It’s a source of enormous pride to me that the UK hasn’t had a facility holding captive whales or dolphins for over 25 years. I know I don’t move in all social circles but I never hear anyone lamenting the fact that they can’t just jump in the car and go see a dolphin show on their next free weekend.
But Britain has a long history of captivity which you may not be aware of, so let's take a look at how far we've come...
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There are accounts of whales and dolphins in British aquaria going back nearly 150 years. In 1874 porpoises were briefly kept at the Brighton Aquarium and in 1877 a beluga whale, shipped from Canada ‘on a bed of seaweed’ was displayed at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. He or she survived just a few days.
The UK’s main commercial captive dolphin era started in the 1960s and lasted for three decades. It was bookended by a Yorkshire theme park and zoo called Flamingo Land which, in 1963, was the first park in modern times to display dolphins and, in 1993, the very last to close its doors. During this time there were well over 30 facilities, some just seasonal, up and down the land holding hundreds of dolphins from Blair Drummond Safari Park in the north to Margate in the south.
Growing up in the Welsh valleys in the 1970s, a day out to the seaside for me invariably meant a trip to Porthcawl. It’s incredible to me now but I have an early memory of dolphins being held in a tiny tank at the Coney Beach funfair alongside the rollercoaster and dodgems.
And it wasn’t just the familiar bottlenose dolphins of ‘Flipper’ fame being held in the UK. During the late 70s, Clacton-On-Sea in Essex displayed orcas in a former swimming pool which was actually located on the pier! The inmates here included the incongruously named Suzie Wong who was later followed by Nemo and Neptune in the early 80s. Suzie Wong was sent to Windsor Safari Park and then on to Hong Kong. Nemo also went to Windsor while Neptune died of peritonitis after just 18 months in a tank. There was another orca, an unnamed male, who died at the Clacton facility within days of arrival in the UK. All four were captured from the wild in Iceland.
During the 1980s only five captive dolphin attractions were operating and in 1985, after pressure from welfare and environmental groups, the UK government commissioned a review of the UK’s dolphinaria which revealed major inadequacies in the conditions under which whales and dolphins were being kept.
While this review was welcomed it didn’t really go far enough. On completion of their research the authors of the review did have the authority to declare that no captive environment would ever be suitable for such sentient, social and highly mobile beings. Instead the review, when published in 1986, fell short of this and stipulated that if facilities wanted to continue in the public display business then they should invest in building larger and deeper tanks specific to the species being held and must do so by 1993.
In 1987, as a newly formed charity, the Whale Conservation Society (as we were then) continued the pressure and launched a joint report exposing the poor conditions in which captive dolphins were kept in the UK .
By the end of the 80s there were only three facilities remaining in the UK and the financial implications of rebuilding and expanding existing structures was considered just too much for already struggling businesses. So, in 1993 when Flamingoland announced it was shipping its last remaining dolphins to Europe, the curtain finally came down on dolphin shows in the UK.
The review remains an important document today and was undeniably the turning point which marked the death knell for UK whale and dolphin captivity.
So there you have it. Many people are still under the mistaken belief that it’s illegal to keep whales or dolphins in tanks in the UK, but there is no ban in place. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a company that has deep pockets and demonstrates adherence to national regulations could try to establish this cruel industry once more in Britain. Indeed there are companies that currently operate in the UK that continue to have links with captive facilities overseas so we must remain ever vigilant.
I strongly believe there is neither the political will nor the public desire for whale and dolphin exploitation to ever return to the UK, but as it’s not illegal, technically it’s still possible. And we need those countries in Europe (and ideally all over the world) that still have captive whale and dolphin attractions to follow the lead of the UK, Cyprus and Finland and end this cruel practice and for people to stop visiting captive facilities at home and abroad.
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