February 19, 2002

U.S. probes Cuban dolphin deals

Purchases of sea creatures could have violated the embargo

By Charles D. Sherman/ Posted on Sun, Feb. 17, 2002 in The Miami Herald

MEADS BAY, Anguilla -- The U.S. Treasury office that enforces the trade embargo on Cuba is investigating whether Americans have bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of dolphins from the Cuban government, a main supplier of the animals for proliferating tourist attractions in the Caribbean.

''There is an open investigation,'' said Robert Fernández, special agent in charge at U.S. Customs in Puerto Rico. "If there's a U.S. citizen, U.S. resident or U.S. entity involved, it would be a violation.''

Animal rights activists who closely follow the investigation say U.S. agents are tightly focused on two dolphin parks set up by Americans on Anguilla and Antigua, high-end resorts in the Leeward Islands east of Puerto Rico.

From Anguilla with its lavish $1,000-a-night hotel rooms to the bargain resorts on the Gulf coast of Mexico, the Caribbean now has more than 30 dolphin parks, opened mostly since 1990. Customers who pay between $100 and $150 for a 30-minute session can swim with, touch and feed the creatures.

The probe, launched by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, has inserted U.S. agents into a raging animal rights battle involving a colorful cast that includes Robin Leach, host of television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; Che Guevara's 38-year-old daughter, Celia, the chief marine mammal veterinarian at Cuba's National Aquarium; Ric O'Barry, a Miami resident and former Flipper trainer at Miami's Seaquarium who has turned savior; and Gwen McKenna, a mild-sounding Toronto housewife, who with vast archives on dolphin exploitation ranks as one of the world's fiercest dolphin defenders.

While U.S law permits the capture of dolphins, a voluntary moratorium has taken hold in American waters since 1990, chiefly as a result of pressure brought by rights activists. When applications are made for the federal permits required to catch the animals, dolphin defenders rush to create negative publicity.

In the meantime, Cuba's Ministry of Science and Technology and its National Aquarium in Havana, where Guevara's daughter works, have captured a lucrative market for the animals, not only in the Caribbean but also in Europe. The Science Ministry licenses dolphin exports and voluntarily submits data to a U.N. agency responsible for compiling information on world trade in animals.

The official figures reported by Havana show steady dolphin sales -- 82 in the last five years -- making Cuba the world's leading exporter. Worldwide, there are 1,000 dolphins in captivity.

On the international market, dolphins cost between $40,000 and $70,000 for ''green,'' or newly captured, animals.

Animal rights activists say federal investigators have targeted a South African-born physician, Graham Simpson, who has dual U.S. and British citizenship. He and his wife, Pam Pike, also an American, started the Anguilla and Antigua operations, run now by Dolphin Fantaseas Ltd., a company based in Bermuda. Corporate filings on Anguilla suggest that other Americans may have invested to help Simpson in initial stages.


Robin Leach, who has had a home on Antigua since 1990, is lending his media heft to the activists' cause. From Las Vegas, where he lives part time, the television personality is bald in his description of the Simpsons: "They are the enemy.''

Railing against the couple, Leach says: "It's totally immoral. Dolphins don't perform unless they are starved.''

When Dolphin Fantaseas, originally called Dolphin Lagoon, was preparing to open its first site on Anguilla last spring, local news reports described the arrival from Cuba of six dolphins, packed in ice, on a Russian charter flight. Out of water, dolphins will overheat.

The animals were installed in a large tank on a stunning promontory at Meads Bay on the northwest coast of Anguilla. Looking much like an oversize swimming pool, the tank is a few steps from a comfortable beige-colored bungalow where the Simpsons live along with an elderly black Labrador, a pure white macaw and a large library of books on spirituality.

Offering customers what are called educational swim encounters, Dolphin Fantaseas charges $105 for a half-hour session. Tourists in life vests enter the 17-foot-deep pool to touch and feed the powerful animals, and to listen underwater to their ethereal creaking noises. The feel of a dolphin is akin to stroking a shelled hard-boiled egg.


To obtain the animals, Simpson says, he signed a contract with a broker in the Dominican Republic. He says the broker never told him Cuba was the supplier until just before delivery, adding that even then he gave no thought to possible violations of U.S. law.

''I thought of myself as a British citizen living for the last three years in Anguilla, which has no law against buying from Cuba. It really didn't occur to me this might be a problem.'' Simpson says he has traveled to Cuba on his British passport.

A boyish-looking man of 51 with long, floppy gray hair, Simpson is an imposing figure, six feet three inches tall and more than 200 pounds, looking much like the rugby player he was when growing up in South Africa in the 1960s.

Before coming to Anguilla, he practiced medicine in Reno, Nev., where for years he combined mainstream and alternative therapies to promote a holistic approach to physical and spiritual well-being.

Dolphin Fantaseas' slogan is ''Experience the dream.'' But the Simpsons recount nightmares in dealing with animal rights groups, which they say have hounded them with mass letter-writing campaigns to the governments on Anguilla and Antigua, with threats of a tourism boycott against Anguilla, and with vicious attacks on their personal lives.

Simpson wrote a long, anguished letter to the local press, decrying his critics. Summing up, he said: "The usual activist procedure is to try to scare people . . . by threatening a tourism boycott. I am very upset that the dolphin activists don't focus on the issues, but rather try to personally smear people in the hope of discrediting a fine dolphin swim project.''


McKenna and O'Barry, who is a consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, have led the charge against the Simpsons. They say the issues are the violent capture methods used on highly intelligent, free-ranging creatures that should not be taken from their pods, or families, to live out lives in barren tanks or confined sea enclosures. ''Dolphins have a brain a third larger than ours,'' O'Barry says.

McKenna, who fights on behalf of no other animal, admits that when it comes to dolphins, ''I am ruthless.'' In trying to stop the Simpsons, she appealed for an international tourism boycott of Anguilla, and she raised money to send O'Barry there in December 2000 to speak publicly on the issue.

It backfired. O'Barry was shouted down by islanders enraged that activists might try to damage a main source of their livelihood. O'Barry says he never supports boycotts, and McKenna now regards the effort as a tactical mistake.

At his South Miami home, O'Barry calls Dolphin Fantaseas ''the most dangerous operation I have ever seen around the world.'' He fears that Simpson and his partners eventually intend to sell dolphins, pointing to a recent agreement between Dolphin Fantaseas and the Antigua government of Prime Minister Lester Bird, which gives the company the right to capture 12 dolphins a year.

Indeed, Simpson and his partners have recently created another company, Dolphin Leasing Inc. But Simpson and other company executives reject the notion, saying that no captures have taken place in Antigua so far, and that if they do, the animals would be used only in Dolphin Fantaseas attractions.

In trying to cut down sales, O'Barry says, he went to Cuba in 1997 to seek the aid of Celia Guevara, thinking she could help slow Cuba's capture program.

''Vets have the most influence in the captivity industry, but she didn't show for our meeting,'' O'Barry says. "Here's a woman who has a lot of power. She stands out. That was my hope.''

In meetings with other officials at the National Aquarium, O'Barry says, he failed to persuade the Cubans to end their dolphin exports. His effort at the aquarium was probably futile because commercial sales are handled by another science ministry office.

Last December, after Simpson opened his second site on Antigua, Leach invited O'Barry to the island to speak publicly. But before boarding a flight at Miami International Airport, O'Barry was told he would be arrested and returned to the United States if he tried to enter Antigua. He learned later that the island government considered him a national security threat.


Simpson, meanwhile, expresses only derision for the activists. It is O'Barry, McKenna, Leach and their followers, he says, who have unrelentingly harassed him and his family, going so far as to meddle in his finances. To cause him embarrassment in the islands, the activists have delved into and publicized a costly bankruptcy proceeding Simpson was forced into over his development of a Reno golf resort.

The activists also bandied gossip about his recent divorce and remarriage to Pike. ''These people have no moral grounds,'' Simpson says.

As for the trade embargo, O'Barry says: ''I don't agree with the law, but we are using it.'' Clarifying, he adds that "the embargo should be lifted for humanitarian reasons. However -- and this is very important -- the part of the embargo that prohibits Americans from purchasing dolphins from Cuba should forever remain.''

In recent weeks, the Treasury Department has issued stiff fines against Americans who have spent money in Cuba after traveling to the island without seeking U.S. permission. Technically, it is not illegal to go to Cuba, but it is illegal to spend money there.

So for Simpson, the continuing attacks from animal rights militants will seem minor travails if U.S. officials find a link between Cuba and the Americans behind Dolphin Fantaseas. ''Do you think I'll be able to go to United States again?'' he asked.

Penalties for violating the embargo range up to $1 million in corporate fines and tens of thousands in individual fines, and, in a criminal case, may bring as much as 10 years in prison.

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