16 min read

Dolphins Are Being Kept In Popular Chain Hotel's Tiny Basement Swimming Pool

It's as little as 2 feet deep — and one expert says "there’s no way that the dolphins wouldn’t be suffering."

The dolphins should be in the ocean. Instead, they’re trapped inside a small, shallow swimming pool in the basement of a hotel, where all they can do is swim laps — back and forth, and back and forth.

Margaux Dodds, cofounder of Marine Connection, first learned about the dolphins through a contact who’d visited the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan, a hotel near the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and saw the dolphins in person.

“What they saw were the two dolphins in something that’s akin to a public swimming pool,” Dodds, whose group campaigns against cetacean captivity, told The Dodo. “[The hotel is] saying that it was purposely built for the dolphins, but sorry — I don’t quite believe that. I think it has been their indoor swimming pool for their guests, and they’ve now just switched to using it for the dolphins.”

Captive dolphin in hotel swimming pool
One of the captive dolphins at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan | Roger Allen

The two dolphins are owned by Star of Sea, a Russian company that operates a dolphin assisted therapy (DAT) program in Sochi, Russia, according to Dodds. However, Marine Connection is currently investigating how Star of Sea got these two dolphins in the first place.

Since 2002, international law has prohibited the capture of wild dolphins from the Black Sea, which is the large body of water off the coast of Sochi. Additionally, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) places some regulations on the transport of dolphins — for instance, export permits are only supposed to be granted if the species isn’t harmed as a result of the trade.

The CITES permit used to bring the dolphins into Armenia stated that the dolphins had come from the Morskaya Zvezda Dolphinarium in Sochi on Russia's Black Sea, Dodds explained. Yet Marine Connection wants to make sure that this is correct — it’s possible that the dolphins were actually caught from the wild, not captive-bred dolphins who originated from a dolphinarium.

People standing in front of captive dolphins in a swimming pool
Paying guests interacting with the captive dolphins at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan | Roger Allen

“There is a ban on captures in the Black Sea area, and there have been suspicions over the years that captures are still continuing, which is why when anything comes in from Russia, we have to be very careful and check the CITES permit,” Dodds said.

No matter how the dolphins arrived in Armenia, Dodds believes that they don’t belong in a hotel swimming pool, which is only about 8 feet deep on the deep end and 2 feet on the shallow side.

“If you look at the pool, it’s actually really shallow,” Dodds said. “It slopes off slowly, and it looks like it might just have a slightly deeper end. It’s got very little natural light and no natural air, so there’s no way that the dolphins wouldn’t be suffering.”

Dodds thinks that the water is chlorinated, which can cause eye infections and other health problems in captive dolphins. Some dolphins who live in chlorinated tanks for long periods of time ultimately can’t open their eyes anymore.

Captive dolphin in hotel swimming pool
Roger Allen

In an advertisement, the hotel claims that the dolphins are being used for dolphin assisted therapy (DAT), helping adults and children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, post-traumatic stress and a range of other issues. Yet Dodds doesn’t believe this DAT program is legitimate.

“I asked them which experts they were using to conduct the therapy,” Dodds said. “I asked them for the scientific papers that they’d be producing to show the benefits of this therapy, and when and where they expected to publish these and if they were going to be peer-reviewed — and I have had no response to that at all.”

“They just keep saying, ‘We’ve got experts working here,’” Dodds added. “But there’s not a major body that they have to be answerable to. Who’s checking it? Who’s checking the safety of the people? Who’s checking the safety of the dolphins?”

Newspaper advertisement for the DAT program at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijian
An advertisement promoting the so-called DAT program at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan | Roger Allen

Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and animal behaviorist, argues that, in general, DAT therapy actually provides no benefit to people.

“There is absolutely no scientific evidence that dolphin assisted therapy has beneficial therapeutic effects,” Marino told The Dodo. “Studies supporting the claims of DAT are all seriously flawed and offer no support for its therapeutic effects. There has not been a single case of DAT that stands up to even minimal scientific standards.”

“Moreover, DAT continues to be extremely dangerous for children and adults alike and there have been many serious injuries from captive dolphins,” Marino added. “Basically, DAT is a scam to make money from desperate parents of sick children.”

Man swimming with captive dolphins at hotel
A guest swimming with the captive dolphins at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan | Facebook/Armen Hovhannisyan

Dodds also claims that the dolphins aren’t just being used for so-called therapy purposes, but being forced to perform tricks.

“From footage that I’ve seen, the dolphins are quite clearly performing,” said Dodds, who noted that Marine Connection won’t release the footage until the end of its investigation. “The dolphins have got balls on their rostrums [beaks]. [But] they’re just trying to say, ‘It’s therapy and we’ve got them here for a good purpose.’”

Dodds is also concerned about the filtration system in the pool. From her understanding, only sand filters are being used, which wouldn’t adequately clean out any algae, waste or other contaminants. Not only would this be harmful to the dolphins themselves, but to the guests who are getting into the pool with the dolphins.

When Marine Connection approached Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan to express its concerns, the hotel insisted the dolphin facility had nothing to do with the hotel itself.

“I had a response from Armenia at the hotel, saying that the dolphin facility ... no longer [had] anything to do with them, and that they were only involved in the initial marketing stage and sale stage until the company that owns the dolphinarium is established in Armenia,” Dodds said.

Yet Dodd said that she has trouble believing this explanation.

“The person who went and investigated for us went into the hotel entrance, and said, ‘You turn right when you go into the hotel reception, go down a set of stairs and the dolphin pool is down there,’” Dodds said. “It’s actually underneath the hotel’s restaurant and bar. So the hotel trying to tell me that they’ve nothing to do with the facility, and that it’s independently owned, just seems to be ridiculous.”

“I can appreciate that it may be independently owned, because the people who actually run the dolphinarium have other dolphinariums in Russia, which is where the dolphins come from,” Dodds added. “But I certainly do not accept that Best Western has no financial interest in this at all. They’re trying to distance themselves from it.”

People interacting with captive dolphins in swimming pool
Roger Allen

When The Dodo reached out to the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan, the hotel similarly claimed that the dolphin facility had nothing to do with the hotel, and that the dolphin facility simply shared the same address as the hotel and that people were confused because the dolphinarium “is located next to [the] main building.”

But Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan also provided The Dodo with a letter stating that the pool gave the dolphins plenty of room; the chlorine levels were minimal; the water is regularly filtered and cleaned; and that a “highly trained professional” looked after the dolphins.

When The Dodo contacted the Best Western Hotels & Resorts headquarters in Arizona, a representative explained that the hotel chain was “steadfastly opposed to the inhumane treatment of animals,” and that it had "immediately contacted the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan for more information on the dolphin program.”

Letter from hotel about captive dolphins
The first page of the letter from the hotel about the captive dolphins | Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan

“The hotel, which is independently owned and operated, informed us that the facility is in a separate building from the hotel and is owned and operated by a third party,” a customer care representative for Best Western Hotels & Resorts told The Dodo. “We were also advised that the facility has an altruistic purpose — it is operated as a dolphin assisted therapy (“DAT”) facility that is used to increase speech and motor skills in patients (primarily children) with developmental, physical, and emotional conditions, such as Down syndrome and autism.”

“Regardless of the above, and recognizing that there can be a difference of opinions with regard to the matter, the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan, Armenia, has advised Best Western that it has terminated its relationship with the DAT facility,” the representative added. “We recognize the concerns raised and ask that you direct future inquiries to the facility.”

While Best Western Hotels & Resorts claims to have cut ties with the DAT facility, the dolphins are still trapped inside the hotel pool. If they stay there any longer, their lives could be at risk, Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the PETA Foundation, told The Dodo.

Woman swimming with dolphins in pool
A guest swimming with the dolphins at the Best Western Paradise Hotel Dilijan | Facebook/Liana Davoyan

“These dolphins absolutely need to be released from that swimming pool, and rehabilitated with an eye of releasing them back into the wild,” Goodman said. “It couldn’t be clearer that the conditions there are inadequate for highly social, highly intelligent dolphins. Clearly, there’s no enrichment for them. And it’s well-known that holding dolphins in conditions like this can lead to various maladies and early death.”

“Humans can be in lockdown in solitary confinement in prison for most of their lives, and while they may physically appear to be OK, they’re obviously undergoing a tremendous amount of psychological suffering,” Goodman added. “We know that because these are highly intelligent animals [dolphins] with self-awareness and high levels of emotion, and that they suffer the same.”

The situation is certainly difficult for the two dolphins stuck in the pool, but Dodds believes that public protest can help save them.

“I know personally that they’ve had thousands and thousands of emails and comments from our supporters around the world,” Dodds said. “From feedback that we’ve had on social media, we’ve seen that the hotel has been inundated with complaints.”

To learn how you can help these two dolphins, go to Marine Connection’s campaign page. You can also assist in the ongoing investigation of the hotel by making a donation to Marine Connection.