The 2013 documentary Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, a captive orca whale at SeaWorld. The documentary highlights welfare, conservation and safety concerns associated with keeping these gigantic and incredibly intelligent beings in little more than a swimming pool. Since Blackfish came out SeaWorld has had a dramatic decline in attendance resulting in their net income rapidly declining by 84% from $37.4 million in the second quarter of 2014 to $5.8 million in 2015. This public boycotting may represent the start of a revolution in terms of the way our societies view animals in captivity. However, at the moment our societies seem to be a long way off extrapolating the suffering of orcas in captivity to other animals. Whilst attendance at SeaWorld sharply declines, dolphinariums are burgeoning as people pursue their dream of swimming with dolphins.
In taxonomic terms all dolphins and porpoises are actually toothed whales, as distinct to barleen whales. Collectively barleen and toothed whales are known as cetaceans. Toothed whales in particular who hunt their prey are known for their incredible intelligence. They are self-aware, have rich emotional lives and bonds with other members of their pods. They hunt collectively using clever methods and they rapidly learn new skills and pass them on to others. One of the main indicators of incredible intelligence is the act of playing, to do something for no other reason other than for enjoyment. Wild dolphins and whales have been observed to play and sometimes this play actually occurs between two different species. For example, off the coast of Hawaii bottle-nosed dolphins and humpback whales have been observed playing a game whereby the dolphins swim onto the nose of the whales who then lift them out of the water so that the dolphin then slides down the whale’s back. This does not mean that captive cetaceans enjoy being made to preform tricks over and over again, it means that they are so intelligent that in the wild they sometimes do things purely for their enjoyment and mental stimulation rather than just simply preforming adaptive tasks that aid their survival.
They also show a huge amount of empathy for their own species and others, they mourn their dead and have been documented numerous times saving the lives of humans. They live in close knit groups where every member plays a role and has an emotional connection with others. Therefore, when dolphins and whales are snatched from their pods to live a life in captivity the rest of their pod (if they aren’t killed) are left missing a vital member of their group whom they may depend on for many social reasons whilst the animal destined for captivity obviously mourns the loss of their family and suffers emotionally and physically.
The problem with dolphinariums and swimming with dolphins:
For three main reasons dolphins and captivity are totally incompatible. In captivity the very essence of what it means to be a dolphin is taken away from them.
Firstly they are incredibly intelligent – some scientists believe they are second only to humans in some measures of intelligence. Dolphins have an intricate and highly developed neocortex as well as very distinctive folds of the cerebral cortex. Both of these areas of the brain are involved in complex information processing. They will never be challenged mentally in captivity, as they would be in the wild.
Secondly, they are highly social and live in large social groups where each member has a unique relationship with every other member. They cooperate to hunt and then distribute the prey evenly among the group. Wild dolphins are constantly on the move, often travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles. In captivity they are confined to less than one percent of their natural rage. A dolphin taken away from its family and confined to an aquarium is likely to be just as unhappy as a human would be if they were taken away from their family and held in a penitentiary for the rest of their lives.
Thirdly, they have emotions. Like humans they have a limbic system and hence they are able to experience a broad range of emotions. Depression is well documented in captive cetaceans. There is even observational evidence from those that have worked closely around captive dolphins that they can become so depressed they kill themselves or prevent their calves from breathing. Ric O’Barry who trained Kathy, a bottle nosed dolphin, used in the 1960’s television show “flipper” became an animal activist after Kathy killed herself in his arms. He explains that, unlike humans dolphins are voluntary breathers, they have to consciously think about every breath they take and can therefore choose not to take another breath, as Kathy did when she swam into his arms and then never came up again for air. Similar observational reports of captive dolphins reveal that sometimes a mother will stop her calf from coming to the surface to breathe, it is assumed that this is because she does not want her baby to grow up in captivity.
Dolphinariums and swim with dolphins programmes
As discussed, captivity of any kind is inherently inadequate for cetaceans. However, to make matters even worse in many of the parts of the world where dolphinariams are popular such as Japan, Indonesia and the Caribbean, there are little or no animal welfare standards, or those that are in place are not enforced. People should not be fooled by the dolphin ‘smile’. Every dolphin that tourists have the opportunity to swim with in captivity is in emotional pain and has suffered, or is suffering, physically.
Whilst some dolphinariums have begun to captive breed dolphins, many are still taking them from the wild. Both are undesirable options as captive breeding is producing individuals who are loosing their natural instincts and have no ability to survive in the wild, whilst capturing animals from the wild is obviously hugely traumatic and has an extremely damaging effect on the conservation of these species.
During capture dolphins are driven into nets so that the desirable ones (usually females) can be plucked out of the sea and taken up onto boats. The loss of key individuals may affect the survival of the entire group.
Many individuals die during capture itself as they get entangled in nets and suffocate, others may die from stress. In Taiji, Japan, there is a dolphin drive hunt every year from September-March where dolphins are driven into a secluded cove. They are then killed one by one, using barbaric methods that veterinarians and behavioural scientists have evaluated as causing so much pain and terror, that these practices would not be tolerated in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world. As the dolphins are killed one by one, they not only endure an excruciating death but they watch their families die around them. Before the killing starts the ‘desirable’ dolphins are removed from the pod to supply dolphinariums all over the world.
Similarly, in Indonesia dolphins are reportedly caught illegally from the Java Sea. In Indonesia it is illegal to intentionally capture dolphins for captivity. However, local fishermen are paid to do so by companies who reap the financial gain associated with captive dolphins. The fishermen reportedly capture the dolphins under the cover of darkness and claim that the dolphins were accidentally caught in fishing nets. This allows them to make use of a loophole in the legislation that allows “rescued” dolphins to be taken into captivity. It is reported that the fishermen are provided with incentives and supplies.
Therefore, by swimming with captive dolphins we not only contribute to the suffering of those individuals we also keep these disgusting inhumane drive hunts alive and well. If we don’t care enough to think about the supply chain then we are condoning these practices in order to meet our own selfish ends.
Methods used to transport cetaceans overland are often inhumane. Dolphins and whales are unable to support their own body weight on land, their vital organs are crushed by the weight of their bodies so breathing is very difficult. They may also develop pressure sores during transit as they are unable to reposition themselves. They are also obviously at extreme risk of drying out. In developed countries there are strict regulations surrounding the transport of these animals whereby they cannot be in transit for longer than 6 hours. However in some countries where there are no animal welfare laws dolphins suffer immensely during transit.
At one facility in Indonesia the dolphins were wild caught and reportedly travelled 30 hours in the back of a truck to reach their destination of a life in a swimming pool. Dolphins kept by the traveling circuses in Indonesia are subjected to frequent moves in tiny containers of water. They spend many hours riding over bumpy roads as the circus travels from village to village. So high is the mortality rate of these dolphins that they actually have a holding area where they keep dolphins to replace those who die on the road.
Their daily existence:
As already mentioned, animal welfare standards are non-existent in many of the countries where dolphinariums are a popular tourism industry. Therefore, the dolphins often live in tiny pools devoid of any physical, mental or emotional stimulation. For example the Wake Bali Adventure Park holds 4 dolphins in a pool that measures just 10 metres by 20 metres. Although this is a grossly inadequate environment for these animals, the more concerning issue is that it actually complies with, and offers significantly more space than, the minimum Forestry Standards which require that a dolphin must have a pool just two metres deep and twice the dolphins length.
Captive dolphins are often starved until they are so desperate for food reward that they will comply with routines such as jumping through hoops of fire. They may also be forced to swim with myriads of people each day. In swim-with-dolphins programmes, pools are often heavily chlorinated so that they look clean and hence appeal to the human swimmers. Tragically many dolphins go blind as a direct result of the chlorine levels they are forced to endure. For example of the four dolphins supplied by Wersut Seguni Indonesia (WSI) to Wake Bali Adventure Park one went blind within just one year and was once again transported thirty hours back to the WSI facility and replaced with another dolphin. WSI is also one of three companies that continue to run travelling dolphin circuses.
A lesson for tourists:
Tools like Trip Advisor are used to choose holiday destinations and activities. Whilst such sites can be great tools, they ultimately just allow people to give feedback on their own thoughts and experiences. However these sites do not necessarily provide factual information about the welfare of animals used in the tourism industry. For example, a search for Wake Bali Adventure Park on Trip Advisor will reveal many reviews about how awful the conditions are for the dolphins. Sadly though you also encounter positive reviews, or reviews where people’s only apparent concern is not for the dolphins but how much they had to pay to buy their photos with the dolphins.
For example one review on Trip Advisor reads:
“I was worried about the treatment of dolphins in an attraction like this but was pleasantly surprised and the whole atmosphere was kind and loving. The dolphin experience was fabulous. We got to hold the dolphins, swim with them and so much more. I think it was great value because with our entry ticket we were provided a welcome drink plus 50k rupee to spend in the restaurant. We were able to have a night light early dinner with little additional expenses. The bathrooms were average but I was happy to hear that they wanted us to wash before getting in the pool with the dolphins as again I think they treated the animals kindly. One disappointing factor was that you were unable to take your own photos and had to purchase from their photographer which was a huge additional expense because there were too many to choose from we choose a whole disk which was 600k ruppe. Overall I absolutely loved the experience and it was much cheaper than anything I could ever do in Australia.”
What this review highlights: