Marine mammals in captivity | The Humane Society of the United States

The public display industry keeps many species of marine mammals trapped in concrete tanks, especially whales and dolphins. The Humane Society of the United States believes that these animals are best seen in their natural coastal and ocean environment rather than being held captive to entertain humans.

Living in the wild

The nature of these animals makes them eminently suitable for confinement. In the wild, whales and dolphins live in groups, often in close family units. Family ties often last for many years. In some species, they last a lifetime.

Whales and dolphins travel long distances every day, sometimes swimming 100 miles in a straight line while looking for food and chatting, other times they stay in a particular area for hours or days, moving for miles along a coastline and then return to retrace their path. These marine mammals can dive up to several hundred meters and stay underwater for half an hour or more. They would normally only spend 10 to 20 percent of their time on the surface.

The sea is for whales and dolphins just as the sky is for birds – a three-dimensional environment, where they can move up and down and side to side. But whales and dolphins don’t stop to alight. They never come to the coast, like seals and sea lions. Whales and dolphins are always swimming, even when they are ‘sleeping’. They are “voluntary breathers”, conscious with each breath they take. They are always aware and always on the move. Understanding this, it’s hard to imagine the tragedy of life in nothing more than a small pool.

Life in captivity

Life for whales and dolphins in captivity is nothing like a life in the sea. It is nearly impossible to keep a family group in captivity as animals are traded between different facilities. Their tanks only allow a few blows in each direction before they get to a wall. Because tanks are shallow, whales and dolphins’ natural tendencies are reversed – they must spend more than half of their time on the surface of the tank.

This unnatural situation can cause skin problems. In addition, in captive killer whales (orcas), it is the likely cause of dorsal fin collapse. Without the support of water, gravity pulls their tall, upper fins forward as the whale matures. Collapsed fins are experienced by all captive male killer whales and many captive female killer whales. However, they are observed in only about one percent of orcas in the wild.

In a tank, the environment is monotonous and limited in scope. Sonar clicks, the method by which individuals navigate and explore their environment, are of limited use in such an environment. These animals, in constant awareness, have nothing like the varied stimulation of plants and fish and other animals in their natural environment. In perpetual motion they are forced into literally endless circles. Life for these animals is just a shadow of what it was in the wild.

The problem

What must life be like for these complex, gregarious, three-dimensional creatures who have to live in a relatively dull concrete enclosure? The parents or grandparents of most captive dolphins in the United States are wild-caught. Some countries still catch and sell them.

At first glance, a whale or dolphin show may seem exciting, even for the animals. But if you look past the show at the high mortality rates and stress-related causes of death in captive whales and dolphins, the effects of captivity suggest a much harsher reality. Public display of whales and dolphins in marine parks and aquariums is declining in Europe and Canada, but is still common in the United States and increasing in developing countries, especially those in Asia.

While seals and sea lions breed easily in captivity, only a few species are kept in numbers large enough to sustain a breeding population. In contrast, some species of whales and dolphins do not breed well in captivity and some have never produced surviving offspring. Many of the captive dolphins and whales have a shorter life expectancy than others of their species still living in the wild.

The companies that ask the public to see and interact with whales and dolphins in captivity claim that public display serves educational and conservation purposes. However, experience has shown that public display does not effectively educate the public, which generally teaches little valuable about the animals seen in shows and swimming facilities. Profit, not education, is the reason they are trapped in zoos and aquariums. To a marine mammal, tanks are prisons. The monotonous, limited life of animals in captivity is just a shadow of what life was like for them in the wild. The Humane Society of the United States believes that animals in bare tanks do not realistically represent natural behavior or habitats. Marine mammals are best protected by clearing and protecting their habitats. If you really appreciate them, you will see them along the coast and in the rich ocean environment where they belong.

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