Three dolphins performing at a theme park.

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity

In The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity report, we provide scientific evidence and ethical arguments to support the case that it is unacceptable to house marine mammals in captivity for the purpose of public display and tourist entertainment.

Read the executive summary

Read the full report

Report Highlights

  • Wild cetaceans (whales and dolphins) travel 40-100 miles a day, achieve speeds of 30 miles per hour, and dive hundreds of feet deep. Even in the largest facilities, they have less than 0.0001% (one millionth) of their natural habitat range.
  • One 2014 study found that a captive male orca spent nearly 70% of his time virtually motionless.
  • Captive marine mammals suffer from a huge range of health problems, including extreme stress, neurotic behaviors, and abnormal levels of aggression.
  • Bottlenose dolphins are six times more likely to die immediately after capture from the wild and transfer between facilities.
  • Annual mortality rates for captive orcas have improved over the years, but they still don’t match healthy populations in the wild.
  • The number of ocean theme parks in China has jumped from 39 in 2015 to 76 in early 2019.
  • Dolphin sea pen enclosures in Asia and the Caribbean are at extreme risk from hurricanes and tsunamis, and damage the environment, including coral reefs and mangroves.

Interview with Dr Naomi Rose

Dr Rose is the report’s lead author and AWI’s marine mammal scientist.

Captivity is cruel

Keeping marine mammals captive, whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, causes immense physical and psychological suffering – from capture, to transport, to a lifelong existence in small barren tanks.

The inadequate space provided in captivity suppresses natural behaviors such as consistent cardiovascular exercise, foraging for prey, and social interaction with large groups of closely bonded pod mates.

Orca in captivity.

Orcas are among the most intelligent species on the planet. This orca, in a small barren holding tank, literally has nothing to do while they wait for their cue in the orca show.

Marine mammals simply cannot thrive in captivity. Almost all marine mammal species are wide-ranging predators and the best we can provide for them are barren concrete boxes or small sea pen corrals.

– Dr. Naomi Rose, the report’s lead author and marine mammal scientist with Animal Welfare Institute (AWI)

Profit over welfare

Marine mammal exhibits prioritize the needs of the visiting public and economic factors over the needs of the animals. Enclosures are designed to make the animals readily visible, not necessarily comfortable, and the efficiency of maintenance dictates slick surfaces as opposed to naturalistic textures and substrates.

Some facilities display marine mammals in sea pens rather than traditional aquariums. While sea pens simulate more natural conditions, they are subject to alternative problems such as noise pollution from boat traffic and coastal development, and physical pollution from land-based features such as runoff from roads and sewage outfall.

The habitat of marine mammals is difficult and frequently impossible to re-create.

A young child petting dolphins.

Posing like this for a “photo op” with tourists is a completely unnatural behavior for dolphins. This is not education.

Inadequate conditions lead to physical and mental suffering

  • Stress-related conditions such as ulcers, stereotypical behaviors including pacing and self-mutilation, and abnormal aggression frequently develop in predators denied the opportunity to forage.
  • Diseases afflict captive marine mammals more frequently or more intensely than their free-ranging counterparts; captive cetaceans have been known to suffer from infections not known to afflict wild dolphins.
  • The public display industry is not transparent with veterinary records and publishes very few welfare-related studies in the scientific literature, despite having direct access to the relevant data.

Many facilities offer direct interaction with marine mammals through feeding sessions or attractions such as swimming with dolphins. These interactions endanger both the animals and the human participants by increasing the chances of disease transmission and physical injuries, as well as stress for the animals.

The argument for education and conservation

The public display industry often justifies marine mammal exhibits by claiming that they serve a valuable educational function and that people learn important information from seeing live animals.

However, a study found that fewer than half of reviewed dolphinaria provided any information on conservation or provided educational materials for children or teachers.

It can also be argued that viewing captive animals gives the public a false picture of the animals’ natural lives. For example, many actions performed by dolphins in shows that are portrayed as “play” or “fun” are actually displays that in free-ranging animals would usually be considered aggressive or a sign of disturbance.

Similarly, it is often misleadingly claimed that marine mammal exhibits serve a valuable conservation function.

In reality, fewer than 5 to 10 percent of zoos, dolphinaria, and aquaria are involved in substantial conservation programs and the majority of marine mammals currently being bred in captivity are neither threatened nor endangered.

In fact, most captive-breeding programs simply ensure a supply of animals for display or trade, creating in many cases larger populations of animals with questionable genetic backgrounds.

It would appear that for dolphinaria and aquaria to state that they are actively involved in conservation is little more than a marketing tool or a way to justify imports of animals–particularly because the overwhelming majority of marine mammal species currently being bred in captivity is neither threatened nor endangered, including bottlenose dolphins.

There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.

– Jacques Cousteau, environmentalist, filmmaker, and one of the most famous critics of using the behavior of cetaceans in captivity as a model for animals in the wild

Wildlife. Not Entertainers

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity (CAMMIC) report is part of our global campaign to end the abuse and suffering of wild animals for tourist entertainment.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of wild animals are trapped, confined, and forced to behave unnaturally to entertain tourists.

Explore Wildlife. Not Entertainers Campaign

Mother and daughter riding a dolphin.

Many people consider swimming with dolphins a thrill of a lifetime, but for the dolphins, it is just a job. As wild animals, they do not want to be with us as much as we want to be with them.