The VICE Guide to Right Now

You Can Now Swim with Robot Dolphins to Save the Real Ones from Captivity

An animatronic dolphin created by a special effects company is a step towards solving the ethical issue of keeping wildlife in caged spaces.
24 June 2020, 10:51am
Robot animatronic dolphin
Photo for representation courtesy of Damian Patkowski / Unsplash

The pandemic and its mandatory lockdowns haven’t just taught us important lessons in baking. They’ve also made us realise that a life in limitless captivity can be soul-sucking. Now that our view of the world is often through a window, we’re also finally acknowledging that zoos, aquariums and the fundamental concept of keeping animals locked up for our viewing pleasure is unfair and unethical.

In this scenario, San Francisco-based special effects company Edge Innovations is making waves with its cutting-edge animatronic dolphin. The company, founded by visual effects veteran Walter Conti who has worked on films like Anaconda, The Abyss, Deep Blue Sea and The Perfect Storm, developed an eerily lifelike robot dolphin as an alternative to caging the highly intelligent animal in aquariums or marine parks. These were built in collaboration with New Zealand-based augmented gaming expert Melanie Langlotz, who developed the design to combat the issue of keeping animals caged up.

"People just believed that it was real until they were told it was not. It was just absolutely incredible," Langlotz told Radio New Zealand.

Modelled after an adolescent bottlenose dolphin, the robot dolphin can swim around for 10 hours on a single battery charge. These animatronic dolphins are designed so realistically that they not only resemble the skeletal structure and movements of the dolphin, but also have a light yellow tint on their teeth for max resemblance. Even volunteers who have played and swum along with the adorable creatures swear by how similar they are to the real thing.

These dolphins will be priced between $40-60 million depending on the abilities that buyers want to programme, and can only swim when operated by a human (a reassurance to conspiracy theorists worried about terminator dolphins taking over). These swim into the picture as Chinese aquariums and zoos squirm under the pressure of the country’s recently instituted wildlife trade ban.

The ban itself is questionable considering China continues to host Yulin, its annual dog meat festival. China’s annual revenue in wildlife farming was more than $74 billion a year, employing over 14 million people in the country before the ban.

In view of China’s ban, Conti expects a massive demand for robot dolphins, and is hoping to produce more than 150 units within three years. He’s also stressing that while these animatronic dolphins may come across as expensive, the lack of medical and upkeep expenditure can actually make them a more sustainable option.

It could also potentially be propped up as an alternative at marine parks like SeaWorld, which have been heavily criticised for using “circus-style” dolphins and other aquatic animals to perform tricks for tourism revenue. Conti and Langlotz are also making a splash by earning PETA’s Innovator for Animals Award for developing a high-tech innovation that could prevent animal cruelty. Sounds like these dolphins will get along with animal activists and aquatic enthusiasts swimmingly.

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