Dolphins And Captive Marine Mammals

Dolphinaria (or dolphinariums) are zoos that primarily keep dolphins, whales and porpoises -- collectively known as cetaceans -- for public display and performances. Some dolphinaria allow visitors to swim and directly interact with the animals.

The animals are usually kept in small smooth-sided tanks or in sea-pens. There are more than 300 dolphinaria worldwide, housing more than 2,500 cetaceans in captivity. Most are in Japan, China, North America and Europe, and while the number of dolphinaria is in decline in Europe, the number is growing rapidly in China, the Middle East and Russia. The most common species kept in this way include the bottlenose dolphin, the orca (“killer whale”), the beluga whale and the harbour porpoise.

A dolphinarium often resembles a stadium with audiences viewing the performance from tiered seating. Smaller ones may be attached to hotels or resorts, and some allow direct contact between visitors and the animals.

Dolphinaria have received lots of negative attention in recent years but, for some tourists, they remain popular places to visit. When deciding whether or not to visit one yourself there are some useful things to keep in mind.

Why it’s a concern

  • Cetaceans are intelligent social mammals that range over vast distances in the wild, and are poorly-suited to life in captivity. In comparison to their natural habitat, dolphinarium tanks are tiny, unnatural environments that lack the features and space that these animals need. Deprived of space and stimulation, they can become stressed, develop abnormal behaviours and can become aggressive to each other and to people.

  • Dolphinaria are often stocked with animals captured from the wild. Breeding is relatively uncommon and calves are frequently separated from their mothers prematurely to stock other dolphinaria.

  • The animals are often used in public shows which include performing completely unnatural tricks such as tail walking, balancing balls and spinning hoops.

  • As a result of the stress of captivity, cetaceans, especially orcas and beluga whales, are more likely to die at a young age.


Intelligent, far-roaming dolphins are entirely unsuited to a lifetime in captivity

Credit: © Britta Jaschinski, Born Free Foundation

What you should know

Most dolphinaria exist purely for the entertainment of paying visitors. There is usually very little focus on education or conservation. Dolphinaria typically include some form of performance. Tricks include jumps, backflips, somersaults and tail walking, and acrobatics.

Some centres allow visitors to swim with or pet the dolphins and pose with them for photographs, usually for an additional fee.

In recent years public opinion has taken a major turn against dolphinaria, spurred by negative media coverage generated by high profile documentaries such as the 2013 movie Blackfish, which provided graphic evidence of animal suffering.

Most experts agree that a life in captivity is harmful to cetaceans. It seems clear that they cannot thrive in such unnatural conditions and there is little scientific reason to keep them in captivity.

Despite this, dolphinaria are still being built, especially in popular tourist areas in China, the Middle East, North America and Russia. Dolphins and whales continue to be captured from the wild to supply the demand, and multinational entertainment corporations continue to make huge profits from the captive cetacean industry.

Unsustainable sourcing

Dolphinaria still use animals that have been captured from the wild. Cetaceans are hunted and captured from the waters off Cuba, Japan, the African coast and the Russian sea of Okhotsk.

Aside from the cruelty involved in taking intelligent creatures from their natural habitats and social groups, removing animals from the wild can also pose a threat to species conservation.

Dolphinaria also breed their animals, separating mothers from their calves at an early age to stock other facilities. In many dolphin species, the bond between mother and child lasts for years, and separation in captivity is stressful for both mother and offspring.

Welfare concerns

Cetaceans live in complex social groups, or pods. Different species have different diets and even different languages. Orca, the largest dolphin species, have been recorded swimming 150 kilometres in a day, and diving to depths exceeding 60 metres.

Captive facilities are a tiny fraction of the size of range that dolphins enjoy in the wild. In a dolphinarium, different species from different geographical regions may be kept together in unnatural groups, which can lead to stress, aggression and physical injury.

Without space and with limited interaction and stimulation, these intelligent creatures can develop abnormal behaviours and mental anxiety, and tend to die younger than would normally be expected in the wild.

In the wild, dolphins are highly dependent on their ultra-sensitive hearing. The noise produced at a typical dolphinarium -- loud music, the hum and throb of pumps and filters, and the shouts of large audiences, may cause them significant discomfort and stress.

Limited diet

In the wild, cetaceans hunt a variety of prey depending on the environment and availability. In captivity, however, they’re usually given a bland diet of thawed frozen fish which lacks important nutrients. They may have to be given supplements and are sometimes force-fed to give them the necessary nutrition. The use of antidepressants has also been reported.

Tricks and training

Many dolphinaria train their animals to perform tricks. Some of these, such as jumping and catching food, are exaggerated versions of natural behaviour. Others, such as balancing balls, spinning hoops and swimming with trainers riding on their backs, are totally unnatural.

If you are still considering visiting a dolphinarium, look at how the dolphinarium markets and promotes its shows.

Premature deaths

As a result of the poor conditions in which they are kept, and the stresses of life in captivity, mortality rates in dolphinaria around the world are significantly higher than they would be in the wild. Research indicates that beluga whales appear to live about half as long in captivity as they do when roaming freely in the oceans.

Public safety

Although many cetacean species appear cute and playful, as large wild animals and highly specialised predators they are naturally unpredictable and dangerous. There have been several reports of captive cetaceans attacking and even killing their handlers.

The animals may also carry bacterial and fungal diseases that can be transferred to humans through direct contact or sharing of swimming pools. The opposite is also true: human diseases may infect dolphins.

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