Facility Spotlight: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

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The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

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Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lion naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

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“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day, and if I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.

Facility Spotlight: Bloedel Conservatory (Vancouver, BC)

Vancouver’s Bloedel Floral Conservatory, nestled deep in the heart of Queen Elizabeth Park, opened its doors in 1969. Originally containing just plants, over the years the conservatory has become home to over 200 free-flying birds of various species (at least some of which come from Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary).   Admission is nominal ($6.75 at the time of writing).

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In 2009, Bloedel Conservatory was in jeopardy after the city voted to close one of the few decent tourist attractions (not to mention an excellent place to connect with some gorgeous birds) in what has already come to be known as a “No Fun City”. Set to close following the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics, supporters of the conservatory lobbied in support of this jewel, attendance rose, and enough money was raised that the city reversed its decision. It is now run as a joint project by the Friends of the Bloedel Association and VanDusen Botanical Garden Association.

Clyde, a hybrid Eastern x Crimson Rosella who lived in a small cage for 12 years and is happy to fly free at the conservatory!

The moment you enter, between the birdsong, tropical humidity, and the intoxicating scents of all the plants, you can’t help but feel as though you have entered another world.  Seasonally, they mix things up a bit, such as by decking the conservatory out with lights at Christmas, so there is always something new to see.

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The birds themselves seem to be very well cared for. Many interact with visitors to some extent, and they often exhibit natural behaviours such as nest-building.

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Rudy, an African Grey

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Art, a Blue and Gold Macaw

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The Conservatory provides species ID charts (and scavenger hunt sheets), so you always know what you’re looking at.

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Botanically, the Conservatory features over 500 plants throughout its 3 main habitats: tropical rainforest, subtropical rainforest, and desert.  The birds move freely between these.

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Gidget, a Citron-Crested Cockatoo. She is quite a ham!

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The surrounding park and gardens are well worth a walk through, offering spectacular views of the North Shore mountains…when they’re not enshrouded in clouds!

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If you can’t see the North Shore mountains it is raining. If you can see them, it is going to rain.

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With its incredibly fair admission price, vibrant birds, and exotic plants (not to mention the amazing scents emanating from them!), a visit to Bloedel Conservatory is highly recommended.  And if you happen to be a photographer, you’d be a fool not to!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

Facility Spotlight: Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo, which was born out of the old Riverdale Zoo and officially opened as a new venture in 1974, is Canada’s largest zoo. It is currently home to over 5000 animals from over 450 species.

The Toronto Zoo is incredibly active in global conservation efforts, which includes the breeding of endangered species – most notably they were the first zoo to champion the captive breeding of Black Footed Ferrets, with the intent of re-releasing them into Saskatchewan where they were extinct in the wild. Evidence of their various conservation efforts can be found throughout the zoo in well-marked signs and exhibits.

A window into The Toronto Zoo's conservation efforts

Global amphibian populations are in peril from pollution, habitat loss, and chytrid fungus.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.  Zoos serve as an ark to this species with the hope they can be re-introduced to the wild someday.

The first Burmese Star Tortoise born in captivity

The Burmese Star Tortoise is a critically endangered species now being bred in Canada by the Toronto Zoo

In general the habitats themselves are spacious, attempt to be naturalistic, and have ample enrichment opportunities. The zoo has signage highlighting different kids of enrichment that they provide for the animals, as well as (most importantly) information about their natural habitats and the threats they face in the wild.

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

And perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water ;)

Although, perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water 😉

Notable highlights are the snow leopards and cheetahs. Toronto Zoo is the only facility I have visited where these beautiful cats have been up and active, and indeed it was through visiting this specific zoo that I was able to gain an enhanced appreciation for them.

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

The orangutans have been another highlight over the years.  Although Adelaide Zoo’s (review coming soon!) orangutan habitat is the most naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing, the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo always seem to be getting up to something.  I vividly remember the first time I saw this species — which happened to be at this zoo — when I was perhaps 10.  My dad pointed out their various behaviours while comparing them to humans.  More accurately, to teenagers as one chillaxed on a raised platform while throwing food scraps to the ground.  A few years ago I saw a young one having a ball as he ran around the habitat with a burlap sack over his head.

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There were two of them playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

There were two playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

In November 2015 one of the Toronto Zoo’s polar bears gave birth. One cub died, and the other had to be taken into human care when it was discovered that the mother not producing milk. Apparently, the Vancouver Aquarium assisted in developing a special formula based on their expertise with seals and other Arctic species. Different facilities have their different strengths, and reputable ones work together sharing information for the greater good.

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Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear habitat

The downside of having visited in winter was a number of exhibits and all the eating establishments with the exception of an express Tim Hortons (where you can get drinks and little else) were closed, and outside of scheduled keeper talks there were no staff on hand to answer any questions one might have. I am told the zoo is a completely different place in the on-season. For a zoo to be as enjoyable and educational visit as it was in the off-season speaks volumes about the facility, and so the zoo itself was well worth a visit at any time of the year.

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Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

 

A side-note on The Toronto Zoo’s elephants.

The Toronto Zoo recently made headlines over the death of a critically endangered African elephant named Iringa.  Prior to the transfer, the treatment of the elephants at the zoo… well, changes depending on who you ask.  But they had been planning to upgrade the habitat.  Animal Rights activists – who have been increasingly targeting any facility with elephants — had lobbied the City of Toronto to have the zoo’s elephants removed, citing unsuitable housing among their many standard complaints.  The city bowed to the activists.  Toronto Zoo staff insisted that the animals should be sent to another zoo with the expertise to care for them, but activists hate all zoos and instead the elephants were sent to PAWS Sanctuary, despite their questionable reputation. As a result, the Toronto Zoo lost its AZA accreditation, and the elephants’ condition quickly deteriorated due to lack of proper care.

Recently, the animals at PAWS were in danger of being killed by wildfire. Due to the facility’s lack of equipment and expertise in proper husbandry procedures, they were unable to get them out (and didn’t seem to be too interested in doing so anyway), and stubbornly refused all outside help. Luckily, none of the animals perished…this time.

It is a sad fact that animal rights activists want to cut off all connections to animals such as elephants.  And they won’t stop there — there is no telling which iconic yet imperiled species will be next.  With wild elephant numbers plummeting ever lower due to poaching, we should be encouraging more people to connect with this species, not taking away one of the best resources of doing so that we have.

Where the Toronto Zoo's elephants once roamed.

Where the Toronto Zoo’s elephant family once roamed.

Travel Tips: The Backpacker (and how to avoid them)

Many species have been misrepresented over the years. The killer whale’s Latin name roughly means “Demon from the Depths of Hell”, and they were used as target practice until Moby Doll showed us otherwise. Wolves have been mercilessly hunted to extinction in some regions because they too were viewed as monsters. The thylacine was hunted to complete extinction on account of its alleged habit of eating chickens (even though this famous photo is believed by some to have been staged).

There is one subspecies I have personally lived among that I believe has an inaccurate reputation, and that is the backpacker. Often presented as an adventurous young person heroically traveling the world in search of new experiences, carrying only what they can put on their backs, backpackers are in fact noisy codependent alcoholics with short attention spans and little interest in anything that doesn’t satisfy their need to disturb everyone else around them.

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To the backpacker, sitting quietly engaging in any solo activity such as reading a book is seen as a cry for help. Backpackers cannot fathom why anyone would want to be by themselves, let alone be QUIET! I came to suspect that the reason they are so noisy is to alert other backpackers to their presence to ensure they do not accidentally find themselves alone.

More times than I can count, backpackers would hear of my adventures with an expression somewhere between awe and disbelief, replying with some variation of “Oooh, I would love to go there but I have nobody to go with!” Many did not seem to understand my words when I suggested they go by themselves. As such, many spent their entire time abroad in the hostel, never venturing further than the nearest source of food, usually a pub where other backpackers were sure to be found.

Why someone would pay thousands of dollars to travel overseas just so they can sit around getting drunk is beyond me.

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On those rare times the backpacker does venture forth to see the sights, they are incapable of enjoying anything that they can’t get drunk with, take a good selfie with, or build a fire in. Ancient rainforest? Great place to sing crappy pop songs at the top of their lungs (I guess it was too quiet). National park with spectacular cliffside formations? “What do you mean I can’t build a fire here? This is boring!” Beautiful waterfall? “Time to get naked and ruin its natural beauty for everyone else!”

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended -- review forthcoming)

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended — review forthcoming)

Case in point: a natural cave had been “enhanced” with steps and seating carved into the rock.  My friend pondered why, so I explained how backpackers can’t enjoy anything natural without the aforementioned conditions. With eerily perfect timing a large group of German backpackers carrying a portable barbecue and several coolers came noisily up the steps, announcing their presence to everyone within a 10km radius.

So if you plan on traveling on a budget, take heed! Pay the extra few dollars for a proper tour that you are confident is not aimed at backpackers (watch this blog for reviews!), especially if you hope to see some nature on it. Consider alternatives to the hostel scene, such as AirBNB. If you must stay in a hostel, check reviews on tripadvisor for ones that backpackers claim “lacks atmosphere” or “is full of old people”, and make sure there is not an attached pub or you’ll never have a second alone to pee or get a wink of sleep in preparation for your own adventures… which is just how the backpackers prefer it.

Vladimir Putin is a Hairless Cat

I recently heard a story about Vladimir Putin visiting the Primorsky Aquarium — a controversial yet once seemingly promising aquarium in the Russian Far East, plagued with delays due to embezzlement and allegedly shoddy construction — and effectively yelling at staff, demanding they finish building it already.  Although this is undoubtedly at least part fabrication, Putin has visited Primorsky, and has demonstrated that he doesn’t mess around when sh*t needs doing.  But with stories of more orcas being caught in Russia and sent… to where exactly? I started thinking about the larger article in there somewhere.

And then I found something *much* more noteworthy: apparently, people think Vladimir Putin looks like a hairless cat.  How did I not know this?  And now you do too.  You’re welcome.

(only the top two comparisons are my own, and I take no credit for any images posted below)


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epa03257832 Two hairless Sphynx purebred cats are pictured at the Dog Show with Purebred Cats Show in Erfurt, Germany, 10 June 2012. About 17000 visitors attended the show featuring about 4000 breeds of dogs and pedigree cats. EPA/MICHAEL REICHEL
Because I started this blog post thinking about Russia’s cetaceans, I figured I ought to finish with something appropriate to that theme, especially since the Russian president may or may not be in command of an army of “spy dolphins”.

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Tour Review: Dolphin Explorer

Official Tour Site

Where: Port Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: $8/adult, $6/child
Who is it for?: Hungry people, gawkers, children, anyone who is happy with a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin
Who is it not for?: Serious nature lovers and photographers.

Despite the abundance of dolphins in the Port River, including a population known to do “tricks”, there isn’t really anything available for whale or dolphin watching right out of Adelaide itself (although there are options further south at Victor Harbor), so the Dolphin Explorer pretty much has the local monopoly.  My expectations were low as locals had created the impression that it was more of a floating restaurant and/or party boat where seeing dolphins was incidental, but for a mere $8 I gave it a go anyway.

The scenery left something to be desired.

The scenery often left something to be desired.

Floating restaurant aside, the Dolphin Explorer is more of a river cruise than a wildlife tour.  Although you will most likely see cetaceans (a rarity among tours I have discovered — more on that in the future), the boat does not slow down or turn around when dolphins are sighted, so all you get are fleeting glimpses of the animals unless you’re lucky enough to be standing in one of the front corners should a dolphin decide to bow-ride (tip: stand in a front corner).

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The bird life was decent, with abundant cormorants (including the slightly less-common Black Faced Cormorant) and terns.

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The majority of people on the boat seemed satisfied with the tour, but as a serious nature lover and photographer I felt it could have been better.  Every other cetacean-watching tour I have been on had more maneuverable vessels that would at least slow down to better watch the animals in the unlikely event some actually showed up.  That said, for the price, the Dolphin Explorer does provide an affordable outing for everyone, especially families.  At least you actually see dolphins, so don’t write it off, but don’t go out of your way or expect too much either.

If you are a photographer: due to the nature of this tour, bring a very long telephoto.  I had my 80-400 and found myself wishing I had my 150-600 instead.

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UPDATE:  I went on several more tours, both with this operator and their competitor.  Ultimately, duds.  Dolphins were so far away only I made them out through my (this time) 600mm lens.  Most people were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking to care the one time one did come close.  Still do not recommend, unless you’re only there for the food.

On Being Pro-Captivity

Note: this post ran away on me, and there are still so many aspects not covered or elaborated on.  Hopefully this will provide a general idea of where the two sides stand on captivity, however.  Feedback is more than welcome!

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The world is not black and white, and yet the debate surrounding captivity seems to have been split into two extremes: “pro-cap” and “anti-cap” are two terms often used on social media. Far too many view the issue in black and white terms, but as someone once said, “the only thing black and white are the orcas”.  That said…

“Antis” tend to be against ALL zoos and aquariums – period– believing them to all be equal.  Many antis are against pet ownership and service animals as well, as they view ALL human-animal interactions as slavery (“don’t shop, adopt” and breeder-shaming are part of a larger plan to do away with domestic animals – see a collection of quotes here).  With that, it might be easy to assume that “pros” support rounding up all animals and throwing them in cages so we can mock them. This is simply not true, despite what the antis often claim.

Simplified, to be pro-captivity is to see the benefits of having animals in human care. We see the shades of grey and look at the big picture.  We acknowledge the powerful human-animal bond across a plethora of species, knowing that if it is removed, apathy will prevail in this increasingly disconnected world.

Contrary to anti-cap belief, pro-caps are hugely in favour of animal welfare, and know that not all zoological facilities are created equal.  While one may be exceptional, another just a few kilometers away may deserve to be shut down. While one may have the facilities and expertise needed to house a particular species, others don’t and should re-locate their animals to those who do (or build better habitats).  Some have amazing conservation initiatives, while others have none.  Many facilities even have rescue and rehabilitation programs in place, and what they learn from caring for captive animals helps them better care for sick and injured wildlife so that it can be re-released.

As Baba Dioum famously said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” What we learn from captive members of a species can be applied towards saving wild populations, including through a newfound love of these creatures gleaned from seeing (and bonding with) individuals in a captive setting.  This is especially true in the case of children, who are the future of conservation.  It cannot be replicated through simply seeing animals on TV.  A great example of how captivity changed our view of a species can be found in the story of Moby Doll, the first captive orca to be displayed.

During a visit to the Adelaide Zoo, a fellow visitor mentioned how she was against captivity until witnessing first-hand the destruction of the orangutan’s natural habitat, and now knows zoos are necessary for the species’ survival.  During that same visit I overheard a father tell his son to take a good look at the orangutans, because if humanity doesn’t change its ways, the zoo will be the only place left to see them. Unfortunately, if the Animal Rights and anti-captivity movements are allowed to win, we won’t even have that… and it is the animals who will lose.

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Karta, a female Sumatran Orangutan at the Adelaide Zoo. Prints Available Here

Welcome to Flippers and Feathers!

In a sentence, this blog will feature zoological facilities, nature, and the raging debates in-between.

In a little more detail, it will:
– discuss the issues surrounding captivity
– provide detailed reviews of zoological facilities around the world that I have personally visited and viewed with an open yet critical mind, as there is so much often-outdated misinformation floating around
– review nature tours (who are they aimed at?  Is it worth the money?)
– share news about endangered species
– …and pass on anything else that may be relevant or simply interesting.  That may include funny cat videos, because…well, funny cat videos.

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Who am I?  I am a nature photographer whose lifelong interest in conservation was greatly enhanced through visits to the Calgary Zoo and the Vancouver Aquarium as a child, where I was able to connect with animals in a more personal and meaningful way.  Although I was unable to finish my original studies in Conservation Enforcement, I am looking to go back to school for Animal Technology and zookeeping courses.  I have hands-on experience volunteering as an educator and wildlife rescuer, and gobble up information left, right, and centre!

So welcome, and stay tuned for more!!!