Memorial to mark anniversary of mysterious dolphin death

Gloria Jackson was a carer for the three dolphins at Underwater World (now AQWA) who mysteriously died in December 1999. Picture: Andrew Ritchie d497235
Gloria Jackson was a carer for the three dolphins at Underwater World (now AQWA) who mysteriously died in December 1999. Picture: Andrew Ritchie d497235

IT has been 20 years since the three dolphins at Hillarys mysteriously died.

To mark the anniversary, the community is invited to a memorial for Mila, Rajah and Echo on December 29 at the dolphin sculpture at the northern end of Hillarys Boat Harbour.

A group of former Underwater World (now AQWA) staff, including carer and marine mammal specialist Gloria Jackson, will speak and display photos at the event about 11am, with guests invited to bring flowers to surround the monument from 9am to noon.

“Rajah, Mila and Echo were very special to me we wanted to somehow mark this as a remembrance of how much we miss them,” Ms Jackson said.

“I don’t want it to be sad, though it still tugs at my heart, but to celebrate how amazing a time it was and how we can help other marine life.”

Gloria Jackson remembers her time with the dolphins fondly.

Mila, Rajah and Echo had been living at Underwater World for seven years from 1992, having previously lived at Atlantis.

When Atlantis closed in 1990, most of its nine dolphins were re-released into the wild but it did not work for these three, so they were re-homed to a large sea pen in Hillarys.

Ms Jackson said she was responsible for the care of the dolphins during this time.

“I spent as much time as I could with them, sometimes many more hours than was part of my job,” she said.

“My family and I even spent every Christmas, New Year and any other major holiday there to be with them – they were family too – and also to protect them from any interference.

“When we lost them I was totally and utterly devastated.

“I felt I had let them down, I couldn’t protect them.

“I couldn’t believe anyone would harm these beautiful creatures and I resented humanity for a long time.

“I fell apart and went into a deep depression, and it affected my family too. It was an absolutely awful time.”

Gloria Jackson was a carer for the three dolphins at Underwater World (now AQWA) who mysteriously died in December 1999. Picture: Andrew Ritchie d497235

Ms Jackson said her fondest memories were of greeting the dolphins in the mornings.

“It was our alone time – there was a lot of love shared during those times,” she said.

“When scuba diving to check nets or do repairs they would ‘help’ me by trying to mimic my actions.

“Often Echo would place her rostrum (snout) on my shoulder and just stay there watching me until she had to surface to breathe. I think she was trying figure out how I could breathe underwater.

Gloria Jackson said the dolphins were part of her family.

“I would blow bubble rings and she would chase them to the surface and it was just wonderful.

“They had very individual personalities: Rajah was a wonderfully gentle male, Mila was the boss, very intelligent and a wonderful mother, and Echo was the sweetest, most loving animal I’ve ever worked with.

“Every moment spent with them was bliss and I never ever took it for granted. It was a privilege to know them and take care of them.”

Just after Christmas in 1999, Mila and Rajah, who were aged in their 20s and perfectly healthy, were found dead.

Later that week, on New Year’s Eve, 10-year-old Echo also suffered the same fate.

It was first believed Mila died of a heart attack, and Rajah and Echo were so distressed they soon also died from broken hearts.

At the time, Department of Conservation and Land Management supervising wildlife officer Doug Cochrane, who had been involved with the three dolphins for about 20 years, said it was a “terrible shock” and it was possible that sadness and stress caused by Mila’s death was a factor.

“When you have a loss in your close family group, you feel stress and it’s fair to say that animals also feel stress,” he said.

But when autopsy results and water tests ruled out these theories, it was thought they died from heart attacks induced by poisoning.

A criminal investigation began, with new speculation the dolphins were given fish laced with a poison.

However, police never solved the case and the precise cause of death still remains a mystery.

Wanneroo Rotary and Dolphin Wishing Committee member Robin Russell, former carer for the dolphins Gloria Jackson and Wanneroo Rotary president Terry Ambler. Picture: Andrew Ritchie d497235

In memory of the three dolphins, a sculpture was created by Joan Walsh-Smith and Charlie Smith.

The wishing well was a 10-year joint project by the Rotary Clubs of Hillarys and Wanneroo, and since 2010 every time a $2 coin is inserted, the sculpture rotates.

Proceeds from the sculpture are then distributed to local community projects.

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