Marine Mammal Parks: Chlorinated Prisons
At aquariums around the country, orcas leap through the air for a handful of fish and are ridden by human performers as if they were water skis. Tourists flock to facilities that offer them the opportunity to swim or have their pictures taken with dolphins. These parks and zoos are part of a billion-dollar business built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied all their natural behaviors and needs.1 Ric O'Barry, who was a dolphin trainer for the Flipper television series in the 1960s, says that parks and zoos "want you to think that God put [dolphins] there or [that] they rescued them... If people knew the truth, they wouldn’t buy a ticket."2
Families Torn Apart
Killer whales, or orcas, are members of the dolphin family. They are also the largest animals held in captivity. In the wild, orcas stay with their mothers for life. Family groups, or "pods," consist of a mother, her adult sons and daughters, and her daughters' offspring. Members of the pod communicate in a "dialect" specific to that pod. Dolphins swim together in family pods or tribes of hundreds.
Capturing even one wild orca or dolphin disrupts the entire pod. To obtain a female dolphin of breeding age, for example, boats are used to chase the pod to shallow waters where the animals are surrounded with nets that are gradually closed and lifted onto the boats. Unwanted dolphins are thrown back. Some die from shock or stress, and others slowly succumb to pneumonia when water enters their lungs through their blowholes. Pregnant females may spontaneously abort babies. In one instance, more than 200 panicked dolphins who had been corralled into a Japanese fishing port crashed into boat hulls and each other, becoming hopelessly entangled in nets during their attempt to find an escape route; many became exhausted and drowned.3
Orcas and dolphins who escape the ordeal of capture become frantic upon seeing their captured companions and may even try to save them. When Namu, a wild orca captured off the coast of Canada, was towed to the Seattle Public Aquarium, he was insured by Lloyd's of London, according to the BBC, for "various contingencies including rescue attempts by other whales."4
Adapting to an Alien World
In the wild, orcas and dolphins swim up to 100 miles a day.5,6 But captured dolphins are confined to tanks that may be only 24 feet long, 24 feet wide, and 6 feet deep.7 They navigate by echolocation - bouncing sonar waves off other objects to determine their shape, density, distance, and location - but in tanks, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, driving some dolphins insane. Jacques Cousteau said that life for a captive dolphin "leads to a confusion of the entire sensory apparatus, which in turn causes in such a sensitive creature a derangement of mental balance and behaviour."8
Tanks are kept clean with chemicals that have unknown side effects. Because of high chlorine levels in their tanks, dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were unable to open their eyes, and their skin began to peel off.9
A tank at the North Carolina Zoological Park didn't provide enough shade, causing a sea lion's eyes to develop blisters and rupture. Oklahoma City Zoo closed its dolphin exhibit after four dolphins died within two years from bacterial infections.10 Sea lions at Hersheypark wouldn't come out of their pen because they feared the noise made by the nearby rollercoasters.11
Newly captured dolphins and orcas are forced to learn tricks. Former trainers say that withholding food and isolating animals who refuse to perform are two common training methods. According to Ric O'Barry, "positive reward" training is a euphemism for "food deprivation."12 Former dolphin trainer Doug Cartlidge maintains that highly social dolphins are punished by being isolated from other animals: "You put them in a pen and ignore them. It's like psychological torture."13
Captivity's Tragic Consequences
If life for captive orcas and dolphins is as tranquil as marine parks would have us believe, the animals should live longer than their wild counterparts. However, while captive marine mammals are not subject to predators or ocean pollution, their captivity is nevertheless a death sentence.
It has been documented that, in the wild, dolphins can live into their 40s and 50s.14 But more than 80 percent of captive dolphins whose ages could be determined died before the age of 20.15 Wild orcas can also live for decades - some have been documented to be more than 90 years old - but those at Sea World and other marine parks rarely survive for more than 10 years.16
Florida's Sun-Sentinel examined 30 years of federal documents pertaining to marine animals and found that nearly 4,000 sea lions, seals, dolphins, and whales have died in captivity, and of the 2,400 cases in which a cause of death was listed, one in five animals died "of uniquely human hazards or seemingly avoidable causes."17 Captive marine mammals have died from swallowing coins, succumbing to heatstroke, and swimming in contaminated water.
A former trainer at Hersheypark quit because she saw "a lot of frustrated animals that would die from ulcers."18 A marine mammal behavioral biologist in Seattle says that "dolphins in captivity can exhibit self-inflicted trauma" and that some drift at the surface of the water and chew on concrete until they've destroyed their teeth.19 The stress is so great that some commit suicide. Jacques Cousteau and his son, Jean-Michel, vowed never to capture marine mammals again after witnessing one captured dolphin kill himself by deliberately crashing into the side of his tank again and again.20
Captive animals are not the only victims of these "circuses of the sea." Sea World patrons were stunned when an orca repeatedly attacked Steve Aibel in an apparent attempt to drown the trainer.21 Another trainer, Keltie Lee Byrne, was killed by three Sea Land orcas after she fell into their tank.22
Poor Government Regulations
Animals kept in aquariums have little federal protection, and the few laws that do exist are often ignored. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the federal government "has allowed violators to continue operating for years even after documenting contaminated water, starvation or deaths."23 The executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission told the paper that inspectors are too few and too overworked and that "[t]here are very few who are trained in marine mammal veterinary sciences."24 Even more alarming, although federal law requires that facilities keep records of mammals' births, deaths, and transfers, many do not turn over reports of stillborns or newborn deaths. In one instance, a California sea lion named Nemo died in 2000 at the Seneca Park Zoo in New York, yet three years later, government records indicated that he was still alive.25
Marine parks have shown no more interest in conserving marine mammals' natural habitats than they have in educating audiences. In fact, the industry has actively lobbied to keep small cetaceans, such as orcas and dolphins, outside the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (which would help protect these animals in the wild) because they don't want to face the possibility that they may not be permitted to capture additional animals in the future.26
What You Can Do
Richard Donner, coproducer of the film Free Willy, said, "Removal of these majestic mammals from the wild for commercial purposes is obscene... These horrendous captures absolutely must become a thing of the past."27
People around the world are recognizing that dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans do not belong in captivity. Canada no longer allows beluga whales to be captured and exported.28 Israel has prohibited the importation of dolphins for use as entertainment.29 Australia also prohibits importation of dolphins.30 Plans for the construction of a dolphin tank at a marine center in Virginia were abandoned following extensive public outcry.31
Don't visit parks or zoos that have captive marine mammals unless you are doing so to monitor the animals as part of a campaign. Support legislation that prohibits the capture or restricts the display of these animals.
- Sally Kestin, "Not a Perfect Picture," Sun-Sentinel, May 16, 2004.
- Public Broadcasting Service, "A Whale of a Business," Frontline, 1998.
- "Lloyd's: Insuring the Famous and the Bizarre," BBC News, October 29, 1999.
- Orca Network, "Some Fascinating Facts About Orcas," last accessed September 10, 2004.
- Ken LeVasseur, "Dolphins Head to New Prison Camp," Hololulu Star-Bulletin, September 15, 2000.
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, "3.104 Space Requirements."
- Virginia McKenna, Into the Blue. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
- Sally Kestin, "Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks," Sun-Sentinel, May 17, 2004.
- Sally Kestin, "Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks."
- Christopher Schnaars, "Marine Parks: Below the Surface," The Morning Call, May 16, 2004.
- Sally Kestin, "Experts, Parks Debate Animal’s Ages of Death," Sun-Sentinel, May 16, 2004.
- Kestin, "Not a Perfect Picture."
- Kestin, "Not a Perfect Picture."
- Kestin, "Not a Perfect Picture."
- Kestin, "Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks."
- Dianne Dumanoski, "The Age of Aquariums. Critics Warn Captivity Is Harmful," The Boston Globe, November 12, 1990.
- "Killer Whale Slams Trainer at Sea World," NBC10.com, July 27, 2004.
- "Whales Kill Trainer in Sea Show," New York Post, February 22, 1991.
- Naomi A. Rose, Ph.D., Letter to Richard Busch, National Geographic Traveler, February 3, 1995.
- Sally Kestin, "Federal Government Often Slow to Enforce Laws Meant to Protect Marine Animals," Sun-Sentinel, May 23, 2004.
- Kestin, "Not a Perfect Picture."
- "Sea World Tossed out as Sponsor for American Oceans Event," Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, March 20, 1995.
- Brian McHattie, MSc., letter to Ann Terbush, U.S. Department of Commerce, "Comments on National Marine Fisheries Service Proposed Rule - Docket No. 001031304-0304-01," October 31, 2001.
- "Israel Agency Bans Import of Dolphins," Reuters, February 4, 1994.
- Andrew Darby, "Born to Be Wild," Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2003.
- Jon Frank, "Beach to Turn Over Documents on Tank Expansion to PETA; Deal Is Second Challenge to City's Compliance With Information Law in Less Than a Week," The Virginian-Pilot, March 28, 2001.