Frequently Asked Questions about Captivity

Why is it not a good idea to keep dolphins in captivity?

Dolphins are highly intelligent. In the wild they live in complex social groups. In captivity, dolphins live shorter lives than they do in the wild. This is significant given the fact that they are kept in an environment that is free of predators, pollution and other threats that they face in the wild. Wild dolphins can swim up to 100 miles a day but in captivity they have very little space in which to move around and so display unnatural behaviour. The captive environment can never replace their natural one.

Is it possible to successfully return dolphins to the wild after they have lived in captivity, even when they were born in an aquarium?

WDC believes all dolphins should be given the chance to show that they can re-learn the skills that would help them survive in the wild but in some cases this might not be possible. We would still like to see these dolphins taken out of concrete tanks, and show pools and instead put in a retirement programme in a more natural environment where they no longer have to perform tricks in shows.

Find out more about our sanctuary work.

How big would an appropriate tank have to be for keeping dolphin in captivity?

No tank can be big enough as they can swim up to 100 miles a day and it is also impossible to replicate their natural environment in captivity.

Is chlorine in the tanks water good for dolphin health?

While chlorine may help keep tank water looking clean, it may present a problem to dolphin health.

Do orcas and dolphins like to play with balls or hoops as they have to do in the dolphin shows?

Whales and dolphins have been trained to perform these tricks. While they may relieve some of the boredom of being held captive, they would no doubt be happier if they could carry out more natural behaviour. During the show, dolphins are fed after every trick as a reward. They may perform simply for the reward of a fish.

Dolphins smile during the shows so they must be enjoying themselves?

Dolphins cannot move their facial muscles to communicate their inner feelings like humans so dolphins appear to ‘smile’ even when injured or ill.

What happens to the dolphins when they are not taking part in the shows?

They are often kept in holding tanks which are smaller than show pools. Confining dolphins together that may not get on with one another can result in stress and aggression from which they can’t escape.

Dolphins eat fresh fish in the wild but in captivity they have to eat frozen fish. Does that affect the dolphin’s health?

Dolphins are predators of fish and spend up to half of their time in the wild hunting. In captivity, they can not demonstrate this natural behaviour. Frozen fish is also supplemented with vitamins, minerals and even water, suggesting its nutritional value may be lower.

Is it a good idea to put different species of dolphins in the same tanks?

Captive dolphins in a facility often come from different regions and populations. Dolphins in captivity are often forced to live with other species that may have trouble communicating with one another, and may not get on with one another, including species that would never meet in the wild.

Where do the dolphins and orcas that are held in European aquariums originate from?

From many sources – some from the wild, some bred in captivity while others are moved between parks. For example, the orcas in Loro Parque in Tenerife are on loan from Sea World in the US. There is no institution within Europe that provides transparent access to information documenting the shipments of dolphins between European facilities, so information is hard to obtain.

How often do the dolphins have to perform in shows?

Shows can take place several times a day but dolphins may not be able to rest when they are not performing. They are also involved in training sessions and health checks.

Why shouldn’t I visit a dolphinarium with my kids? I would like to show them this unique animal. Where should I go if I want to see dolphins?

For many of the reasons given above. Dolphins in captivity live short, impoverished lives doing the same tricks day after day. They have often been separated from their families and forced to share cramped facilities with animals they don’t know. Europe has many fantastic opportunities to see whales and dolphins in the wild with a responsible boat operator. 

Is it ethical to study dolphins in captivity?

The behavior of orcas and dolphins is obviously constricted by life in a tank. Whales and dolphins are ordinarily intelligent, social animals that live in groups in the wild and carry out a myriad of tasks throughout daily life that are simply impossible in captivity. Most of the knowledge gained from carrying out research in the captive environment may not be applicable to the conservation of these animals in the wild.

Is there any proof that dolphin assisted therapy (DAT) works?

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that dolphin assisted therapy provides any long-term benefit to those engaging in it. Find out more about DAT.

How do dolphinariums threaten dolphins in the wild?

Wild capture of dolphins is a brutal experience as entire pods are targeted and only the young and fit are removed. These are the future generations for these already vulnerable wild populations which has a hugely negative impact on group dynamics.

Why do you endeavour to free dolphins in captivity? What about all animals held in zoos?

WDC’s remit covers only cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) although we do recognise the good work of other organisations addressing the welfare and conservation concerns relating to other captive animals. You can find more information about the situation faced by other wild animals displayed in zoos at: www.endcaptivity.org and www.euzooinquiry.eu

What can I do to help?

Get active! Write to your local MEP if you have a dolphinarium in your region. Join WDC and get involved with our EU dolphinaria campaign. Donate – help WDC continue its fight.

What is WDC doing to help?

WDC is working for a world where whales and dolphins are no longer subjected to the cruelty of captivity. WDC also campaigns for tougher regulations to protect whales and dolphins from capture and international trade. WDC is engaged in achieving stricter protection for these animals on a national, regional and international level, actively approaches governments, undertakes independent investigations, documents the situation of captive dolphins and engages in public awareness and educational initiatives.

Why does WDC work with SEA LIFE Aquariums?

SEA LIFE opposes the captivity of whales and dolphins and accepts the arguments that WDC puts forward as to why they are unsuitable for captivity.

WDC is confident that the declared position of SEA LIFE, and Merlin Entertainments with respect to whales and dolphins (cetaceans) is fully compatible with WDC’ own opposition to the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Indeed, WDC has worked closely with SEA LIFE over many years and believes that this relationship has delivered real conservation and protection benefits for cetaceans around the world.

It is WDC’s belief that partnerships with committed organizations such as SEA LIFE are an essential tool for securing a better and alternative future world for whales and dolphins.