A life-sized robotic dolphin could help finally put an end to animal captivity in marine parks and aquariums for good by replacing real-life animals.
U.S.-based animatronics company Edge Innovations has designed a revolutionary mechanical mammal that appears nearly as playful as the real thing, and the company hopes that the robot will soon be used in aquatic theme parks and Hollywood films in place of actual living animals.
So far, the robot can nod, swim in aquariums, and interact closely with humans. Developers claim that the mechanical creature is nearly identical to the cetacean, and could even coexist with robotic versions of predators like great white sharks or even the massive reptiles that Jurassic-era seas teemed with millions of years ago.
However, the huge difference here is that despite the large price tag of $26 million, this robotic dolphin is a truly cruelty-free alternative to the capture and confinement of live animals for the sake of entertainment at amusement parks and aquatic zoos – and it will likely prove cheaper than the real thing, too.
The robot dolphin weighs in at 550 pounds and has medical-grade silicone skin, and offers a viable alternative to the once-profitable industry of capturing, breeding, and training live animals.
“It’s surprising there are 3,000 dolphins currently in captivity to generate several billion dollars just for dolphin experiences,” Edge Industry CEO and founder Walt Conti told Reuters.
“There’s obviously an appetite to love and learn about dolphins and so we want to use that appetite and offer different ways to fall in love with the dolphin.”
In recent decades, animal rights activists and casual animal lovers alike have turned their back on marine parks that are seen as subjecting dolphins and other intelligent, self-aware creatures to inhumane acts just for the sake of human amusement.
Feature films like Free Willy (1993) and the documentary Blackfish (2013) have helped educate viewers about the miserable living conditions faced by orcas and other cetaceans that have been deprived of their natural life and thrust into small enclosures at amusement parks like SeaWorld.
Increased outrage over the plight of cetaceans, or aquatic mammals, have led to countries like Canada and around 20 European countries to effectively placing a ban on whales, dolphins, and porpoises being bred, imported and exported, captured, or held in captivity for entertainment purposes.
Edge Industry hopes that with its extensive experience developing animatronics for major Hollywood features – including Free Willy, Deep Blue Sea, The Abyss, and other films – the robotic replacement can soon win over those who prefer a humane alternative to view creatures who naturally belong in the wild.
The company has worked closely with marine biologists to replicate the physiology of dolphins and nail their natural movements.
“Everyone wants to know if using an animatronic dolphin is different from using a real dolphin. The truth is in many ways they’re the same,” Holzberg said.
“If you want to design a show that uses real dolphins you have to capture real dolphins, train them and get them to do that show,” he continued. “With creating robots you have to do exactly the same thing. The difference is you don’t have to have breeding programs worry about safety with human beings.”
Edge Industry has seen demand for its creations decrease as major film studios opted for computer-generated images rather than practical effects and animatronics. However, the company is now focusing on developing attractions for theme parks, and its robot dolphins will soon roll out at marine parks being built in China.
“The idea of this pilot is really to create a Sesame Street underwater,” Holzberg said. “Those characters taught a generation how to feel about different kinds of aspects of humankind in ways that hadn’t been imagined before. And that’s what we dream of with this project.”
Animal rights activists have greeted this new development that could spell an end to animal captivity at marine theme parks.
“There is an end in sight to cruel ‘swim with dolphins’ programs, for which young dolphins are traumatically abducted from their ocean homes and frantic mothers, sometimes illegally,” said Katherine Sullivan of PETA.