The people of Yorkshire, England are known throughout the world as spinners of superb yarns, but in the case of Hout Bay resident Doug Cartlidge, the extraordinary tales are belied only by their even more incredible truth.
A world-famous trainer of dolphins and killer whales, Mr Cartlidge and wife Dawn spend half the year in the UK and the other as Hout Bay swallows. Yet unbeknown to many of his fellow residents, the amiable Scarborough native has seen things even James Bond creator Ian Fleming might have considered too astonishing for fiction.
Take, for example, the idea of a dolphin – yes, a dolphin – parachuting 6km from the sky, landing in a body of water and in the event of running into an enemy diver, injecting the diver with carbon dioxide to blow him or her up.
As unbelievable as that may sound, Mr Cartlidge discovered that the Russian military had been seriously entertaining this idea at the height of the Cold War. In 1998, he had been approached by the Russian Navy to visit the naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, as the navy’s so-called Dolphin Division was no longer required and his expertise on how best to utilise them was sought.
During this visit, he came across equipment and harnesses that would have made the aerial deployment of dolphins possible.
Dolphins had long been used by both the US and Russian militaries to detect lost missiles and artillery, and in other cases, protect essential naval bases.
According to Mr Cartlidge, the Dolphin Division animals were kept in pens, and in the event of them detecting a swimmer, the cage would be opened and they would swim out to the intruder.
“Some of the dolphins were fitted with a hypodermic syringe on a nose cone, which was injected into the swimmer. The original military dolphins were fitted with explosives.”
Mr Cartlidge’s career as a dolphin and killer whale trainer, and later animal rights activist, reads like a Hollywood story.
“It all began for me at the age of 17. Dolphins were first imported to the UK in 1968. At around that time I heard that the local tank in Scarborough had become blocked, and I volunteered to clear it,” he said.
“The owner was happy with my work, and said he would keep me on for six weeks. From there I went on to a place called Flamingo Park where I worked for a while. People realised a lot of money could be made from dolphins, but even then I sensed that keeping dolphins in captivity was wrong.”
However, as his reputation as a trainer grew so more lucrative opportunities came along, eventually seeing him ply his trade at the famous Windsor Safari Park.
“We would get all kinds of celebrities coming to Windsor, people like Sean Connery and Peter Sellers, Prince Philip and Prince Charles. I worked with killer whales quite a lot, and still have the scars from where I was bitten.
“After Windsor, I took a job with Sea World in Australia. I also received job offers from South Africa, but I chose not to because I was very much against apartheid. It was at Sea World that I began to really think about what it was I was doing.
“Here we were ripping these animals from their families, putting them all together and training them with a reward system. Do this, and get a fish. Don’t do it, and you go hungry.”
Mr Cartlidge felt that time had come to return to the UK, and do something else.
“I was a private investigator for a while. Then one day I went to Windsor to say hello to my old mates, and while I was there the owner asked me to come and see him.
“He asked me whether I would be interested in training dolphins again. I was reluctant at first, but I eventually agreed.”
However, shortly afterwards he was again made to question his decision. A UK television network bought Windsor, with the new owners doing everything in their power to cut down on veterinary bills. As a further cost-cutting measure, they bought “crap food” for the dolphins, he said.
“By this stage I had had enough, but I did help organise the first strike for a British zoo, protesting about the conditions for the animals. A new owner came in, and I got along well with him, but again I decided it was time to move on.”
Mr Cartlidge decided to try his hand with the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services, a job he thoroughly enjoyed. Yet his extensive background in caring for marine life was not forgotten by others.
“I was contacted by Mark Glover of Greenpeace, who told me they were running an anti-dolphinarium campaign. I was immediately drawn to that, and we managed to close down facilities all over the UK.
“My work on this campaign eventually saw me linking up with British actress Virginia McKenna’s Born Free charity.
The Into The Blue dolphin release project we ran attracted a number of celebrities, including Roger Moore, Joanna Lumley and Michael Caine, who narrated our documentary on dolphin release.”
Having been reluctant to venture to South African shores because of his stance against apartheid, he eventually succumbed several years ago on the insistence of wife Dawn, a Hout Bay resident of more than two decades.
“Now I come out every year. No more winters,” he quipped.