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Aquariums and Marine Parks

Aquariums and marine-mammal theme parks like SeaWorld, the Miami Seaquarium and Canada’s Marineland are part of a billion-dollar industry built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that is natural and important to them.

Wild orcas and dolphins live in large, complex social groups and swim vast distances every day in the open ocean. In captivity, these animals can only swim in endless circles in tanks that are the equivalent of bathtubs, and they are denied the opportunity to engage in almost any natural behavior. They are forced to perform meaningless tricks and often torn away from family members when they’re shuffled between parks. Most die far short of their natural life spans.

Sad Orca© Free Morgan Foundation

Families Torn Apart

Countless marine animals have been taken from their rightful ocean homes and placed in tanks (even the original Shamu was stolen from the wild). Tilikum, the orca who lashed out and killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and two other people, has been in a cramped tank for more than 30 years since he was taken away from his Icelandic family. Lolita, torn from her family when she was just a baby, has existed in the same tank at the Miami Seaquarium for nearly half a century. Some countries, including Russia, Cuba, and Japan, continue to capture wild dolphins and whales.

tilikum_06© Ingrid N. Visser, PhD

Captivity’s Tragic Consequences

Orcas and other dolphins navigate by echolocation, but in pools, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, which can drive them insane. World-renowned oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau compared the keeping of orcas in tanks to “a person being blindfolded in a jail cell.”

Captive orcas suffer physically as much as they do psychologically. Some orcas have destroyed their teeth by chewing on metal cage bars and all captive adult male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins, a condition that rarely occurs in wild orcas.

The Toronto Star obtained video footage of Marineland’s lone orca, Kiska, trailing blood from cuts in her tail as she swam. Kiska reportedly spends her days swimming listlessly and scratching parts of her body against the sides and the tanks sharp fibreglass grates. Nakai, an orca at SeaWorld San Diego, sustained an injury on his lower jaw that was so significant that it was described as “a dinner plate-sized chunk” of ripped-off tissue.

Wild orcas can live for decades (one matriarch named Granny is more than 100 years old). The median age of orcas in captivity is only 9. At least 44  orcas have died at U.S. SeaWorld facilities from causes ranging from severe trauma to intestinal gangrene; not one has died of old age. More than 60 bottlenose dolphins died at SeaWorld parks in 10 years alone, including 16 stillborn babies.

© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.
Nakai was injured on a sharp metal edge in his tank while reportedly fleeing from an aggressive altercation with two other orcas.


The Trouble With ‘Interactive’ Programs

Touch tanks and “swim-with” programs allow the public to pet, kiss, or even “ride” dolphins. Such programs invade the animals’ already diminished worlds and are intrusive, stressful, and even dangerous for the animals, as well as being risky for human participants, too. Visitors to Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium can pay to “paint” with belugas and the facility shamelessly spins the profitable program as “enriching” for the whales.

Animals in “petting pools” are frequently exposed to foreign bacteria and other pathogens, and they can become anxious, frustrated, aggressive, and even neurotic as a result of being confined to shallow tanks and exposure to constant interaction with humans. Members of the public have been injured at SeaWorld’s dolphin-petting pools.

Even programs that enable people to swim with dolphins in the wild can be invasive. Boats and swimmers may chase, harass, and scare animals, upsetting their natural feeding, resting, migrating, and playing behavior.

Poor Government Regulations

Captive marine mammals have some federal protections in the United States, but enforcement is lax. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has 126 inspectors responsible for inspecting 10,433 facilities every year, and even chronic violators are rarely assessed fines or meaningful penalties.

Keeping Dolphins Free

An Emory University scientist determined that the relative brain size of many dolphin and whale species is second only to that of modern humans and that the complexity of the neocortex of many dolphins and whales, including orcas, is comparable to and perhaps exceeds that of the modern human brain.

Other studies have revealed that dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self, and the ability to consider the future. Research has also shown that behavior adaptation is passed from one dolphin to another.

Governments around the world are recognizing that dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans do not belong in tanks. Chile, Costa Rica, and Croatia all have banned the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. In 2013, India’s Ministry of Environment & Forests banned the keeping of captive dolphins for public entertainment. Other countries, including Brazil, Luxembourg, Nicaragua, and Norway, have highly restrictive standards that make it nearly impossible to keep cetaceans in captivity. The last dolphinarium in the U.K. closed more than 20 years ago.

Captive Dolphins©

What You Can Do

Please don’t visit marine parks, zoos, or aquariums that keep ocean animals in captivity. Encourage your local aquarium to create more space for rehabilitating (and releasing) injured wildlife by refusing to breed or bring in any more animals.

You can also leaflet at local aquariums or marine parks, pressure officials to avoid subsidizing these facilities with taxpayer money, write letters to the editor of local publications, and support legislation that prohibits the capture or restricts the display of marine mammals.