Despite overwhelming evidence of the psychological and physical deprivation captivity causes to marine animals, there are still numerous marine parks around the world that exploit these amazing, wild creatures. Airing in 2013, the documentary ‘Blackfish’ brought to light the horrifying underbelly of the marine park industry and their unrelenting will to continue causing suffering to animals in the name of profit.

The 2009 documentary, ‘The Cove’, exposed the interconnectedness between the captive/performing dolphin trading industry and the ongoing slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Dolphins, whales and seals are complex and sentient creatures; it is completely unacceptable in today’s society for us to view these animals as mere objects for human amusement and entertainment. We have the power to say no to these places which exploit animals in such a way, and instead appreciate and protect these animals in their natural environment.

Caught from the wild

For marine animals to be held in captivity, they first had to be caught from the wild. Despite the widely held belief that such practices are a thing of the past, it sadly persists in parts of the world including Russia and Japan. 

All methods of capturing live animals for marine parks are traumatising and invasive, often involving high-speed boats, grappling with animals until they are forced to submit and hoisting them aboard a vessel before dumping them in a shallow, temporary holding tank. All methods are extremely stressful to cetaceans and can even be fatal.

Dolphin drive in Taiji, Japan. Desirable dolphins are sold to marine parks around the world, while others are killed and used for meat. Image: Dolphin Project

In Taiji, Japan dolphins are captured through a drive fishery, one of the most violent methods of all. This involves a fleet of boats producing loud noises, often through the crew banging metal pipes together underwater, in order to confuse dolphin groups and herd them into shallow water. The most desirable looking dolphins are set aside to be sold to marine parks – some within Japan, some in other parts of the world. The dolphins who are not kept for marine park sale are killed for human and pet food. 

The sale of these dolphins for exhibition props up the dolphin slaughter industry; live dolphins are sold for a much higher price than dead dolphins (150,000 USD and 600 USD each respectively). The captivity industry provides the main economic incentive to continue the drive hunts in Japan.

Image demonstrating how a wild dolphin is caught using the hoop method (note: this dolphin was part of a capture-and-release research study, not caught for sale into captivity). Image: Marianne H Rasmussen

Despite some marine parks now having captive breeding programs (in place of buying wild-caught animals), which are still incredibly exploitative and cruel, the sheer existence of such an industry that objectifies sea animals in this way perpetuates the idea that it is okay to continue capturing these animals in the wild. 

Captive breeding 

Marine park captive breeding programs are often deceptively promoted as “conservation” programs, but they are little more than a tool to replenish their supply of marine animals to exploit in the pursuit of profit. 

The widely held belief that the welfare of captive-bred marine animals is better than that of wild-caught because they are more ‘domesticated’ could not be further from the truth. Captive-bred dolphins are not physiologically or genetically domesticated, and they still have the innate needs a wild-born animal has. 

Dolphin masturbation to collect semen at Kamogawa Sea World

Marine parks cannot meet the complex needs of cetaceans in an artificial environment, and subsequently the animals are unable to learn or express most behaviors that come naturally to them; this rings true for both wild-caught and captive-bred animals alike. 

Artificial insemination of a female orca in captivity. Image: End Whale Captivity

Additionally, it is routine for facilities to separate calves from their mothers at early ages. This is hugely detrimental to calves, depriving them of the ability to learn a number of survival skills from their mother. This further disproves the industry argument of captive breeding for the purpose of conservation as, without essential survival skills, these animals will never be suitable for release into the wild.

A dolphin and their calf in the wild.

Cruel training practices and disrespectful shows

The most common method of training marine animals in captivity is ‘operant conditioning’, using food as ‘positive reinforcement’. This means for many animals, in order to satisfy their hunger, they must perform tricks. Some marine parks even induce hunger so that the use of food is more effective. 

Dolphins being given fish as supposed positive reinforcement. Image: Man on the Lam.

Pinnipeds such as seals are often involved in shows that reduce them to nothing more than clowns, where they balance balls on their snouts and do handstands whilst obnoxious music plays in the background. This perpetuates the harmful idea that animals only hold value if they exist for human entertainment; instead, we should be encouraging humans to appreciate the wonder of animals in their natural environment, where they display amazing behaviours that are even more beautiful because they are natural and on their own terms. 

Pinniped performing in a marine park show. Image: Pete Amland / UWM photo

Housing 

All captive marine facilities fail miserably at meeting the complex social, physical, and psychological needs of the animals they keep there. A pod of dolphins travels up to 100km per day in the open ocean, and commonly remains together for life. They are known to have unique whistles used to communicate with one another within their pods. In captivity, they are regularly placed with dolphins from different families and pods, making communication between them extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. 

Seals being held in captivity. Image: SeaWorld of Hurt.

Many species of pinnipeds are migratory, equipped to travel hundreds of thousands of kilometers through the ocean. Naturally, pinnipeds live in environments with vast biodiversity, while those held in captivity are kept in barren concrete pens with chlorinated freshwater and, occasionally, simulated rocks. Like cetaceans, pinnipeds have large, intricate social structures that can take years to form. In captivity, they are forced to live in small, unnatural groups.

Orcas held in a marine park in the US. Image: Rob Lot / Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA.

Concrete pens 

The enclosures marine animals are held in are essentially glorified swimming pools. The size, depth, and shape are primarily designed around how animals can best be displayed to, and viewed by, patrons. Animals are also kept in heavily treated water in order to keep the water clear and the pools hygienic. 

Kina the dolphin at Sea Life marine park Hawaii. Image: Kyler Badten / Keiko Conservation

Further, pens are often placed in close proximity to disruptive and loud activities (music, roller coasters, etc). The audible properties (water pumps, filtration machinery) of tanks, as well as their echogenic potential, are also problematic given many of the marine animals in captivity rely primarily upon sound and hearing for navigation.

Overcrowded dolphin pen. Image: Dolphin Project

In these pens, marine animals are seldom provided an area to ‘escape’ to when they feel they want to get away from crowds or other animals, something that is commonly seen even in zoo environments.

Sea pens 

A sea pen is a fenced or netted off area in open seawater or lagoons in which marine animals (mostly dolphins) are held captive. Sea pens are often considered ‘higher welfare’ than holding marine animals in tanks, however, they come with their own unique set of detrimental impacts that can cause illness and even death to the animals held there. 

A dolphin held in a sea pen by a marine park. Image: Voice For The Blue.

Marine parks prioritise maximising profits over the welfare of their animals, consequently, sea pens are constructed in areas that maximises tourist traffic. This means pens are often situated in close proximity to sources of pollution such as runoff from roads or sewage outfalls. Animals housed in sea pens are also often exposed to a high level of sound disruption such as from boats.

Sea pens are generally more accessible to the public than concrete pens inside marine parks. This means animals housed there are at greater risk of public interference that could cause injury or even death to the animals.

Pens in which two trapped dolphins died following a typhoon. Image: Dolphin Project

Marine animals held in sea pens are at risk of being harmed by weather disasters like hurricanes and typhoons. Animals held in these facilities are unable to escape storms and are seldom evacuated in the case of a weather event. Following such events, pens are often filled with debris and contaminants, with severely injured, or even deceased, animals inside. 

Health issues 

Poor dental health, exposure to vector-borne illnesses, infection from raking and self harm are all issues inherent to the keeping of marine animals in entertainment parks. In addition to this, there are diseases that are experienced more frequently or intensely in captivity than among wild populations.

Dolphin in captivity with clear rake marks on their body. Image: Dolphin Project

There have been two cases recorded of dolphins dying from infection caused by raking. Raking is when one dolphin scratches another with their teeth to assert dominance, and in captivity the animal being scratched has nowhere to escape to. It is worthwhile noting that there are likely many more cases of dolphins dying this way in captivity that have not been recorded.

There are two known cases of orcas dying from mosquito-bite transmitted illnesses in captivity, something that is certainly not an issue for orcas in the wild, who spend significant amounts of time below the surface of the water.

A captive seal with mature cataracts. 

Marine animals in captivity are exposed to more ultraviolet rays from the sun than they would in the wild, which can cause them to suffer from eye infections, lesions or even cataracts.

Dolphins, seals and orcas held in captivity are known to often have poor dental health in captivity, often rubbing their teeth on walls or bars of their tanks, wearing down their teeth. This is a self harming stereotypy, caused from boredom and frustration in captivity.

Orca in captivity with severely damaged teeth from biting on gates and metal bars. Image: Seaworld of Hurt


Environmental impact

An orca in the wild. Image: National Geographic

A good example of the impact wild capture of animals can have on the overall population happened in the US between 1962 and 1976, when approximately 53 dolphins were taken from the “Southern Resident” population in Washington. The current number of this population has halved since these captures, and in 2005 orcas were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act.

Human impact

Interactions causing injury and death

Despite being kept in captive environments, pinnipeds and cetaceans are wild animals and can pose a genuine threat to the safety of anyone interacting with them. There have been a myriad of reports in recent years of injuries suffered by humans participating in swim with dolphins programs. Anyone who enters the water with these creatures is at risk of severe injury or even death.

There are many reports of dolphins causing injuries to members of the public visiting SWD parks. Image: Melinda McKee

Some people have even died interacting with marine animals in captivity; one captive orca, Tilikum, who was used to sire many orca calves in SeaWorld’s captive breeding program, killed three people in his time in captivity, and consequently spent a huge amount of his life in isolation.

Alternatives

The best way to witness cetaceans and pinnipeds is at a distance in the wild. Seeing animals thriving in their natural environment, without human intervention and exploitation, is an incredibly rewarding experience. 

The Dolphin Project has compiled a list of the best places to see dolphins and orcas in the wild.

Orcas: https://www.dolphinproject.com/blog/extraordinary-places-to-see-wild-orcas/

Dolphins: https://www.dolphinproject.com/blog/best-places-to-see-wild-dolphins/ 

Orcas being observed in their natural habitat. Image: Dolphin Project