Words by Nina Dawe in collaboration with the WCA Campaigns Working Group.
Main image thanks to Bristol Vegan Action A key objective of the World Cetacean Alliance is ‘to prevent any cetacean being held in captivity except for rehabilitation and sanctuary purposes’ (WCA, 2016). The WCA works towards a future where cetaceans are only found in the wild and where marine parks cease to continue the keeping of marine mammals as a source of entertainment.
On the 12th May, demonstrating a united front, advocates from across the world organised localised events as part of the global Empty The Tanks campaign. This long running effort seeks to spread awareness about marine mammal captivity, as well as educate the public about what we can do to help end it. The way cetaceans are kept in tanks and forced to perform for public entertainment is inhumane and unacceptable. These animals are smart and social individuals who are self-aware, meaning they can recognise themselves in reflections (Empty the Tanks, 2014).
A study published in 2001 proved this behaviour when two dolphins used a mirror and other reflective surfaces to observe parts of their body that had been marked. This was the first solid evidence that showed a non-primate species could exhibit this behaviour (Reiss, Marino, 2001). Cetacean intelligence and cognition is an area of study that presents many challenges, as researchers are learning that cetacean intelligence probably greatly surpasses that of humans. How can scientists begin to understand something that we, as humans, don’t have the brain capacity to perform or comprehend? What we can bluntly and definitively observe is that these animals do not belong in captivity. There are, of course, situations where cetaceans may need to be held for rehabilitation purposes, but this should be done in a specially built sea sanctuary run by experts.
In the wild, cetaceans have the entire ocean to explore and utilise to their benefit; Orca, swim up to 100km a day (BBC, 2016), and yet when captive they exist in the equivalent of a bathtub, swimming endlessly in circles within the confines of their tanks.
Unable to live a natural life and exposed to a never-ending circus-like work routine, the resultant stressed behaviour of Orca held at captive facilities is managed by medicating them with psychoactive drugs and anti-depressants which have a Valium-like effect on them (ZME, 2014). Orcas in captivity seriously lack stimulation, and the little they receive comes in the form of forced performance and un-natural displays. Trainers claim this is ‘enrichment’, when it couldn’t be further from the truth. This lack of mental and physical activity could be why some Orca have been driven to psychotic distress, which has had tragic results.
Orcas living in the wild have never been known to deliberately harm or fatally attack humans, yet in captivity there have been multiple reports of injuries and fatalities involving cetaceans. There have been many documented incidents where orca have killed humans, some of which were their own trainers. Perhaps the most infamous of those deaths was when in 2010, Tilikum, a male captive orca, tragically killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Some believe his behaviour was related to the severe psychological damage caused by the barbaric years of captivity. Tilikum was captured in 1983 when he was just 2 years old, and whilst in captivity was involved in two human deaths before he drowned Dawn at SeaWorld, Orlando.
Orcas are incredibly sociable animals that live complex lives, yet when they are hunted and taken from their families in the wild and sent to marine parks where they are forced into a tiny space with other animals they do not know. This can lead to aggression which can and has resulted in captive orca deaths.
Many marine parks justify keeping cetaceans by expelling false information about the animals they keep. One example being the collapse of male orca dorsal fins that occurs when kept in captivity. The lack of stimulation and sun exposure results in the unnatural folding of the dorsal fin, and is observed in 100% of captive male orcas. Yet in the wild, it occurs in less that 1% of male orcas (Empty the Tanks, 2014). Orcas also die dramatically younger in captivity than in the wild, supported by the premature death of Tilikum aged 36, compared to wild orca nicknamed Granny, who is thought to have lived to be around 100 years old. Marine parks and aquariums also try to argue that it is educational to see cetaceans in captivity. This could not be further than the truth as there is nothing natural about the behaviours the animals display when they are being held in captivity. They are not eating, socializing, reproducing or behaving as they would in the wild, and therefore there is no evidence to support any argument regarding captivity for educational purposes (Empty the Tanks, 2014).
There are currently at least 2,360 cetaceans in captivity worldwide, that number comprising of around 2,000 dolphins, 227 belugas and 53 orcas. In excess of 5,000 cetaceans have died in captivity since the 1950s (Change for Animals Foundation, no date).
The partners of World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) collaborate to help put an end to cetacean captivity. They also work with the travel industry to encourage a move away from promotion of cetacean captivity in favour of a more sustainable and eco-friendly option of boat based watching of whales and dolphins in the wild (Virgin and WCA collaboration 2018) The Change for Animals Foundation, a partner organisation of the WCA, is helping to develop resources that will enhance the work of the WCA, and the work of its partners regarding issues surrounding the captivity of cetaceans.
So what can you do to help end marine mammal captivity?
- Do not attend any marine parks or buy any tickets to shows where cetaceans are captive.
- Don’t participate in activities such as ‘swim-withs’ or petting of dolphin’s in captive facilities.
- Educate yourself by watching documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove (Available on Netflix) and A Fall From Freedom.
- Encourage friends and family to do the same.
- Donate to the World Cetacean Alliance and or become a WCA Partner!