The Plight of Marine Mammals in Captivity

Marine parks and aquariums seem to be an unfortunately forgotten part of the captive wildlife industry! Most people are aware of the effects of captivity on animals in zoos, wildlife parks and breeding centres, however many do not give much thought to the orcas, dolphins and seals that are housed at marine parks and aquariums.

Although seals fare much better than cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) in captivity, this practice is just as objectionable and distasteful. These animals are taught to perform behaviours that are not part of their natural behaviours, they are fed an unnatural diet and are housed in small cages and pools behind the areas of an exhibit. Seals and sea lions are social animals living amongst a large group of animals of their own kind, in the captive setting they are often forced to live independently from each other or are kept in unnatural groupings which lead to fighting and conflict. Mothers are forcefully separated from pups that are weaned earlier than would be done in nature in order for the young to be trained, sold or moved to other facilities. Seals and sea lions are often not the main attraction of the marine parks, therefore the welfare of these animals is often overlooked and forgotten.

Orca in Captivity

Orcas (killer whales) and dolphins are amongst the most intelligent animals in the world. They live in large, social, family groups where there are strong bonds amongst members of the pod. They possess a complete awareness of themselves and of all the members in their pod. These animals swim hundreds of kilometres in the ocean only to be confined to a small pool for the rest of their lives. Orcas and dolphins in captivity have often been plucked out of the wild from different families and different geographic areas, they are then housed together in captive facilities. Different orca and dolphin pods have different sets of vocalizations which means that these animals are forced to live with each other but are not able to understand or communicate with each other.

Confinement leads to numerous problems, these highly intelligent animals begin to display stereotypic behaviour, aggression, bullying and stress. The animals often end up with serious injuries as there is no place for them to escape the bullying and aggression. Boredom leads to the development of strange stereotypic behaviours such as chewing the metal bars that separate the pools and biting inappropriate objects, this, in turn, leads to damage to the teeth and mouth. Captivity forces them to spend the rest of their lives swimming in endless circles around a barren concrete tank.

Captivity affects their health and bodies as well. The stress causes their immune systems to lower resulting in all sorts of health problems. Even with all the advancements in veterinary treatments and access to medical help captive orcas and dolphins live shorter lives than their wild counterparts. The effects of captivity can especially be seen in all captive male orcas that suffer from dorsal fin prolapse, this is rarely seen in the wild, according to a manuscript submitted to the Orca Project from Drs. Ventre and Jett this prolapse of the dorsal fin is seen in all captive adult male orcas and only in 1% of orcas in the wild. Cetaceans also have a very low breeding rate in captivity, further confirming that their welfare is seriously compromised.

Seals and sea lions in captivity develop problems with their eyes that can lead to blindness. The reason for these ocular problems are unknown and are thought to be associated with the reflection of the sun from the bottom and walls of the pool, the use of fresh water in pools and due to the “in-ground” design of the pools these animals are forced to constantly look up and into the sun which may cause ooverexposureto UV rays. Orcas, whales and dolphins also suffer from many medical issues, such as dehydration due to an inadequate diet, teeth problems from continuous biting of inappropriate objects and subsequent bacterial infections, they are continuously exposed to sunburn as they spend most of their time at the surface of the water which is completely contrary to what they do in the wild. The overexposure to UV rays also lowers their immune systems making them more prone to illness and disease. These are just a few of the health issues that captive marine mammals are plagued with.

Dolphins and orcas are extremely complex animals and these animals are often still captured from the wild, the latest being at least 8 orcas and a number of dolphins that were captured for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. Babies are ripped from their families so that they may be sold to a marine park that claims that their purpose is education and conservation. What type of education are they giving the public by displaying a highly intelligent and social wild animal in a bare concrete tank performing unnatural tricks? These facilities play no role in conservation, despite occasional captive breeding of these animals, none of them will ever be released back into the ocean, they are bred into a life of captivity solely to continue this multi-million dollar profit based industry.

Seal in Captivity
Dolphin in Captivity

Reproduction does not occur in dolphins and orcas when there are environmental stresses present, in captivity, many of these animals do not breed willingly, instead breeding takes place via artificial insemination. Males are trained to present themselves for sperm donation, they are then manually stimulated by trainers. Females that do not voluntarily undergo the artificial insemination process are then removed from the water and forced to undergo this procedure. Females are bred much earlier than they would have done in the wild forcing them to have babies when their bodies are not ready. They are also bred more often than normal placing tremendous pressure on the female’s bodies. Seaworld who owns the largest number of captive orcas breeds their females once they reach 7-8 years of age, in the wild orcas usually only begin breeding once they are 14-15 years old.

Despite the claims that it is done in the name of conservation, to this date, not a single captive bred orca or dolphin has been released. A huge question stands, why breed if they are not going to release? The answer to this is simple, breeding takes place solely to replace and continue keeping these animals in captivity in order to keep the industry alive, all for the sake of greed and money.

There are numerous cases of attacks and injuries caused by these animals to the public and trainers in particular. There are many documented cases of orcas in particular that have attacked and injured people. Bottlenose dolphins are also known to have targeted individuals during feeding or swimming activities with the public. Captivity causes these highly intelligent animals to become frustrated and bored, these frustrations are then taken out not only on the humans that attempt to interact with them but also on the other animals that share their tanks with them. Less dominant animals are bullied constantly adding to the mental frustration.

Although incidents between bottlenose dolphins and humans are not as many, they do happen and are slowly beginning to increase as the number of the swims with dolphin programs and facilities keeping captive dolphins increase. The website gives footage and details of just a few of these documented incidents.

Please refer to a detailed list of incidents between orcas and humans, the most recent fatality being the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 when she was pulled into the pool by a male orca named Tilikum. She suffered horrendous injuries and was eventually drowned by the orca who launched an attack on her after pulling her in. Tilikum has also been involved in two other deaths in the past, he was wild caught and has been in captivity since 1983. In the wild orcas and dolphins do not attack humans unless they feel threatened, in fact according to Colleen Gorman from The Orca Project there has never been any reported deaths by killer whales in the wild. However in captivity the numbers of attacks by orcas and dolphins are numerous which may be as a result of the frustration and restrictions placed on these animals in captivity. A blog from the website details many incidents of injury and deaths of both trainers and orcas. A movie of the same name, The Cove, and the documentary Blackfish provide additional supporting information regarding the reasons why these animals should not be kept in captivity.

Beluga whales are another commonly kept species in captivity. These whales are also social animals that normally form groups of about ten individuals but in the summer months they can gather in the hundreds in estuaries or shallow coasts. Beluga whales do not breed well in captivity and as such many are still caught from the wild, the latest case being 18 Beluga whales that were captured in Russia between 2006 and 2011, Georgia aquarium was then denied a permit to import these whales into the U.S.A. These normally docile animals have also been known to show aggression and injure/attack trainers. Phil Demers, a former trainer at Marineland states that he has received and witnessed many injuries by belugas. “They’re big animals and can thrash with tremendous force when put in compromising and stressful situations.” He says he personally witnessed injuries such as fractured knees, ankles and toes. “I had a tooth go through my bottom lip when a belugas fluke struck me in the face like a right hook,” he says. “I’ve also seen belugas clamp down on trainers’ hands during a force feed medical procedure. That hurts.”

All of these acts of aggression are most likely a result of the stress of captivity and the constant performances that these animals have to endure.Keeping these animals in captivity and forcing them to perform in shows hardly plays any role in educating the public. These shows are held purely for entertainment with animals performing dangerous and unnatural behaviours. A typical example of this is that the dolphins, whales and orcas are taught to beach themselves on stage, in the wild this is an extremely dangerous behaviour in which the animal can lose its life yet these facilities are training their animals to perform this very behaviour.

It is true that these shows do offer a small bit of educational value regarding life in the wild and the dangers that these animals face, however this is usually followed by an array of circus style tricks accompanied by loud music. This is a far cry from educating the public regarding the natural behaviours of these animals as a wild and healthy seal, sea lion, dolphin, orca or whale very rarely beaches itself (in the case of dolphins and whales), allows someone to ride on its back, allows itself to be fed or kissed or waves its fins on command. In addition to this the housing and diet of these animals does nothing to educate the public on each species habitat, specific dietary needs, hunting techniques and social structures. Furthermore information is often distorted or ignored in order to portray the facilities in a better light, an example of this distortion is the life span of orcas which is known to be around 80-90 years for females and 50-60 years for males, these facilities often portray the life span of orcas to be around 30-40 years in order to hide the fact that many of their orcas do not live further than their 20’s.

The reasons for not keeping marine mammals in captivity are numerous. These animals are clearly not suited for captivity. Their intelligence, highly social nature and complex behaviour makes them completely ill suited for a life in captivity which offers no educational value and plays no role in conservation of the species. It is only once man looks past their greed will they realise that these animals belong in the open ocean and not swimming in endless circles in a concrete tank. It is then that we will see that in order to survive we need to stop pillaging the earth and preserve the delicate balance of nature, as the saying goes “the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed.”


Raking is one of the aggressive behaviours exhibited by orcas and dolphins when asserting their dominance. Raking is a way that these animals show their dominance over others by scratching others with their teeth leaving “rake marks.” Seaworld states in a letter sent out by their spokesman Fred Jacobs after the death of one of their trainers by an orca, that raking and other dominance behaviours are expressed in the open ocean as well as in captivity. However according to David Kirby, author of Death at Seaworld;- in the open sea, if an orca does not want to be raked, rammed or bitten, the animal has an infinite variety of escape routes, in all three dimensions. In a captive environment these animals have no means of escape and are repeatedly attacked and harassed by dominant whales. David Kirby further states “I have never heard of a seriously injurious fight between killer whales in the ocean. But in captivity, I reported on incidents which to my mind, amount to ‘bullying’ and aggression that goes well beyond skin raking.” He then goes on to give a list of a few incidents that have been documented:

  • The most shocking orca death took place on August 21, 1989. It involved Corky II and Kandu V, an Icelandic female about 14 years of age. (In 1987, a witness reported that Kandu violently collided into Corky, leaving a three-foot-gash along Corky’s stomach.) Kandu had been resting with her one-year-old calf Orkid, along with Corky. Corky had shown intense interest in the calf, something that agitated Kandu intensely. Though younger and smaller than the 25-year-old Corky, Kandu had exerted dominance over her from the beginning. On this day, she began to engage in a ”normal, socially-induced act of aggression to assert her dominance over Corky,” according to a veterinarian at SeaWorld. It wasn’t normal. Kandu slammed her head into Corky so violently it severed a major artery in her upper jaw. Blood flooded the back pool and a 10-foot geyser of crimson spouted from Kandu’s blowhole. Over the next 45 minutes Kandu bled to death as SeaWorld staff and the audience looked on in helpless distress.
  • In January 1987, SeaWorld Florida acquired another male from Canada’s Marineland Ontario—a large and moody male named Kanduke, the only transient whale in the collection. The mammal-eating Pacific whale and Kotar, a fish-eating Icelandic whale, did not get along at all. One day they got into a fierce altercation. The two males repeatedly beached themselves on the slide-out and made loud crying noises. At the peak of the battle, Kotar bit Kanduke’s penis, severely wounding it, which left a four-inch scar. That attack got Kotar banished to San Antonio in 1988.
  • The orcas were becoming increasingly aggressive with each other. One time Nootka chased a tank mate into the module and ended up smashing her head on the metal side. Blood ran from her blowhole, but “no veterinarians were called until the next day, demonstrating negligence on the part of SeaLand,” Walters alleged.
  • The three killer whales were “housed from 1730 hrs until 0800 hrs the following day in what is called the ‘module,’” Walters wrote. Lights were kept off all night and no form of stimulation was provided. The tight space “leads to conflict between the whales, which have no options for avoiding confrontations. Often the whales’ skin shows teeth marks from aggressive action between the three, which are not just superficial tooth rakes.”

Other forms of dominant behaviours include head butting, biting, tail slapping, jaw popping, pectoral fin slapping, chasing and breaching. Most of these behaviours have been documented in captive orcas and dolphins on other animals that share their tanks with them, the public and especially their trainers.


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