Chengdu Haichang Polar Ocean World, as well as the Qingdao, Tianjin, and Wuhan parks, were sold to the HHAn group in 2021. Despite the ownership change, the distinctive Haichang style signage and decoration were kept intact, as Haichang is a much more recognized and popular brand among visitors and online travel platforms. The buildings and strip malls throughout the park have changed little since its opening in 2010, except that the structures themselves are very much run down. The only additions are an indoor ice and snow amusement zone and some outdoor pet exhibits. The outdoor pinniped theater and the swim-with pool are under renovation, thus the available area for the animals is decreased.
I visited this facility on Mar 31, a Friday, and stayed about 4.5 hours. Most visitors were kindergarten children and their parents, and middle school students from nearby cities, who were organized by schools and after school training institutions to travel here, with a focus on attending the animal performances.
During this visit, a total of six beluga whales were seen in the indoor exhibit, one more than the recent record. It may have been transferred from another facility, but the specific source has not been identified. Four beluga whales were kept in a larger display tank, and two trainers performed an underwater ballet with two of them in the “Love of beluga” show. The other two were in a smaller display tank. The beluga and dolphin enclosures are connected, sharing the same circulation and life support system. Trainers got into the water with both belugas and dolphins to perform, and the water is about 16 degrees Celsius, too warm for belugas.
A total of five bottlenose dolphins were seen, with three kept in a larger display tank to participate in the dolphin and beluga show, and the other two in a smaller tank. The beluga and dolphin show is basically unchanged from what we saw eight years ago. It is circus-like and noisy, an average of 105dB and a maximum of nearly 120dB (levels over 70dB can damage human hearing) . The only change is that the “dolphin towing a child in a rubber dinghy” session was canceled. But other activities such as jumping through hoops and pushing trainers out of water are still there. After the dolphin and beluga show, visitors can pay to feed and have close contact with the animals and take photos. All the cetaceans are only allowed into the main show tank during the performance.
All the cetaceans exhibited clear stereotypes, such as swimming in repetitive circles and rubbing against the railings. Both the belugas and dolphins also laid on the bottom of the tank. During the performance, animals that did not participate were agitated and made squeaking noises, apparently trying to get the trainer’s attention and beg for food. In general, they all spent a lot of time floating vertically in the water, with their heads above the surface begging for food or attention.
Before the “Love of beluga” underwater ballet show, a large number of the audience, especially the kindergarten children, were led into the beluga theater. The slogan of the kids’ visiting pamphlet read “I’m the child marine expert”. The lighting in the theater is very poor, and there were no seating arrangements, so everyone sat on the ground. All the preschool children were crowded together, with only a small number of teachers and staff maintaining order. Some children stood up and hit the tank wall while watching the show, and there were also tourists pushing and shoving each other. After the performance, there was a lot of rubbish on the ground. Though Haichang put some information boards around, no one showed any interest in the scattered boards or a dolphin anatomy model – partly because the content is not engaging, and the dim lighting did not facilitate reading.
The pinniped show is suspended due to renovations at the outdoor performance venue. In terms of species, the South American sea lions, California sea lions, walruses, spotted seals, and bearded seals are all kept outdoors with almost no shaded areas. The water in the pinniped enclosures is shallow, and some animals’ hind flippers touched the bottom when they hung vertically. All the animals exhibited obvious stereotypes, including swimming in circles, and some often forcefully pressed their snouts against the tank walls. Symptoms of skin problems in both South American and California sea lions were clear, with animals constantly itching and biting the lesions on their bodies. Many animals kept their eyes closed. This could be an indication of poor water quality, and the lack of shade. Both seals and sea lions are used for public feeding and close contact sessions.
The “polar” bear currently kept at Chengdu Haichang may still be the same hybrid individual we saw in 2015. This bear mostly slept near the iron bars to the back enclosure, and rarely used the pool area, where some koi fish were present. The pool temperature and salinity would not be attractive to the bear.
Arctic wolves and Arctic foxes
Both exhibitions are indoors in one building, with no natural environment or lighting or ventilation. Most of the interior space of the building is used for souvenir sales, and the animals have no space for physical activity, and, with little enrichment, all the animals looked lethargic.
Chengdu Haichang has added a fully transparent exhibition area in a souvenir shop, where two red pandas are kept. There are hardly any hiding places or natural spaces/substrate for the red pandas, and visitors can see the animals from every angle. The animals are exposed to constant noise, without natural light or ventilation.
Petting zoo animals
Chengdu Haichang has set up a Petting Zoo outdoors, where birds and small mammals are kept. At 2:00 p.m., these animals were exposed to direct sunlight, with limited shade. The bedding and substrate are also limited. For example, ostriches, llamas, and tapirs are directly kept on concrete floors.
This visit was representative of how stagnant and backward this industry is. A visit in 2023 felt like going back in time to 2015, while the animals were trapped in a commercial model established in the 1970s.