Releasing an orca at WhaleFest


Wild and Free: Changing the way people view whales and dolphins

Dylan Walker, CEO, World Cetacean Alliance.
Daniel Turner, Associate Director, Born Free Foundation; Co-Chair, World Cetacean Alliance Captivity Working Group; Policy Lead, Dolphinaria Free Europe coalition.



This is the story of how a partnership of NGOs and tourism experts reached out to some of Europe’s largest tour operators to ask them to consider ending their promotion of captive ‘attractions’ exhibiting whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans). The year was 2014. BlackFish, the film documentary that exposed the woeful ill treatment of killer whales (or orcas) in captivity, was a year old, and many of the captive cetacean facilities appeared to have escaped the public backlash as a result of the ‘Black Fish Effect’. In addition, tour operators were, (and still are), promoting and selling large quantities of tickets to the two facilities featured in the film, SeaWorld and Loro Parque; as well as to other dolphinariums across the world, despite the clear and mounting evidence that cetaceans su er in captivity.


The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), a young charitable partnership of 70 NGOs and whale-watching tour companies, which fundamentally believes that keeping cetaceans in captivity is wrong, decided to reach out to UK-travel businesses in an attempt to open constructive dialogue. This is the story of how the WCA and its partners managed to avoid conflict and instead lay down the foundations for efforts that continue to influence and encourage change in the travel industry that might ultimately help end the demand for captive cetacean facilities.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

People and cetaceans: a shared history
People and cetaceans have a rich history. Neolithic paintings on caves and cliffs show that our shared knowledge of cetaceans dates back to prehistoric times, and has become rooted in science, mythology, hunting, and, in recent times, tourism. Representing more than just a source of food, people from all over the world have sung about and celebrated these relationships for thousands of years, creating long-lasting myths, legends, and true stories about cetaceans.


The last 50 years has seen an unprecedented interest in whales and dolphins (cetaceans) which has propelled them to the very heart of the animal tourism industry. Today, they are perhaps the most popular group of animals on Earth. Stars in TV programmes, on display in some of the world’s largest zoological visitor attractions, and watched in the wild by commercial tour operators in over 100 countries, cetaceans also have huge appeal in the media, often drawing millions of viewers to natural history documentaries focused on them.
Yet this attention has also been their fate. Since the 1960s, cetaceans have been captured from the wild to stock a captive industry where the species’ perceived intelligence has been compromised through performances of unnatural behaviours to entertain. In some countries they are also used in interactive programmes that encourage physical contact with people every day. Over 600 captive facilities now keep and display over 3000 cetaceans around the world. It has become a hugely profitable business: each animal being a valuable asset.


The popularity of cetaceans, and the thirst for knowledge about their complex natural behaviours, has also made cetaceans the subject of many scientific studies. This has resulted in astounding scientific findings that have led us to conclude that cetaceans are among the most intelligent and socially dynamic mammals on earth. These findings have increasingly led us to question whether their complex physical and behavioural needs can ever be met by a captive environment, and has even led some scientists to argue that cetaceans deserve rights equivalent to those that we inscribe in law for ourselves.

The BlackFish Effect: a game changer?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, Black Fish, was never produced as a campaign tool; in fact it only sought to investigate the reasons why an orca called Tilikum, housed at SeaWorld Orlando, killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. The documentary exposed the mental suffering of captive cetaceans; concluding that this was a direct result of the animal’s captivity.


The film was a game changer. Never before had so many people been made aware of the negative effects of captivity; or even questioned whether there was more to a cetacean’s well-being than that suggested by its constant ‘morphological’ smile. As a result, SeaWorld’s Stocks plummeted as ticket sales fell, tour operators, led by Virgin Unite, chose to no longer work with any captive cetacean facility that takes cetaceans from the wild, and NGOs, including those in the WCA, relaunched campaigns to engage with an increasingly disillusioned public.


At the time, other animal attractions that kept cetaceans sought to distance themselves from SeaWorld and Loro Parque, but whilst this succeeded to a point, public opinion had started to change. People had begun to understand that regardless of the attraction, or the species involved, captivity could not adequately provide for the complex needs of cetaceans.


Captive dolphins: huge profits and the travel industry
Until Black Fish, travel businesses had remained largely on the periphery of the debate. Many include captive cetacean attractions within their itineraries and actively sell entrance tickets but, they are independent businesses and have minimal influence over the practicalities of one another.
Importantly, there is a lot of money to be made from captive cetaceans, whose facilities include some of the largest visitor attractions in many parts of the world. Records indicate that a single trained dolphin can generate up to US $1 million per annum for an animal attraction. In fact, they are so valuable that dolphinaria use them as collateral for loans. This means huge profits are also made from their wild-capture (i.e. in 2013, the Taiji Whale Museum received US$47,000 per dolphin)2, once they are trained (a trained dolphin can fetch upwards of US$100,000, whilst an orca, US$5 million), and at the attractions themselves (i.e. swimming with a dolphin in Atlantis will cost a person about US$200, whilst a 117 photo package costs US$249). Tour operators can also pro t from selling tickets to captive dolphin attractions, with one operator estimating annual revenues of £1.4 million.


The travel industry does however have a responsibility to the destinations in which it operates and many operators, including those within the ABTA (The British Travel Association) membership, recognise the importance of sustainable and responsible travel. This includes building capacity within the destination to suitably accommodate their guests and to ensure any negative impacts are minimised. Animal welfare; ensuring animals used within tourism experiences are kept and used appropriately, have become an important component of destination sustainability and as a result, many operators are actively seeking to minimise their ‘Animal Footprint’ through the application of ABTA Global Welfare Guidance. Despite the profit gains, this commitment to animal protection has made it possible to have a constructive debate about the active promotion of captive cetacean facilities by travel businesses.

Wild and Free: How we are helping to change the way people view whales and dolphins
In 2014, the World Cetacean Alliance launched a multilevel campaign to:
1) Seek engagement with the travel industry;
2) Improve public outreach; and
3) Promote responsible whale and dolphin watching as a viable alternative.


Entitled ’Wild and Free’, the campaign built upon the after effects of Black Fish, to open constructive dialogue with tour operators and encourage the public to stop attending dolphinariums and instead, to seek out responsible whale and dolphin watching opportunities in the wild.


1) Engagement with the travel industry
The WCA and WCA Partner, the Born Free Foundation, hosted and presented at numerous meetings with representatives of the travel industry. Scientific evidence was presented to support our concerns that cetaceans suffered in captivity, and that wild whale and dolphin watching is a viable alternative. It was clear at the time that whilst those represented recognised some of the animal welfare implications, ticket sales to dolphinaria would continue while there was the demand. It was insinuated that it was our role to change customer opinion if we felt the evidence was compelling enough to do so. This led to phase 2.


2) Public outreach
For two years we ran a public outreach campaign working closely with WhaleFest, the Born Free Foundation, and Responsible Travel. The 2015 WhaleFest was hailed as the largest anti-captivity event ever undertaken, as experts on the issue arrived from all over the world to debate the topic with tour operator representatives including Virgin Holidays and ABTA. At one point the Main Stage was even rushed by pro-Sea World protestors!

Outside the WhaleFest venue our volunteers spread the word across the region, taking a life-sized captive orca on a tour of south-east England, and recycling 500 wooden pallets into crosses to create a Whale Graveyard of captive cetaceans on Brighton Beach. Over 10,000 people visited the Graveyard, including politicians and celebrities such as Caroline Lucas MP and Steve Backshall. Images were widespread on social media and through the press, including BBC news feeds and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

The WCA also worked in partnership with Responsible Travel and the Born Free Foundation to raise awareness with the public and the travel industry through our ‘Say No to Orca Circuses’ campaign, signed by 14,000 people as well as many travel companies and NGOs.


3) Promoting responsible whale watching as a viable alternative
As concern about the welfare implications of keeping cetaceans in captivity increased amongst tour operators, we began to get requests for information on the viable alternatives. They needed to know that standards were high for wild whale and dolphin watching at destinations. To provide a method of assessing this, we developed and launched a scheme called Whale Heritage Sites – a globally recognised way to identify destinations leading the way in sustainability and responsible management of wild whale and dolphin watching, and generating an appreciation of the culture and heritage surrounding cetaceans and their habitats.

The power of partnership
Utilising the social media power of a partnership that shares over a million likes, we worked closely with our partners including WhaleFest, Born Free Foundation, Free Morgan Foundation, and Responsible Travel through a series of petitions, works of art, expert forums, whale festivals and demonstrations, encouraging UK tour operators to participate whenever there was an opportunity to do so. We met over 25,000 people face to face and reached over a million people through media and celebrity endorsement.


Our most important collaborations were, of course, through our Partners. It sends a very clear message when 70 partners across 35 countries, including some of the world’s leading experts on cetaceans, stand unanimously behind a campaign. Whilst everybody played a part, the following organisations were pivotal.


WhaleFest, the non-profit event that brings the world together to give marine life and our oceans a bigger voice, provided the platform for the WCA partnership to campaign in front of 25,000 people. A fun and engaging festival that reaches far beyond wildlife fanatics to the travelling general public, WhaleFest was an important platform to debate the issue and involve people with little or no previous knowledge.


Our joint ‘Say No to Orca Circuses’ campaign with Responsible Travel and the Born Free Foundation led to a petition signed by over 14,000 travellers and hundreds of travel companies and non-profit organisations across Europe and beyond. Thanks to Responsible Travel’s resorts we received national press coverage on the issue on several occasions in the UK, and we continue to engage in dialogue with ABTA and other travel industry representatives seeking their commitment to stop supporting dolphinariums that exhibit whales and dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes.


WCA partner Born Free Foundation has led the NGO movement on cetacean captivity issues across Europe in recent years, in influencing policy and encouraging coordinative campaigning wherever possible. They have chaired the WCA Captivity Working Group for three years and played a pivotal role in the ‘Wild and Free’ campaign and WhaleFest. Notably, Born Free sponsored the presence of key speakers including former SeaWorld trainers and BlackFish stars Samantha Berg and John Hargrove, as well as orca captivity expert Dr Naomi Rose.
Dr Ingrid Visser of New Zealand’s WCA partner, the Orca Research Trust, is one of the world’s leading experts on killer whales both in the wild and in captivity. A passionate activist and respected scientist, her help and in influence during discussions with European tour operators and particularly at the Virgin Stakeholder Meeting on Cetacean Captivity in Miami were invaluable, as has been her inspirational campaigning on stage at WhaleFest and on the road across Europe and beyond, where she has championed the campaign to free the wild orca Morgan through WCA partner, Free Morgan Foundation.

Long swim to freedom
It is important to be clear that the recent and significant successes in the fight to bring an end to the keeping of cetaceans in captivity is down to the work of a large number of organisations and individuals across the world, of which we are a small but integral part. The many campaigns fought, demonstrations made, and petitions signed, have shown just how strongly the travelling public feel about this issue, and have illustrated that activism for a worthwhile cause remains an important tool to remind multinational companies that they have responsibilities beyond the profits to be made and demands of their shareholders.


In May 2015, BBC Wildlife Magazine summed up our efforts by writing:

“If SeaWorld bows to growing pressure and stops keeping orcas captive, it will in part be due to campaigning by the World Cetacean Alliance. The WCA acts like a planetary loudhailer for marine conservation and responsible tourist organisations.”

At a tipping point of change?
In the USA in March 2016, with share prices plunging, SeaWorld announced that the current orcas in its ‘care’ would be the last. In June 2016, Baltimore Aquarium announced it would cease dolphin shows and by 2020, relocate its bottlenose dolphins to a seaside sanctuary. In Europe, Särkänniemi dolphinarium in Tampere, Finland has closed due to low public attendance; Barcelona Zoo has acknowledged its facility is no longer appropriate for dolphins; and numerous dolphinaria have included greater educational content in their circus-style shows. The tide appears to be turning, and it is not only the animal ‘attractions’ that are feeling it.


Maintaining constructive dialogue with the travel industry is also beginning to pay off. Recent talks with ABTA and its Members indicate that they too are considering a different approach. Encouraged by a statement signed by 21 prominent marine mammal scientists, which acknowledges that the keeping of “odontocetes [toothed whales and dolphins] in commercial captive display facilities for entertainment purposes is no longer supported or justified by the growing body of science”4, prominent tour operators are increasingly considering dolphinaria as outdated and are open to viable alternatives.


The WCA believes that tourism will play a pivotal role in ending captive cetacean exploitation and in the future protection of cetaceans in the oceans. It will certainly take time for captive cetacean facilities to phase-out altogether, and until that point the commitment of tour operators to influence and uphold acceptable standards in animal welfare and care remains important to safeguard those animals that are not relocated to seaside sanctuaries. Tour operators will continue to be encouraged by WCA and its partners to invest instead in viable solutions: responsible whale and dolphin watching, and seaside sanctuaries, that will still allow people to view cetaceans, but at a respectful distance.


Whilst cynics might quite rightly point to the fact that the campaigns of the last few years have yet to result in a single cetacean being granted its freedom, the truth is that progress continues to be made at a pace few would have thought possible before the release of the Black sh lm in 2013.
Like the travelling animal circuses, now being prohibited throughout Europe, the unacceptable cruelty involved in keeping cetaceans in captivity is one that is so easy to convey to the general public that it cannot and will not go away. We are moving into a phase where the expectation sits firmly with key tourism industry players to show the leadership on this issue that the travelling public increasingly expect. We welcome and support the efforts of representatives across the industry to do the right thing and help us to move ever closer to a time when we can consign dolphinariums to the history books.




1 h p:// -dolphins-moneydec31-story.html
2 h ps://
3 h p:// 4 Scientist’s Statement Regarding Captive Cetaceans (2016)

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