Remembering a time when Britain kept Killer Whales in swimming pool sized enclosures for public entertainment
By Alex Bragan
The coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea sits rather listlessly in the southern tip of Essex’s Tendring peninsula. The weather-worn facades of its promenade amusements serve as a reminder of what globalisation has left behind.
Users of the consumer information brand Which? rated Clacton “the worst resort town in England,” citing crumbling infrastructure and a tired atmosphere. Indeed, the town is plagued by a sense of placelessness and, strolling on its unmanicured beaches, one could scarcely guess that Clacton was once the site of one of the British Isles’ most wholly unique and fiercely controversial attractions.
From 1971 to 1985 the “North Sea World Training Dolphins School” was housed in a facility in Clacton. It was headed by Reg Bloom, a ”practitioner in the art of dolphin training,” as one profile described him. The dolphinarium, situated at the end of Clacton Pier, was little more than a modified swimming pool surrounded by open-air stands. Just 3.2 metre at its deepest point, the enclosure was considerably cramped when occupied by multiple dolphins. Contrary to this fact, the popular attraction was operated by accomplished, knowledgeable staff. By the time he was running his dolphin shows in Clacton, Bloom had garnered nearly 25 years of experience working with cetaceans of various species. In addition to being a trainer and consultant, he was something of a dolphin dealer, offering dolphins-for-hire to anyone who might want to rent one of his animals for short- or long-term engagements.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Bloom was in search of exciting additions to his dolphinarium. In the summer of 1978 a dispute between SeaWorld and the Windsor Safari Park in Berkshire, England left a young orca by the name of Suzie Wong (later Hoi Wai) in need of a trainer. Bloom jumped at the opportunity to foster the magnificent creature. Her acrobatic shows filled the stands around the dolphinarium’s converted swimming pool for several months, until a particularly nasty storm on New Year’s Day 1979 caused significant damage to the pier, after which she was transferred back to Windsor.
A seed had been sown though, and Bloom sought out more killer whales to be the stars of his aquatic performances. In late 1981 he brought three orcas to Clacton, all of which had been captured from the same pod near Iceland. Nemo, Neptune, and an unnamed male took up residence in the pier’s shallow pool as they awaited further sale. Unbeknownst to Bloom and his team, however, the whales were in deteriorating health. Soon after their arrival to Clacton, and merely two months after their initial capture, the anonymous male passed away due to complications from a traumatic injury to his abdominal wall. It’s unclear if this injury was sustained in transit or whilst in the pool. (Enclosure can engender aggressive behaviour amongst killer whales and they are even known to attempt suicide should their situation be bleak enough.) Neptune died a year-and-a-half later of peritonitis, inflammation of the lining of the abdomen usually caused by an infection or rupture of the intestines, leaving Nemo as the sole orca inhabitant of the Clacton Pier dolphinarium.
From the start of their residency in Clacton the whales had aroused the interest of Greenpeace. A campaign entitled “Free the Clacton Three” eventually diminished to “Free the Clacton One” after the deaths of Neptune and his nameless brother. The conditions in Clacton became the subject of much scrutiny. Windsor Park later reported that when they readmitted Suzie Wong after her stay with Bloom, her skin had turned a sickly yellow. Stories like these were inspiring animal rights activists across the world to similarly campaign for the release of captive cetaceans, prompting many countries to take regulatory action. Britain reacted in kind; in 1985, the Department of the Environment (now the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) commissioned two biologists, Dr Margaret Klinowska and Dr Susan Brown, to prepare a report on the holding of cetaceans in UK dolphinariums. Their findings, published as “A Review on Dolphinaria,” ultimately suggested that strict standards for the keeping of cetaceans be enacted and enforced in the UK, with a high emphasis being placed upon the research value of captive animals and an overhaul of living conditions being demanded. Notably, the researchers wrote that any pool housing killer whales should reach a minimum depth of 15m – nearly 12m deeper than the enclosure at Clacton Pier. The review formed the basis of the cetacean guidelines within the Secretary of State’s Standards for Modern Zoo Practice, creating some of strictest regulations in the world.
The Clacton Pier complex closed in the summer of 1985, and many UK dolphinariums would fold in the years following, only a handful survived to see the turn of the decade. Compliance with the new regulations was a primary factor in this collapse. Many aquariums lacked the financial wherewithal to update their facilities and the review had further recommended that only institutions who could prove they had the financial means to provide quality long-term care for cetaceans be allowed to hold them. Public awareness surrounding the negative aspects of captivity also increased during this time, largely as a result of the activist work of groups like Greenpeace. As public sentiment shifted, so did their attitude toward visiting dolphinariums; by the late 1980s, once they had been made aware of the qualitative difference in conditions between captivity and the wild. Today, while cetacean captivity is not outright illegal in the UK, it has arguably become so strictly regulated that it would be impossible to do so, and the number of captive dolphins and orcas worldwide is similarly dwindling.
These days, there is little to remind the world of Clacton’s former cetacean citizens. And even though the lives of Essex’s killer whales were short, their legacy of tighter dolphinarium regulations will likely be long-lasting.