mammal species. “The cetacean species range from the more common spinner dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins and melon headed whales to the rarer sightings of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, dwarf sperm whales and humpback whales,” it said.
The country is “also home to the rare dugong, a species of sirenian (marine, herbivorous mammals) that lives along the seagrass-rich coastlines of Palawan,” the group said.
Helping stranded marine mammals is necessary in a country surrounded by water, the PMMSN said. Stranding happens “when a marine mammal that is sick, injured, starving, lost or dead is brought to the shore or to shallow waters by the winds or the waves.”
The sick or injured try to reach the shore or shallow waters, mainly to get air. “Their injuries may also have been caused by human activities, such as pollution of ocean habitats, noise pollution underwater and excessive boat traffic,” the PMMSN said.
Using the personnel, facilities and rescue center of the park, the network has provided training to 150 agriculture and fishery officials and fishermen in the Ilocos, Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon.
The training “aims to develop first responders among people living near the coasts,” Aragones said. “It is on them that the success of recovery and rescue of marine mammals rest.”
Some of the trainees stand out for their “thoroughgoing commitment.” Aragones praised BFAR-Cagayan Valley director Jovita Ayson and Alaminos City Mayor Hernani Braganza, who sent their personnel to train following at least four incidents of stranding in their areas since 2007.
“Support largely comes from the corporate social responsibility program of SBME,” said Aragones, who trained under cetacean specialist Stephen Leatherwood of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “It is unfortunate that government is not putting enough investments in efforts to institutionalizing the stranding network,” he said.
Aragones said this was happening although Republic Act No. 9147 (Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act) had been in effect since 2001. That law, he said, designated the BFAR as protector of aquatic animals and the DENR as protector of sea turtles and dugong.
At the rescue center, SBME’s veterinarian, Dr. Mariel Buccat-Flores, and veterinarian care specialist, Francis Maniago, provide medical help. The staff members contribute time to take care of the stranded animals.
The park has a quarantine area, soft pool, medical laboratory, two more veterinarians and a medical technologist.