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Humpback whale. Image: Christopher Swann

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

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Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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A further call to action for Sir Richard Branson

WDC notes with interest the comments made by Richard Branson on protecting whales and dolphins, following the launch of our campaign calling on him to end Virgin’s relationship with whale and dolphin captivity. Sir Richard makes some interesting points in his latest post on whales and dolphins, to which we respond below. 

“I believe no dolphins or whales should EVER again be killed by humans, or TAKEN from the ocean for marine theme parks.”

We very much welcome Sir Richard’s views on the capture of whales and dolphins from the wild. However, we note that SeaWorld, which Virgin Holidays sells tickets to, holds orcas and other whales and dolphins acquired from the wild and was recently part of a permit application by the Georgia Aquarium to bring in wild-caught belugas from Russia. 

“However, as far as I know, animals that have been bred in captivity cannot safely be released.”

It’s possible for whales and dolphins, even those who have lived a long time in captivity, to learn how to hunt again and survive in the wild. It may even be possible for those born in captivity to learn hunting skills from other whales and dolphins who have lived in the wild, if they are returned in a social group. A multi-stage plan should be developed for each individual, with the aim of release, but with long-term care options should that not be possible. I explore these issues further here

“So if the ones who are currently in captivity have to be kept there it is critically important that they are treated properly and given the necessary environment to thrive. As long as this criteria is met I believe access to these magnificent creatures in the proper humane conditions – alongside ocean research and exploration – can help to educate our children and improve our understanding.”

While captive breeding has, to a certain extent, helped to maintain the captive population of whales and dolphins, in some parts of the world, captive born whales and dolphins are still wild individuals and suffer from many of the same health and welfare problems that their pool mates taken from the wild do. In the case of orcas, those who have been born and have died in captivity survived an average 4.5 years, compared to an average of 30 years for males and 46 years for females in the wild, where, in spite of the lack of veterinary care, protection from pollution and “restaurant quality” fish, they live a maximum 60 to 90 years. Captive-born orcas have only reached a maximum age of 25 years.

There is no educational benefit in seeing whales and dolphins performing in circus style shows which have no value in informing the public about wild whales and dolphins and their habitats. The types of behaviour seen in these shows bear little to no resemblance to the types of behaviour seen in the wild. There is also little evidence to support the claim that seeing whales and dolphins in captivity or performing in shows educates or even provokes interest in conservation among visitors. 

“Virgin Holidays has been proactively addressing the issue of animal welfare in tourism for a number of years. The team are working with and listening to experts to better understand the views of the scientific community and the public so we can ensure that these beautiful species endure and flourish forever.”

As noted in our letter to Virgin Holidays sent in December 2013, we welcome the publication of ABTA’s animal welfare guidance in June 2013 and its members’ commitment to support good practice and help phase out bad practice in animal attraction and experience suppliers. But the guidance recommends against many practices that are common if not ubiquitous across facilities displaying whales and dolphins to the public, such as acquisition from the wild, unnatural behaviour, handling by the public and inability to escape public view. Furthermore, WDC is still awaiting a response to its letters not only from Virgin Holidays but from Thomas Cook, TUI UK and Cosmos. 

“We will continue to listen and share what we are learning and would love to hear from you about any ideas that you have for Virgin Holidays that allow people to experience wildlife in its natural habitat without harm or disruption. We will also continue to do what we can to protect the ocean and its wonderful wild creatures. We are at a critical juncture and have the opportunity to protect some of the last pristine “high seas” by banding together around the world to use our voices to create marine protected areas and stop overfishing.”

WDC also supports, of course, wildlife experiences allowing people to see whales and dolphins in the wild without harm or disruption. We also work hard to address all threats facing whales and dolphins and on the creation of safe havens for wild whales and dolphins. But that doesn’t negate the harm inflicted on individual whales and dolphins by confinement in captivity and on the populations many of them have been taken from and we respectfully call on you again, Sir Richard, to support our campaign to end whale and dolphin captivity. 

About Cathy Williamson

Cathy Williamson was policy manager of our End Captivity Programme until July 2021.