The Hero of Captive Dolphins: An Animatronic Dolphin so realistic it may free dolphins over the world

Enorha Guimard and Liam van Walsum writing for DMAD 06/07/2020 

Today the world is becoming more and more environmentally aware, driving an increased focus on questioning the welfare of animals in human captivity. One such example of this are dolphinariums, aquariums for dolphins, that are used to house and/or train dolphins for purposes such as acrobatic shows.
According to an article by David Kirby for TakePart, there are over 343 facilities across 63 countries that house a total of 2100 captive dolphins and whales. Of the 195 countries of the world, only 14 ban captive displays of dolphins.
Before listing the known issues with these aquariums it would be objective to note that not all are strictly for commercial purposes. For example, the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park in Australia is licensed to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals by its state wildlife service. That said, they still do train dolphins and put on shows, probably as a way to maintain funding. However many dolphinariums are strictly commercial and exist only to attract visitors, with varying levels of animal welfare.
Dolphins have unique behaviours and physiologies that make them unsuitable for captivity.
Most captive dolphins are bottlenose, these are coastal dolphins that travel long distances in the wild for foraging or seasonal migrations. In a 2008 paper by Hawkins and Gartside it was recorded that dolphins can spend 38% of their time travelling and 19% foraging, during which time dolphins will deep dive, fast swim (bursts of speed), and ‘porpoise’, behaviours that are impossible or restricted in dolphinarium pools. 
Wild dolphins also have complex social groups, ranging from pods of 2 to pods of well over 1000 in some species or regions. These pods can have dynamic and flexible social interactions both within their pod and with other pods that may not be present in dolphinariums.
The mental health of the dolphin is also at question. Mental health is hard to measure, especially if the subject cannot converse with us in any way other than body language. Suicide of dolphins has been recorded. Additionally, a proposed explanation for the phenomenon of curved fins in captured orcas is depression. A study by Dima and Gache in 2004 listed suicide among the most common causes of captive dolphin deaths, among disease, accidental events and malnutrition.
When looking at the welfare of captive dolphins in Australia in 2019, the RSPCA lists the following categories as areas of concern: social behaviour, space restrictment, sound, interaction with humans, health deterioration.

A potential answer to this issue can be found in the newest creation of Edge Innovation’s, an animatronics and special effects company which were also behind in some cinema’s famous scenes from “Saving Willy”, “Flipper” and “Deep Blue Sea”. 

The idea came from a chinese aquarium that proposed the creation of a robotic dolphin due to restrictions in China’s wildlife trade because of the Covid-19 crisis. Edge Innovation claims their aim is to demonstrate their technologies so they can replace other animals that are not suitable for captivity and hopefully to speed the process of limiting the use of wild animals in parks such as Sea World.
The animatronic is reportedly so realistic that viewers of the event claimed it looked just like a normal dolphin in its movements. The dolphin displayed by Edge Innovations has a battery life of 10 hours and weighs just under 270, costing $40 – $60 million usd. The dolphin has no cameras, sensors, or AI and is controlled completely remotely. 
The design of the dolphin used a realistic musculoskeletal frame with artificial skin that allows for its full realistic movements, expressions and appearance in addition to yellow stained teeth to really sell the illusion.
No behaviours such as jumps were made during Edge Innovation’s demo, and we could not find confirmation if this was within the robot’s capabilities.
Therefore although likely this technology may lead to a reduction or even complete disappearance of dolphins in commercial captivity, it is unlikely that this animatronic will fully replace live dolphins until a future iteration can leap out of the water for customers.
The robot is controlled by a nearby operator and interacts with visitors. Photo credit: Blooloop

Although originally created to revolutionise the live commercial dolphin industry in line with modern animal ethics, the technology created by Edge Innovation may lead to advances in other fields. Zoos may soon have similar animatronic contraptions that can reduce stress on animals from visitors. However the disappearance of animals from zoos will be unlikely as many have breeding programs designed to support declining wild populations. Although CGI has taken over as the dominant method of creating unnatural visuals on screen, we have seen recent pushes for the increased use of practical effects by nostalgic fans such as in Star Wars and Mad Max.

An article from National Geographic by Jane Lee in 2019 explains that marine mammals such as dolphins and seals have been used previously by the military to detect mines with greater accuracy than machines. Although this would make the animatronic redundant, being a machine, its realistic appearance may be useful to avoid a search, as opposed to conducting a search. Finally, and most importantly to our work here at DMAD, this technology could potentially be used in a research capacity. Autonomous vehicles in marine research are already in widespread use, as their deployment reduces the amount of expensive and potentially unsafe boat expeditions needed. Although in its current form it would likely only serve to scare away organisms that dolphins may feed on, future iterations and design changes may allow for more effective marine research. For example designing a robot in the shape of an organism that reduces changes in the behaviour, such as fright, of a target species around this robot would allow a more intimate look into that species.  Therefore the further development of the technology in a research capacity will be dependent on the target species and its behaviour, the geographic area of interest, and the style of monitoring desired by researchers as outlined by Verfus et al in their 2019 paper. Because of this need for specialised designs, it is unlikely we will see this robot or robots like it being used for research anytime in the near future.
  • Jane J. Lee, (May 3, 2019) “Military whales and dolphins: What do they do and who uses them?” National Geographic: <as of 6/7/20>
  • RSPCA, Australia’s leading animals welfare organization (2019) Research reports : The welfare of dolphins in captivity.
  • Hawkins E & Gartside D (2008) Social and behavioural characteristics of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus)in northern New South Wales, Australia. Australian Mammalogy, 30:71-82
  • Dima LD & Gache C (2004) Dolphins in captivity : realities and perspectives, Al I Cuza, University of Iaşi
  • Verfuss , U K , Aniceto , A S , Harris , D V , Gillespie , D , Fielding , S , Jiménez , G , Johnston , P , Sinclair , R R , Sivertsen , A , Solbø , S A , Storvold , R , Biuw , M & Wyatt , R 2019 , ‘ A review of unmanned vehicles for the detection and monitoring of marine fauna ‘ , Marine Pollution Bulletin , vol. 140 , pp. 17-29
  • Highfill, L. E, & Kuczaj II, S. A. (2010). How Studies of Wild and Captive Dolphins Contribute to our Understanding of Individual Differences and Personality. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23(3)