Conservation Through Education: The Truth around Dolphinariums and Captivity

Phoebe Thorpe writing for DMAD 07/07/2020

There is often much confusion surrounding aquariums and captivity. This issue seems to crop up in discussions with the MMR team and so we thought it best to write about it in order to hopefully make this topic less confusing for you and address the issues within captivity.

Aquariums use advertising to mislead people into thinking the animals are happy, healthy and enjoy where they live. A common misconception is that cetaceans, especially dolphins, are smiling. In fact they simply just always look happy, it is just the way their face is, even if they were suffering.

“The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy.” – Ric O’Barry.

Marine mammals are designed to swim in the open ocean. A wild dolphin can swim on average 100 miles per day! So just imagine the effect being in a tank has on their physical and mental health! The confined space causes stress to the animals. Stress leads to gastric ulcers, stereotypical behaviour like self harm, and disease. In captivity they are placed in different groups with dolphins that have come from different families, which makes communication between them impossible. The combination of not being able to communicate and a confined space leads to the dolphins becoming frustrated and aggressive. In the wild if conflicts occur they are able to swim away from the aggressor, this is not possible in a tank and results in dolphins getting severe wounds. In the wild marine mammals eat live fish, squid and crustaceans, this is not the case in aquariums. Aquariums feed their marine mammals dead, frozen fish and squid. This food has a lower water content than their natural prey as a result they must have a tube put down their throat into their stomach to hydrate them.  

As well as the small environment they live in causing stress, the shallowness of the water exposes the dolphins to the sun. This overexposure to the sun results in sunburns and blisters. Whatsmore the tanks are chlorinated which burns their eyes causing permanent damage. 

When you see dolphins perform you probably think that they have fun when performing tricks and you can train them the same as how you train a dog. A dolphin is a wild animal and a dog is a domestic animal and has been specifically bred to be around humans, a dolphin has not. There is no possible way to train cetaceans, well not in a kind way like the way we train our pets. As there is no real way to train a dolphin the trainers starve them. Through food deprivation the dolphins will do what the performers ask them to because they are desperate for food and it is the only way to satisfy their hunger. The performers call this mistreatment “positive reinforcement” to pull the cover over the truth. 

This information may feel disheartening and difficult to believe that people would do this to wild animals, but we want to give you this information to educate the world and help these animals. There are however other options than aquariums to see and enjoy marine mammals. You may not realise, but generally in many oceans around the world it is common to find wild cetaceans. Instead of travelling to an aquarium to see them in a tank, why not travel to the coast and take some binoculars or go for a boat ride and see them in their natural habitat! One argument dolphinariums make is that they provide education. But how can this be? It is not educational because people see these animals not in their natural habitat and therefore don’t actually see how cetaceans naturally behave. Therefore it is much more beneficial and rewarding to you and the animals to see them in the wild. Let’s remember also that animals were not put on this planet for our use and our entertainment, that is what books, tv and theatres are for. They are there to protect and learn from so let’s strive to do that! 
“We should be teaching the next generation to respect wildlife. Not exploit them.” – The Dolphin Project. After reading this blog we encourage you to read more about captivity to better understand why this is a terrible environment for animals. The Dolphin Project and founder Ric O’Barry are a fantastic organisation and share a lot of facts about captivity. We would like to thank them for their work. Much of the information in this blog was taken from The Dolphin Project website. 

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article please visit our Facebook and Instagram page. Also we recommend you check out The Dolphin Project on Instagram as well as their website. 

Visit The Dolphin Project