Marine Animals in Captivity


Trina Davies shares her opinion about Marine Captivity in today’s commercialised marine tourism industry. 

Cetaceans have always been in fashion. The characteristic image of a leaping dolphin has been splashed across t-shirts, shower curtains, coffee cups, and pretty much every dock and marina in Britain regardless of whether dolphins inhabit the surrounding waters. Boats that go out in search of whales are now generally armed with eager tourists instead of harpoons. Everyone seems to want to get a soulful selfie with nature’s giant.

Perhaps this is because cetaceans soften the sea’s reputation in a world where it’s believed if we dip our toes below the shallows a shark or particularly evil jellyfish will murderously target you. Or maybe people just like them because they are big. Who knows? Regardless of the reason for our fascination it wasn’t going to be long before it was exploited. And it wasn’t going to be long before both whales and people alike got unhappy about it.

The cruelty of captivity has recently been catapulted into the public eye. Seaworld is a ring leader in the trade of cooped-up marine mammals. The name used to bring connotations of dolphins leaping through hoops and American families hugging in waterproof ponchos. The recent sudden change in views has been largely due to the popular documentary ‘Blackfish’ which was released in 2013 examining the life of Seaworld’s large male orca Tilikum. In the wake of Blackfish, Seaworld has seen as of August 13th a 33% fall in stock with a significant reduction of ticket sales as the world turns its back on Seaworld’s lonely tanks.

The issue of marine mammal captivity being problematic or damaging is becoming more clear with scientific evidence for shortened life spans of captive whales. But the people who haven’t been following the debate, the people who are not crazed conservation fanatics or are not season ticket holders for Seaworld with a house full of stuffed Shamus, may need a quick master class in dolphin dos and don’ts.

Marine mammal captivity is not a recent thing. Tanks have been occupied since the 1860s. In the case of orcas, hauling a 22,000 pound mass of thrashing fins and flukes out the water was somewhat challenging and resulted in several accidents. One event which stuck out was the death of four orcas at a capture of three families in Puget Sound, where the stressed whales became tangled in the nets and drowned. The controversial response to this event was to slit the bellies of the whales open and fill them with rocks to sink any evidence. The law eventually caught up and the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972 banning marine mammals from being taken from US waters. Seaworld took their ‘rights’ to take wild marine mammals to court, but eventually had to settle for finding loopholes in the system. Whales have been imported controversially from seas abroad, or in some cases stranded so they can conveniently be ‘rescued’ and put into captivity such as in the case of Mundo Marino park, Argentina.

Or there is the other option of making do. However, this has resulted in Seaworld’s disturbing breeding program involving inbreeding with cases recorded of mothers being bred with their own sons and females being artificially inseminated by male whales which are kept solely for sperm purposes, trained to role on their backs and be masturbated by trainers. One of Seaworld’s wisest moves was to have 21 calves being born with the man killing whale Tilikum as a father, resulting in the majority of Seaworlds whales carrying potentially aggressive genes.

The capture of dolphins for captivity in some places has been found to be connected to the dolphin hunts in killing coves such as in Taiji, Japan where 20,000 dolphins are killed annually. The dolphins which are not deemed lovable enough for captivity are killed for their meat. The hunts’ purpose is clear: a dead dolphin is worth 600 dollars whilst live ones can be sold to marine parks for up to 200,000 dollars. The point of the hunt is to sell live dolphins, killing them is just an additional bit of cash in a fisherman’s pocket, which would not be economically viable if captivity was to be abolished.

Seaworld claim to have ‘world-class standards of care, state-of-the-art animal habitats, and a commitment to animal welfare’. The main argument for captivity appears to be education, presenting an opportunity for people to actually see marine mammals allowing ‘millions of people each year to learn about animals in our SeaWorld parks’. So does Seaworld live up to its self-boosted image of smiling dolphins or is it just another money making machine operating under pretences of conservation to turn a profit? And is the dolphin’s smile due to Seaworld’s high care standards or is it simply because that is the way their face is designed?

The main issue with whale and dolphin captivity seems to not be the treatment of the animals; it is the actual captivity itself. These animals are not designed to sit in a bathtub being gawped at; they are built to travel up to a hundred miles a day. An orca would have to swim 1400 times around its tank at Seaworld to match its daily distance swam in the wild. It is also questionable whether animals such as dolphins which have shown incredible displays of intelligence, recognising their own reflection and having unique name whistles and languages, should be confined and kept as a trivial human amusement. These animals do not do well in captivity. 100% of all male and female orcas have undergone dorsal collapse while this occurs in only around 1% of the wild population. 92% of captive orcas do not survive past the age of 25 whilst females in the wild can live up to 80-90 years.

But what other option do activists propose? Free all the Willy’s and then sit on a hill watching them breach in the distance whilst playing a harmonica? It may be challenging to release animals born in captivity back to sea who have only ever known their tanks. However, release has proven to be possible; many bottlenose dolphins have been returned to the wild after years of captivity. These animals are intelligent enough to learn to hunt and survive in the wild and re-join social groups. In some cases release may not be possible, but there is the possibility of enclosed marine sanctuaries in natural coves or bays.  Maybe as Seaworld’s stock diminishes these are all changes we will see over years to come. Maybe in the future if you want to see a whale or dolphin you’ll have to get on a boat and head out to sea or watch a David Attenbourgh documentary. Or perhaps getting splashed by Shamu is more important than any animal rights nonsense.


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