Roque defends dolphin park visit: It's a side trip, not a party

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 2) — Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque has apologized after photos of him swimming with dolphins in Subic went viral on social media, but insisted that he did not violate social distancing rules.

Photos from a marine adventure park in Zambales showed Roque dressed in a rash guard and swim cap as he waded in the open water with four dolphins posing with him for a photo. He was then spotted patting the dolphins on the head and chatting with two park personnel without masks on.

"Kung meron man akong na-offend sa mga nakita nilang larawan, paumanhin po dahil tao lang po. Kung tatanungin niyo po ang mga tiga-Malacañang, ang trabaho ko po walang Sabado-Linggo. Kung kinakailangang mag-break, isingit mo kung kailan maisisingit."

"Hayaan niyo po, hindi na mauulit 'yan kasi hopefully, mage-MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) na rin sa Metro Manila," he added.

[Translation: If there are people who got offended with the pictures they saw, I am sorry. I am but human. If you ask people I work with in Malacañang, my job has no days off. If I need a break, I really have to squeeze it in whenever I can. Don't worry, this won't happen again because hopefully, Metro Manila will also be placed under MGCQ.]

He explained that he did not travel for leisure, as the visit to the dolphin park was only a "side trip" when he drove to Bataan supposedly to check on his ailing business ventures there, his first time since the lockdowns started.

He explained that he had to check on his pigs, a business which he has not divested or liquidated since he returned as Malacañang spokesman in April. He said he couldn't sell his trade because of this lockdown.

Roque said swimming with dolphins was not prohibited by existing rules, as this is already allowed as a non-contact sport.

Asked whether this should cause a stir like the birthday bash or mañanita of Metro Manila police chief Debold Sinas, Roque said: "Hindi po ako nag-party, ang kasama ko po apat na dolphin [I did not have a party, I was with four dolphins]."

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"Ang katabi ko naman po ay mga dolphins, hindi naman mga tao [I was beside dolphins, not people]," he added.

The viral photos have already been taken down from the Facebook page of Ocean Adventure Subic Bay, but not before netizens were able to save these pictures. There was much backlash on Roque's behavior on social media, pointing out the supposedly insensitive timing.

"Gov't officials should be careful on their actions this pandemic. All eyes on them because they keep on blaming people then boom, there goes Harry Roque smiling with the dolphins," user @dimpledcpa08 said.

"Parang walang pandemic!," another Twitter user said.

Environmental group Earth Island Institute Philippines also criticized Roque for “favoring big businesses that support captive animal entertainment.”

“Another question still unanswered is how Ocean Adventure manages to operate despite the fact that it is illegal to possess dolphins under Philippine laws,” group spokesperson Mark Louie Aquino said in a statement.

Aquino said the bottlenose dolphins, which Roque was seen swimming with, are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international treaty in which the Philippines is a signatory state.

The agreement states that the possession of such dolphins is illegal "if scientific assessments show that population of the species in the wild cannot remain viable under pressure of collection and trade.”

The group urged the government to hold Roque accountable for his dolphin park visit, which it called “insensitive and mere abetting of the captive industry.” It also called for the revocation of the Ocean Adventure’s operating permit, as well as the immediate release of the marine mammals in the facility.