SALT RIVER PIMA-MARICOPA INDIAN COMMUNITY, AZ — Thursday marked one year since four dolphins were transported thousands of miles from Phoenix, Arizona to St. Thomas, an island that is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It also marks roughly a year since Dolphinaris Arizona, an attraction that offered interactive "swim-with-the-dolphin"-type experiences, shut down its operations amid the deaths of four of its dolphins -- what amounted to half of its fleet -- under its care, sparking questions and public backlash from animal activists.
The four surviving dolphins, Ping, Noe, Liko, and Sonny, were transported to Coral World Ocean Park, an oceanside attraction and sanctuary on St. Thomas that offers tourists interactive experiences with dolphins and sea lions, as well as underwater experiences.
Last March, executives who run the entertainment complex, which sits near the Loop 101 and Via de Ventura on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, announced that Ventura Entertainment, the Mexico-based parent company of Dolphinaris Arizona, would replace its dolphin attraction with something else that would not involve live animals.
Since that announcement, not much else, if anything, has been said about what the new attraction would entail nor when it would -- our could -- potentially open. Nor has much been said about the dolphins. So, we reached out. Here is what we have learned.
THE DOLPHINS ARE "DOING EXTREMELY WELL"
When Ping and Noe, the two female dolphins, and Sonny and Liko, the two male dolphins, arrived at Coral World Ocean Park last year, they were "healthy" and "in good condition," said Lee Kellar, general curator at Coral World Ocean Park, who spoke to ABC15 via FaceTime this week.
He said the dolphins did have some things that required attention, but now, "are doing extremely well."
"They have really learned to adapt to their habitat," he said, which is described as a 69,000-square-foot (about 1.6 acres) enclosure in the ocean. "It was quite a big change for them coming from Arizona to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. They're now in natural ocean water. They're exposed to waves and currents and fish and all sorts of other environmental stimuli."
He said they've even witnessed some of the dolphins eat fish, such as a yellowtail snapper, that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ping is the matriarch and leader of their small pod. "She exerts her dominance. She lets the others know if they're doing something right or wrong," he said.
Noe, short of Noelani, is their "baby girl." Described as a "sweetheart," Kellar said everybody loves Noe and called her a "wonderful little dolphin."
Loki and Sonny, the two males, have different personalities, he said. They sometimes compete for dominance, so one day Loki might be in charge and the next, Sonny is in charge.
Loki is more adventurous than Sonny and enjoys exploring the habitat and chasing fish. He particularly likes chasing "lizardfish," a carnivorous fish that likes to hid in the sand or beneath the coral, according to Kellar.
Sonny, on the other hand, stays close to home. "He certainly likes to be around the girls. He likes the attention they give him. He's not as interested in going out and exploring," Kellar said.
All four of the dolphins have interacted with guests, said Kellar. Experiences vary between $70-$165, according to Coral World's website.
When it comes to their health, Kellar said all of the dolphins are given a daily physical exam to check their swimming and to look for any changes to their body, such as nicks, cuts, bruises, scratches, rashes or irritations. Should anything come up, the information is shared with a veterinarian who determines whether treatment is needed.
Kellar said because the habitat has natural elements, such as sand and coral, it isn't uncommon for the dolphins to get a scratch, such as when Loki apparently chases the lizardfish into the coral.
THE FUTURE OF DOLPHINARIS ARIZONA
Since Dolphinaris Arizona closed, the building at the Arizona Boardwalk (formerly OdySea in the Desert) complex has remained vacant. All of the tenants that were located within that building have also closed.
According to Amram Knishinsky, the founder of Arizona Boardwalk, the owners of Dolphinaris Arizona built and own that particular building. So, it is up to them to decide its future.
"It was very disappointing when something tragic happens. But, the attraction belonged to Ventura Entertainment. They built the building. It's their building. They spent a lot of money on that," Knishinsky said last week during a news conference to announce the rebranding to Arizona Boardwalk. "It's all done now. They did everything they could for the dolphins. It's a very unfortunate thing that took place, but they have certainly taken care of the ones that were alive and moved them to the Virgin Islands and they're doing well from what I know."
When it was announced last March that Ventura Entertainment's new attraction would not have live animals, Arizona Boardwalk officials were supportive.
“We are excited to hear more details in the coming months regarding this new project,” Ran Knishinsky, partner and chief marketing officer, said in a March 2019 statement.
Since then, ABC15 has reached out multiple times over the past year for updates on the project. Ran Knishinsky, as well as a spokesperson for Arizona Boardwalk have routinely been unable to comment. Ventura Entertainment has not responded to our requests.
"At this point in time, [Ventura Entertainment] has kept in touch with us, but they haven't announced any new attractions. As soon as I know what they're looking to do, we'll announce it, but it will not be animal-based," Ran Knishinsky told ABC15 last week.
Christian Schaeffer de Leon, general manager for Dolphinaris Arizona, told ABC15 in an email earlier this week: "At this time we have no information about what is going to happen with our venue. Have a great day."