Jan 192014

If my Twitter feed is an accurate barometer of such things (and I have little doubt that it is), the recent airing of Blackfish on CNN has thrust the issue of marine mammals in captivity to the forefront of the public conscience.  More people than ever (even non-activist types) seem to have an opinion on keeping Orcas, aka killer whales, and dolphins in captivity.

Wild Dolphins, Kona, Hawaii

Wild Dolphins, Kona, Hawaii

When I first contemplated the tone of this piece, I considered writing a non-biased fact-filled summation of both sides of the issue.  But the longer I pondered this, I realized that there was really only one direction I could take and still remain true to myself and my beliefs.  So I will state up front that I do not believe in keeping marine mammals in captivity for purposes of human amusement.  I do not approve of “dolphin prisons”, nor do I believe that SeaWorld (nor its foreign imitators) should incarcerate orcas and other marine mammals to be used as circus props.

For those who remain blissfully unaware of the issue at hand, it may be easy to fall prey to the myths perpetuated by SeaWorld (which has more captive orcas than any other entity) and the captive dolphin entertainment industry.  Who wouldn’t want to swim with a beautiful dolphin while on vacation?  And what child wouldn’t be enamored with the larger than life black and white whale we all know as Shamu?

Let’s take a closer look at some of these myths.



SeaWorld is educating children by allowing them to see a real orca.  Most children would never be able to see one in the wild.


Let’s look at the first part of this myth – SeaWorld is educating children by allowing the to see a “real” orca.  The problem here is that these captive orcas are not representative of real, wild orcas.   Some have been bred in captivity, while others have been taken from their native environment (Icelandic waters, for example) and ripped from their all-important family structures.   Since most captive orcas are not living in intact family structures, their behavior is radically altered.  The do not develop the hierarchies, social patterns and cooperative behaviors that are observed and studied in the wild.  What is educational about this?

Orca Pod Hunting - Photo by National Science Foundation

Orca Pod Hunting – Photo by National Science Foundation

Also, wild orcas swim up to 100 miles per day, while captive orcas live in the equivalent of a large bathtub.  Many are imprisoned in even smaller (behind the scenes) pens or pools at night.  These inherently energetic animals are deprived of, not only their freedom, but also an outlet to release the kind of energy that only a 6-ton animal could possess. The result?  Strange behavior patterns emerge.  The orcas, whose lives are devoid of the natural stimuli found in the ocean, become confused, agitated, and even aggressive.

The bottom line is that what you see at SeaWorld is in no way indicative of what you would see in nature.

Now let’s examine the second part of this misconception – most children would never be able to see an orca in the wild.

The San Juan Islands, just outside of Seattle, WA is the perfect location for orca watching in an environmentally friendly manner.  The cost for a family of two adults and two children to take an orca watch tour is around $280, which is less costly than SeaWorld’s $318 entry fee for the same family.



The dolphins in the dolphinarium pool look really happy!  They must love playing with humans and doing tricks all day.


It’s easy to be guilty of anthropomorphism while looking at that cute dolphin’s face.  Don’t you see that it is happy and smiling?  Well, it just so happens that dolphin facial anatomy mimics a human smile.  So it’s easy to assume that the dolphin that is “waving” at you is intensely happy.

These dolphins indeed perform tricks for human amusement, but they do so not because they want to.  They do so because of a little trick called food deprivation.  They are rewarded for their “cute” behaviors with food.  No trick?  No food.  It’s that simple.

The real truth is that captive dolphins are stressed and anxious and suffer both mental and physical distress.



Captive orcas must live long lives, since their every need is taken care of and they face no dangerous predators like they would in the wild ocean.


Actually, the exact opposite is true.  The average age of the approximately 54 captive orcas in the US is 9 (many die in their 20s), while wild orcas have an average lifespan of 30-50 years.  Wild females can live to an age of 80-90, and wild males can live to be 60-70

The ocean is hardly a dangerous place for an orca.  Orcas are apex predators, which means that they have no natural predators.  In the ocean, they feed on fish and other marine mammals.



The friendly dolphins at the dolphinarium must be native to the calm ocean waters in front of the hotel.  They probably had a short boat ride to their new home here at the dolphinarium.


This couldn’t be further from the truth.  And the truth is frightening and disgusting.   Many of these dolphins are captured in connection with a brutal annual dolphin hunt that takes place in Taiji, Japan.  It’s here that fishermen capture and kill hundreds of dolphins per year.  The dolphins are herded into a cove, where most are then brutally beaten and stabbed to death.  These are sold as meat to be consumed in Japan.  Those that aren’t killed are sold to the highest bidder.  Representatives from “marine parks” and dolphinariums around the world flock here to acquire their new attractions.  Some of these dolphins command up to $200,000.

This dolphin hunt is legal in Japan.  Fishermen may say that they are providing meat, feeding their families and their communities.  Yet more and more Japanese people are refusing to eat dolphin meat.  So make no mistake about the primary driver for this event.  Selling a captive dolphin is a financial win for these dolphin hunters.  The dolphinariums around the world are fueling this brutal hunt, and they have the blood of thousands of other unlucky dolphins on their hands.  For more on this, or to see this brutal ritual for yourself, watch The Cove.


As long as we, as a society, continue to patronize swim with the dolphins programs and marine parks like SeaWorld, these industries will continue to flourish.  The marine parks hire genius PR executives and marketers to convince us to visit and spend our hard earned money there.  They perpetuate these and many other myths designed to convince us that they are “furthering science”, “educating the public” and that they truly care about the welfare of the animals they enslave.  Don’t believe the PR spin, and don’t take just my word for it.

In the past month, 9 music acts have cancelled scheduled concerts at SeaWorld, due mainly to public pressure.  Thank you Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Heart, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, REO Speedwagon, Martina McBride, .38 Special and Trace Adkins.   You’ve sent a message that is loud and clear, and together you’ve reached a broad audience.  You’ve spoken up for these animals that can’t speak for themselves, and you’ve said that captivity is not OK.

For further reading-

Orca Network

The Killer in the Pool, by Tim Zimmerman

Save Japan Dolphins

Plight of the Captive Dolphins – World Society for the Protection of Animals

Marine, Aqua Parks – Human Society of the United States

Death at SeaWorld, by David Kirby

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