Jon Kershaw - Marineland's Dolphin Man

THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN

… is every day for Jon Kershaw of Marineland in Antibes. He talked to Patrick Middleton. 

There are people who can put their finger on some moment of their early lives when their whole future course was decided. That’s the case with Jon Kershaw. “I was studying modern languages — French and Spanish — at university. One afternoon I visited the Coventry Zoo. They had dolphins. I was immediately fascinated. Remember this was almost forty years ago when they hadn’t achieved their later cult status. Anyway, I went to talk to their keeper and I came away feeling already that I’d like to work with them. I was very lucky. After graduation I looked around and got a job in Spain … working with dolphins.”

“The most visited place on the Côte d’Azur”

And Marineland? “I’d heard about it, of course, and I came here in 1980 — it had been going for ten years then — and I was lucky again. They took me on and I’ve been here ever since.” Across nearly a quarter of a century Jon has seen many changes. “Indeed I have. First of all, there’s been a big expansion in every sense. When I came here it was essentially a dolphinarium. Now we’ve got a whole range of marine mammals: seals, sea lions, killer whales alongside the dolphins as well as other species like sharks. Then the whole concept of Marineland has been broadened. What Mike Riddell who runs the place envisaged and has created is a centre offering entertainment but which is also seriously involved with conservation and scientific research. Of course, it’s the first aspect which visitors are most aware of and now, as well as our core attractions based on those marine mammals, we’ve diversified with a bird park, a Far West farm and even a mini-golf course. It’s been a winning formula. As I think you know, Marineland is the single most visited place on the Côte d’Azur. This year we’re expecting some 1.5 million visitors.”

The dolphins are, for most people, the perennial stars of Marineland. “You’re right but that’s changing. They’ll always be important to us but the killer whales — we’ve got six of them at the moment — offer quite spectacular displays and they’re playing a growing role in our programme.” Dolphins, since ancient times, have had a special place in man’s view of the animal world. “That you can’t deny, but although they are exceptionally intelligent — I’ll come back to that — it’s just fantasy to talk of them as ‘our cousins from the sea’ and suchlike.” But does Jon have any reserves about keeping dolphins in captivity? “Not at all. I remember reading a piece in your magazine about the Monaco Zoo. It sounded terrible and I can understand why Virginia McKenna is so angry about it but our situation with our marine mammals is quite different. We’ve dealt with Miss Mc-Kenna and she just didn’t understand that.”

“You can’t bully them”

But what exactly is Jon’s job? “I suppose it’s best summed up by saying I’m manager for marine mammals. I’m responsible for every aspect of their life here. Obviously, their welfare is a big preoccupation. Rules for keeping animals are very strict in France and we have to be rigorous about compliance. Health care is an important issue. We call on specialist vets and I have to work very closely with them. Imagine taking a blood sample from a killer whale! It has to be done by someone the animal is familiar with — and that’s me. As to training, the first step is to train the trainers. It’s a highly skilled job and we have to recruit carefully. The entry requirement is a degree in psychology and there has to be a certain versatility to enable the person to interact easily with the animals and with the public. There’s no comparison with the sort of people who crack the whip at cowed tigers in a circus.”

So what are dolphins really like? “We must, as I say, forget the notion that they’re really like you and me but with flippers. You’ve got to grasp a basic distinction within the animal world between species whose behaviour is largely determined by instinct and those who operate much more by the use of their intelligence, especially in reacting to what happens around them. Animals like that can behave in much more varied ways and can be encouraged to do so by modifying their environment. This is central to our treatment of marine mammals and especially dolphins. Given their intelligence, they can be provided with stimulating experiences and can learn to do all sorts of things in response to positive rewards. But they easily get bored — and you can’t bully them. I should add that there’s still a lot we don’t understand about dolphin behaviour and they might have certain potentials we’ve not yet discovered.”

“If I were a dolphin …”

How would Jon like visitors to feel when they come away from Marineland? “Well, above all, I’d like them to have been entertained and to have appreciated these wonderful animals. But I’d hope that some people would realise that there’s a very serious side to Marineland. We’ve got the Marine Mammal Research Centre with six full-time researchers and in general we’re regarded as world authorities in our field. I had an interesting U.N.-sponsored trip some time back when I went to Russia to report on survivors from the Soviets’ military training programme for dolphins. They were trained to spy and to kill divers with various devices fixed to their bodies. The Americans had the same sort of project but I don’t think any of it turned out to be very useful. We’re also involved with an international scheme to protect the Mediterranean dolphin who’s under constant threat from those big fishing-nets they use these days. Let me tell you, Virginia McKenna might not like the idea but if I were a dolphin I’d choose every time to be at Marineland.”

From Riviera Reporter issue 104

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