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’s natural and important to them.
Wild orcas and other dolphins live in large, complex social groups and swim vast distances every day in the open ocean. In captivity, they can only swim in endless circles inside tanks that, to them, are the equivalent of bathtubs and they’re denied the opportunity to engage in almost any natural behavior. They are forced to perform meaningless tricks and are often torn away from family members when they’re shuffled between parks. Many die far short of their species’ natural life expectancy.
Families Torn Apart
Countless marine animals (even the original Shamu) were taken from their rightful ocean homes and placed in tanks. Tilikum, the orca who lashed out and killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and two other people, died in a concrete prison 33 years after he was taken away from his Icelandic family. Lolita, torn away from her family when she was just a baby, has spent half a century in the same tank at the Miami Seaquarium. Some countries continue to capture wild dolphins and whales.
Captivity’s Tragic Consequences
Frequently housed with incompatible tankmates, dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals are often drugged in order to manage stress-induced aggressive behavior and relieve the endless monotony of swimming in circles. They break their teeth chewing on the metal bars and concrete sides of their tanks and are forced to perform tricks for tourists in exchange for food—all in the name of entertainment.
While wild female orcas can live to be more than 100 years old, orcas at SeaWorld often die by the time they reach their teens and rarely approach even the average life expectancy of wild orcas. More than 40 orcas have died at SeaWorld from causes such as bacterial infections and fractured skulls. More than 300 other dolphins and whales along with approximately 400 pinnipeds have also died at the parks.
While Marineland can no longer breed whales and dolphins or confine new ones—thanks to Canada’s recent ban on their captivity—it’s still imprisoning the animals currently languishing there. Dozens of dolphins, whales, and walruses have died there—including a walrus named Apollo who recently suffered a heart attack. An orca named Kiska—who was abducted from her family in the ocean as a baby 40 years ago—is confined in isolation and can do nothing but swim in endless circles inside her cramped tank.
The Trouble With ‘Interactive’ Programs
Touch tanks as well as “swim with dolphins” and “paint with dolphins” programs allow the public to pet, kiss, paint with, or even ride these animals. Such programs invade their already diminished worlds and are intrusive, stressful, and even dangerous for them, as well as being risky for human participants.
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 exposed 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 nature can be invasive. Boats and swimmers may chase, harass, and scare them, interfering with their natural feeding, resting, migrating, and playing behavior.
Poor Government Regulations
Captive marine mammals have some federal protections in the U.S., but enforcement is lax. There are simply too many animal exhibitors for the limited number of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors—as of February 2020, there were 104 inspectors for 12,851 facilities. Even when exhibitors are cited for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, they’re rarely assessed fines or meaningful penalties.
Keeping Dolphins Free
In nature, orcas work cooperatively in search of food. They share complex relationships in a matrilineal society and—in some populations—rarely leave their mother’s pod. They have group-specific food preferences and behavior. These attributes, along with their pods’ unique dialects, are considered a form of culture that is unrivaled by any species other than humans.
Other dolphins, too, maintain dynamic relationships within a large social network. They live with up to a few dozen others in a pod and can swim as many as 60 miles each day and dive to depths of nearly 1,500 feet in nature.
The world is moving away from keeping intelligent, sensitive cetaceans in captivity. In the U.S., the National Aquarium is building the dolphins in its care a seaside sanctuary—a safe ocean cove in which captive marine mammals can be released into a protected area of the sea to dive deep, feel the ocean currents, and finally live like they should, all while still receiving care, food, and veterinary support. Two whales have been moved from a marine park in China to a seaside sanctuary in Iceland, and The Whale Sanctuary Project just announced plans for a seaside sanctuary for rescued orcas and belugas in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Governments around the world are also recognizing that dolphins (including orcas) and other cetaceans do not belong in tanks. Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, and Croatia have all banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity. In 2013, India’s Ministry of Environment & Forests banned the practice of keeping dolphins captive 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.
What You Can Do
Please don’t visit marine parks, and never buy tickets to roadside 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 more animals.
You can also leaflet at local roadside 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.
Please join PETA in urging SeaWorld and other marine parks to stop using animals and to relocate the orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and other animals to seaside sanctuaries, where they can thrive in the enrichment and diversity of the sea while still receiving the care that they require.