Last updated 29 Mar 2020

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 with the animals.

The marine mammals 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 normally resembles a stadium, with audiences viewing the performance from tiered seating. Smaller ones may be attached to hotels or resorts, and some allow visitors to touch or even swim with 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.

Dolphinarium3

Tricks and performances are far from natural dolphin behaviour

Why it’s a concern

Dolphins are intelligent social mammals that travel over vast distances in the wild and are poorly-suited to life in captivity. In comparison to their natural habitat, dolphinarium tanks are tiny, cramped environments that lack the features and space that these animals need. Deprived of space and stimulation, they can become stressed, develop abnormal behaviours such as head-bobbing or pacing, and can become aggressive to each other and to people.

Dolphinaria are often stocked with animals captured from the wild. Breeding is unusual and calves are frequently separated from their mothers prematurely to be sold to other dolphinaria.

The animals are often used in public shows, where they perform completely unnatural tricks such as tail walking, balancing balls and spinning hoops on hoops.

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

Dolphins girl feeding

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

What you should know

Most dolphinaria exist purely for the entertainment of paying visitors. There is usually very little focus on education or conservation. 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.

Orca dolphinarium

Captive orcas are more likely to die at a young age

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 150km a day, diving to depths of more than 60m. There is no way a dolphinarium can replicate this, with captive facilities 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.

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.

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 it markets and promotes its shows.

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