Windsor Safari Park: 1970 - 1992


The park was founded in 1969 by the Billy Smart's circus family who opened the dolphinarium in 1970. The park was sold by Smarts in 1977 and had various owners until till it closed in October 1992. The dolphins were relocated to Harderwijk Marine Mammal Park in The Netherlands. A more detailed history of the park can be found here and videos here.




Sunday Magazine article Summer 1970

The thing that gets people about dolphins is that they are so blooming human - apparently. That good-natured, grinning face. The repertoire of tricks that makes a performing seal seems spastic. Their ability to talk to each other and even - some say to imitate human speech. The fact that they have a brain as big as Homo sap. All these factors fit the specification that the human Master Race finds most desirable in its fellow creatures, namely that they are `just like us'.

So, at the height of a dolphin summer - six dolphinariums in Britain and more undoubtedly coming - this is an attempt to evaluate the dolphin's actual qualities and abilities.

Dolphins are a small kind of whale. They're cetaceans, a group of land mammals who very sensibly decided many million years ago that the land was no longer a desirable place to live.

Taking their air-breathing equipment with them, they returned to the sea from which their ancestors had long before emerged. Until the arrival of the harpoon gun, cetaceans had nothing-to worry about. Dolphins still don't. At around 3001b. and 6ft long, they are too small for commercial interests to bother with. Recently, however, they have found themselves increasingly being removed from their natural element, not to provide food or oil, but to go into show business. The time is fast approaching when lions in the park will not be enough. Any wildlife show that wants to stay box office will have to feature dolphins.

There are many species of dolphin, even around the coasts of. Britain. By far the most successful as a performer is the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphin, Tursiops truncates. It appears to be brighter even than the Pacific bottlenose. Practically all performing dolphins are captured off the southern coasts of the US.

You can buy a raw, untrained dolphin delivered by air, for as little as £400. An accomplished performer could easily cost 10 times that figure. Whatever the price, it will travel in a narrow tank, containing only a few inches of water, its body suspended in slings. Provided its skin is kept moist, it will suffer no ill effects and will quickly settle down in its new environment.

Dolphins are perhaps the least costly part of the act. To house them you will have to build a pool at least 20ft deep, holding about 250,000 gallons of water which, in the case of an inland dolphinarium, will need to be flavoured with up to 30 tons of salt. Unless the salinity is dead right, dolphins become listless.

You will also need a couple of trainers, two fast-talkers to compere the show and make it seem as though the dolphins thought out every trick themselves, plus a fair supply of fish. Dolphins eat about 4 per cent of their body-weight, usually in herrings, daily.

Britain has dolphinariums at Morecambe, Flamingo Park, near Malton, Yorks, Cleethorpes, Margate, Brighton and the latest, Billy Smart's Safari Wildlife Park at Windsor. Some of the trainers at these establishments come from the US, where the dolphin cult first got under way; but a good many of the British trainers have picked the technique up as they have gone along. There seems to be little interchange of know how in the dolphin world, though most handlers agree on certain points.

Dolphins react to kindness and respond to reward rather than punishment. They watch mainly for hand signs, though audible signals such as a bang on the side of the tank are also used. A whistle tells the dolphin that it has completed the trick to the trainer's satisfaction or that the handler wants the dolphin to stop trying. Without this, dolphins will sometimes go on and on. A dolphin's diet has to be watched very closely. Even when handing out rewards of fish titbits through a six-show day, the trainer keeps a close check on what each animal eats. Overfed dolphins become sick. The first sign that a dolphin is ill is that its skin gets out of condition. If it gets worse, it starts to smell like a corpse.

Sick dolphins are quarantined in convalescent pens and given regular shots of vitamins. Sometimes it is necessary for a trainer to go into the water with the animal to treat it. Some dolphins object strongly, attacking with their tail flukes. All seem to tolerate human swimmers rather than welcome them. Get too close and they are apt to show with a slap of the tail who is master.

In certain conditions, with a biter for instance, trainers have no hesitation in giving a thump back, but they usually take care to be on dry land when they do so. All trainers agree that dolphins can be temperamental, react favourably to audience appreciation and sometimes sulk when made to go through a routine too often.

Surprisingly, killer whalers (another species of dolphin, in reality), are often the tamest and most congenial at close quarters and in the water. In the wield, they have the reputation of being implacably savage, attacking seals and even men in Antarctic waters by breaking up the ice on which the victims stand. As a result of the killer's tractability in dolphinariums, experts are beginning to wonder whether the species hasn't been slandered.

Those who work with dolphins affect to deny the legends of dolphin intelligence while immediately following the denial with a story that adds to the dolphin's status as a thinking being.

Ask John Sadler, Billy Smart's dolphin trainer at Windsor, how he persuades dolphins to leap 15 feet in the air for a fish, walk backwards on their tail flukes, carry balls and cans on the ends of their noses and he opens his own mouth and points significantly inside. 'Food,' he, says, 'its all done for food.'

Skip MacDonald, his commentator, an American from Miami, then tells of Susan, the brightest dolphin he ever knew. Into Susan's pool were thrown: a large ball, a small ball, two rocks and two rags. Her job was to retrieve them all as soon as possible. Susan spent four minutes on the bottom thinking about it. When she surfaced she had: the small ball in the back of her throat, the larger ball between her lips, a rock under a pectoral fin, one rag draped over her dorsal fin and the other across her forehead.

There was a sad end to Susan. She had apparently thought too hard and too much. She suffered a nervous breakdown and finally refused to perform another single trick. She had to have a long layoff in a quiet recuperation pen and even so was never quite the same dolphin again.

'Dolphins will do anything for food' Sadler says once more. 'That's right,' says Skip , 'but I've seen some mighty strange things. When we were catching dolphins in Biscayne Bay .

Dolphins are caught by shooting 1,000 yards of net in shallow water from 25-knot launches. The school always runs towards the net as it tumbles off the stern of the capture boat, with the idea of breaking, out ahead of the 'launch to the open sea. This particular school had made it several times.

This party,' Skip goes on, 'was led by an old bull. Now when the capture launch came along he'd lift himself out of the water 'in front and take a good look at the name on the bows of our boat, ,then he'd bob up astern to -see if the same name was painted there.- Once he'd made sure, he'd dive and take the whole lot with him. We'd never see them again that day.

It is, in fact, likely that the school recognised the boat by I 'what would be to them its unique propeller beat. When the men nearest to dolphins both believe in and discredit simultaneously the allegedly miraculous abilities of dolphins it is, perhaps, time to try to sort things out.

Dolphins undoubtedly have very big and enormously well-developed brains. However, the ,brain is put to quite different uses from our own. It contains, for instance, one of the most sensitive and sophisticated sonar apparatuses in the living or mechanical world. A trained dolphin called Kiki, in Hawaii, allowed to roam free and wild in the sea, daily returned to harbour on receiving an underwater signal at ranges of up to 15 miles.

There is evidence, too, that dolphins live a community life. Since Aristotle's day, stories have been told of dolphins rescuing shipwrecked sailors. Quite recently there was a well-authenticated report of a drowning Japanese fisherman 'picked up' by a school of dolphins and towed and pushed ashore. Dolphins certainly help their own kind in trouble and very probably extend the service to humans when the circumstances appeal to them or resemble those found in a natural situation.

There is little doubt that dolphins can communicate with each other. A hundred different sounds, mostly clicks and grunts, have been identified, 27 of them concerning feeding. Several researchers have thought it just possible that some form of communication could be established by speech. There are a few star dolphins who appear to imitate human sounds and even phrases. But, as Skip MacDonald says: If you think it's going to say "Merry Christmas", then that's what you'll hear. If there's going to be any conversation with dolphins, then it has to be conducted in their own underwater language. People have tried this with tape-recorders. This reproduction of their own voices fooled the dolphins first time out, but they never fell for it again.'

The physical abilities of dolphins are far less in question. They are among the most efficient swimmers in the business. For instance, they understand all about the pressure wave to be found just off the bow of a moving ship and capitalise on it regularly -the reason why dolphins frequently appear to escort a boat by swimming just ahead and to the side of it. They're freewheeling. On their own, they are capable of speeds of up to 20 knots about the minimum needed for take-off in order to make the 15ft leaps that feature in all dolphin shows. When they 'walk' backwards on their tails while standing upright in the water, their tail flukes are exerting a thrust of about 4001b. Their eyesight is excellent; no one can say how it comes to be as good in air as in water.

But it is their skin which shipbuilding engineers most envy. Dolphins have complete mastery over what naval architects call laminar flow. If only a submarine could be constructed with a hull as efficient as a dolphin's, it could probably double its underwater speed. Because of its lack of resistance to the water in which it swims, a dolphin travels about twice as fast as its shape and available power suggests it should. The secret appears to rest in a series of minute corrugations in the skin, the hollows of which are lubricated by natural body oils. It seems unlikely that the principle will ever be applicable to ships.

However, dolphins have other practical uses for naval operations and even, sadly, for underwater warfare. Both aspects are being developed in Hawaii.

At the Oceanic Foundation at Makapu Point, Hawaii, dolphins are trained to help deep-sea divers. The star turn is Ola, a false killer whale, who shows off the lighter side of what is essentially a serious project to tourists in the spectacular tank of the Ocean Science Theatre.

Ola has been trained to take down power-tools to divers working on the bottom of the 20ft tank. She carries compressed air drills, wrenches and heavy sledge hammers by means of a nylon sling held in her mouth. She is rewarded by a fish each time.

It would be no more difficult for Ola to dive and ascend rapidly through 10 times that depth of water. Unlike human divers, whales and dolphins do not suffer from the bends -nitrogen bubbles in the blood -when surfacing rapidly from great depths.

Ola has also been taught to push deep sea divers along by pressing her snout on a pad fixed to their backs. Both these valuable energy-saving tricks have been tried out successfully in deep water in the open ocean.

In Hawaii and elsewhere, the US Navy - and presumably the Soviet Navy also - maintain dolphin research establishments where both the offensive and defensive potentialities of dolphins are studied.

Since it has been established that free-swimming dolphins can be controlled by underwater signals over a considerable range, the next step is to train dolphins for harbour defence duties, using them to detect the presence of enemy intruders by means of their own sonar equipment. But it is also possible, alas, that dolphins could be used to carry warheads which they would either deposit on enemy ships or more likely explode by contact or proximity fuse.

The question that occurs to any layman is how a dolphin can tell friend from foe, since not all dolphins can read the names and numbers on ships like Skip MacDonald's Biscayne Bay bull. It seems that this is not a difficult problem to solve. Dolphins can easily tell different metals apart, by the sonar echo they get back from them. Experiments made with balls of exactly the same diameter, but constructed of different metals and even different thicknesses of the same metal, have shown that dolphins can readily detect one ball from another.

It follows, therefore, that, fed the right metallurgical information, they could probably tell one kind of hull from another, or, failing that, that friendly ships could be fitted with some signal that the creatures would instantly recognise and leave alone. - - This is a long way from the happily grinning performer leaping for a rubber ball in a dolphinarium. Such is the strange appeal of the animal that one can't help feeling that it would be infamous to put , a creature of such trust and cooperation to destructive work. When speaking of modern warfare this may be illogical, not to say sentimental. But that, even after a brief exposure them is the way dolphins get you.

My Weekly Magazine 1973

A VET WITH A WHALE OF A JOB - Special Report By Syd Gillingham

An eighteen foot long killer whale certainly isn't everyone idea of a model patient. But it's all in a day's work for David Taylor - vet to some of the world's wildest creatures.

It was just another routine medical examination, veterinary surgeon David Taylor assured me. Just a simple case of taking a blood sample. It was when I noticed it took three men to hold down the patient that I had the distinct feeling it was hardly routine and anything but simple!All these suspicions were more than confirmed when they told me that if the patient decided to flick his mighty tail the damage caused could be little short of devastating!

For I was at Windsor Safari Park to watch David carry out his monthly check-up on Ramu, the nine-year-old killer whale, who weighs in at nearly three tons and is over 18 ft. long. And, of course, David was quite right. It was .just routine - if you're used to that sort of thing, that is. Ramu's home at this immensely popular Safari Park is in the dolphinarium.

Once a month his pen is partially drained of water and David climbs down to take a blood sample from what is probably the most intelligent of all his wild life patients. A little more intelligent even than the dolphins he lives, works, and plays with - and which have the same monthly check-up. "Ramu knows what's going on," David explained. "He has good vision - and he knows he's going to be pricked. "He doesn't particularly like it, but he takes it well. He's also forgiving and doesn't hold grudges. Neither do the dolphins."

Ramu was captured five years ago in the Pacific, off America's West Coast, and was transported to Windsor. In captivity he lives happily enough with the dolphins. Sometimes in play they get a little rough with him, and the teeth marks they leave on his great body have to be treated with antiseptic. But in his natural habitat Ramu would be very much the killer hunting with a pack - and dolphin could well be on the menu!

There are five dolphins - two female and three male - at Windsor. And, like all dolphins, they are everybody's favourites.

I asked David just how intelligent they are. "I knew one," he told me, "which was in a tank with other fish and he was playing with an eel teasing it and throwing it about. "Eventually, the eel got fed up with this and disappeared into a crevice in some rocks where the dolphin couldn't get at it. "The dolphin wanted to carry on with the game so he went after a scorpion fish, which has long spines on it. He killed it, broke off one of the spines, held it in his mouth and began to probe in the crevice to try to get the eel out!"

Wildlife for David Taylor started in zoos near his native Rochdale, in Lancashire. "I used to love to visit the zoo," he said. "The interest started when I was just a youngster. "So, when I qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 1957,1 suppose it was only natural that I worked with zoo animals besides looking after domestic pets. "It was in 19681 began to work solely with wild. life creatures."

Now David is on the move all the time.

If he's not to be found at zoos, safari parks or marinelands in the United Kingdom, he could be working at Hamburg Zoo. Or, perhaps; Rhenen Zoo, in Holland. Or marinelands in Majorca and Nice -or a safari park in Spain.

"I get a big kick out of it," he told me. "I've always enjoyed working with animals but I must admit I prefer being a wild life vet to taking care of someone's pet poodle or Pekingese. This is pure medicine."

I wondered if David considered his job dangerous. "Not really," he replied. "We do have difficult moments - but not as often as people think. (ou see, you just can't afford to make mistakes. "I've had cuts and bites, bangs and bruises, and I've been knocked about in the water. But I'm careful. "We don't take risks. We know what we're doing and we have the equipment appropriate to handling all the animals -whether it's a tiger or a monkey.

"There are restraining devices, tranquillisers, and sedatives which help us to do things without hurting the animals and without hurting ourselves. "In the lion's cage, for example, there's a system which moves one wall of the cage in against the animal so he cannot move but isn't hurt. Then we work through the bars. "And when we take a blood sample from the dolphin we use a small pen at the side of the pool. "The dolphin is put in the pen. A nylon-type mattress at the bottom is raised and the dolphin comes up with it. "There have been moments when I've been frightened," David added. "After being pushed around and knocked over by a whale, perhaps, and finding myself struggling to get my breath. "And if I'm worried by anything at all, then it's by the venomous snakes like the cobra and the rattlesnake. "Maybe it's because I don't regard myself as a very good handler of snakes."

At least David doesn't have that kind of worry at home in Rochdale. There, the not-so-wild life around the house is confined to a dog, a cat and a goat.


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