Panama Status & Facts
Between 2004 and 2008 Ocean Embassy developed plans and pursued the creation of a world-class marine life center to be located in San Carlos on the Republic of Panama’s Pacific coast. Located between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with only 52 miles between, we believed (and still believe) that the Central American isthmus is the rightful place for a cutting edge marine life zoological presence. The Ocean Embassy plan for Panama is out of this world, departing from almost every form of conventional thinking in the art and science of marine mammal public display, zoological sciences and wildlife research and rescue.
Unfortunately, Ocean Embassy is no longer operating in Panama and has not had a presence in Panama since 2008. Although we love the country, its people and the rich biodiversity of the region, the project was ahead of its time.
Panama is not yet a mature market for this type of zoological development, nor is the inner circle of the business community stabilized for private foreign investment – at least not considering a project like Ocean Embassy Panama.
Ocean Embassy’s original plan included the construction of an expansive geotextile lagoon system that provided a variable enrichment habitat for 12 bottlenose dolphins. The facility also boasted the most advanced 7,000 square foot marine mammal laboratory in the western hemisphere. Along with public education and outreach, the facility was designed to establish the first-ever marine mammal health and environmental risk assessment research and first-response stranding center in Central America.
Over the course of three years, we built friendships with the surrounding communities, employed and contracted many Panamanians. In addition to securing and preparing the site, we were in the process of creating a place where locals would learn new zoological, business and operational skills while developing an affection and passion for protecting the marine life around them. Indeed, our company had huge local support. Although our initial request included the import of dolphins from an existing facility, the Second Vice President at the time insisted that we collect indigenous dolphins from Panamanian waters. His reasoning seemed sound. The government would have more oversight and control of the process – and the Panamanian people could meet and learn about dolphins native to their territory.
The original permit request included the number of 80 animals for collection. This is where things went sideways. That permit request included the original number of 12 animals for the Ocean Embassy facility in San Carlos. The additional animals were included in the permit request for temporary collection, study, tag and release respective to a proposed five-year health assessment of bottlenose dolphins living in Panamanian waters.
Unfortunately, disinformation by local NGO’s and guided by U.S. campaigning animal rights extremists immediately derailed the permit’s true intent. The importance of much needed rescue and research on Panama marine life was almost instantly lost in the ensuing onslaught of sensational press. Detractors of the project insisted that the Ocean Embassy facility was a farce, a front intended to hide an underlying operation to collect and sell dolphins around the world. Other claims stated that individual members of Ocean Embassy had caught and sold dolphins before. We’d like to set the record straight.
Ocean Embassy Panama is owned by US investors, citizens of the United States. Bound by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, our officers and employees could not legally engage in such activity in the first place. Secondly, not one member of Ocean Embassy has ever collected, sold or owned a dolphin in private enterprise. We have each participated in dolphin collections for health assessment in the United States in a supportive role and under the strict permit and guidelines of the US National Marine Fisheries Service. However, neither Ocean Embassy nor any of its agents have ever collected or sold dolphins. Nor have we ever intended to do so. Frankly, we think we’re the leaders in our field. In the best sense of the meaning, we wouldn’t entrust the care of our animals to anyone else.
Every one of our employees invested their hearts, minds and funds into Ocean Embassy Panama as well. Nonetheless, without strong and consistent support from Panama leaders, a future for a marine life facility cannot take root.
For now, Ocean Embassy has no immediate plans to return to Panama or pursue the San Carlos project. Those of us who dedicated ourselves to this dream love Panama, and in many ways, feel it is our second home. Panama deserves a world-class marine zoological presence.
Many a dolphin washed ashore during our time there, and equally difficult was seeing the live finning of rays. If they have any hope of successfully navigating the future of marine mammal and wildlife preservation, facing increasing threats from persistent ocean contaminants and the impact of Canal operations, they will most certainly need the blessing of zoological science expertise. We wish the very best for Panama and their marine life population in finding this future.
Robin B. Friday, Sr.