The whales and dolphins trapped in never-ending lockdown – hearing their stories
Every whale and dolphin in captivity is an individual with a life history and around 3,600 whales and dolphins are held in concrete tanks around the world. This means there are 3,600 stories to tell. While researching case studies for our Lockdown never ends campaign I remembered just how traumatic and cruel these stories can be.
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I experienced the start of the pandemic in Spain and from mid March to the beginning of May 2020 we weren’t even allowed to go out for a walk – just essential shopping, medical appointments, going to the pharmacy or caring for relatives in need. So I spent seven weeks in my small apartment, knowing that I was still privileged as I have a balcony and could always talk to family and friends on the phone or online. I will never forget my first walk after the lockdown ended in May, seeing my friends again, going out for a coffee or a swim in the sea.
I can only imagine what a lifelong lockdown means for intelligent and social beings like whales and dolphins. They are not only confined to a small, unnatural space but they also have to deal with lots of noise during shows or presentations and with people invading their space for interaction and swim-with-dolphins experiences.
Working for a responsible whale watching operator, I have spent lots of time with whales and dolphins in the wild and never get tired of seeing them roam their natural environment. Apart from the large baleen whales, most of the whales and dolphins I encounter spend their time in close family or social groups, hunting, resting and socialising. In my role for WDC I have observed whales and dolphins in captivity and it broke my heart seeing them in tanks performing circus tricks for human entertainment. What a difference in appearance and behaviour between a wild orca and a performing orca!
A couple of years ago I saw the orca show at Loro Parque in Tenerife and met three of the individuals we’ve highlighted in our campaign: Morgan, Skyla and Keto - you can read their stories at the end of this post. What I remember the most from the show is the loud music and that the orcas had to jump out of the water, shake their heads and even stick their tongues out - a behaviour you would, of course, never see them do in the wild.
Skyla and Keto were born in captivity and were shipped to Loro Parque from SeaWorld in the US in 2006. Morgan, however, was found off the Dutch coast in June 2010. She was emaciated and alone and brought to Dolfinarium Harderwijk on a rehabilitation and release permit. But after a long court battle she was shipped to Loro Parque in 2011 despite a detailed multi-stage release plan that was drafted for her.
The travel industry needs to accept that keeping whales and dolphins in concrete tanks for human entertainment is wrong as well as being an outdated practice. Responsible whale watching is a great alternative – it’s exhilarating to watch intelligent marine mammals in their natural homes. Coastal sanctuaries (like the SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary that we helped to create in Iceland) are vital so we can provide a home for the individuals now in captivity and allow them to continue their lives in a more natural environment or in some case be prepared for a release back into the wild.
Let’s make these 3,600 stories the very last captive stories there are to tell.
Here are just nine of the 3,600 stories:
Meet Lolita, also known as Tokitae (orca)
Captured: 8th August 1970
Age at capture: approximately 4 years old
Location: Miami Seaquarium, USA
Lolita is six metres long, existing in a tank that is six metres deep at its deepest point and just 24 metres long at its longest. She's been there for 51 years. The tank is so small, it’s illegal by US government regulations, yet it’s been her entire world for more than half a century. In the wild, she’d cover 100 miles or more a day playing, socialising, looking for food and resting. Lolita's family are members of the critically endangered Southern Residents, and her presumed mother is still alive and free off the west coast of the US and Canada. We think she’s over 90 years old and she’s probably covered around 3.5 million miles in her lifetime.
Meet Morgan (orca)
Taken into human care: 23rd June 2010
Age when taken into human care: Between 3 and 5 years old
Location: Loro Parque, Tenerife, Canary Islands
Morgan was found alone and emaciated in 2010 and was rescued. The plan was to nurse her back to health and release her. But she was taken to Loro Parque in 2011 and she has been there ever since. A 2012 report by the Free Morgan Foundation revealed she had been attacked by other orcas, bore wounds from self-mutilation and had ground her teeth down by chewing on concrete bars in frustration. She was made pregnant and tragically her baby, Ula, died suddenly a few weeks before her third birthday in August 2021. How many more deaths will it take before people accept that captivity is wrong and isn’t working?
Meet Nanuq (beluga)
Age: 32 when he died
Years in captivity: 25
Location: SeaWorld Orlando, USA
In 1990, when Nanuq was just six years old, he was torn away from his home waters in Manitoba, Canada. He never saw his family again. He survived 25 years in captivity, sentenced to a stress-filled, lonely existence in concrete pools. Nanuq was used in an intensive artificial insemination experiment at SeaWorld. He was transferred between five different SeaWorld facilities and removed from the water around 42 times for sperm samples. He fathered 13 babies but six died at birth or as newborns. SeaWorld has held belugas since 1975 yet only nine babies have ever survived.
Meet Makaiko (bottlenose dolphin)
Years in captivity: 10
Location: Died at Dolphin Discovery, Mexico
Makaiko was captured in the brutal Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan then taken to Mexico where he was forced to entertain tourists. After his tank mates died he was alone. He had to spend his days dragging people along as they held his fins, pushing them with his nose and jumping over them – person after person, hour after after hour. One day Makaiko got tangled up in nets that had been put down after a storm. Nobody noticed and when, no matter how hard he struggled, he couldn’t get to the surface to breathe, he suffocated to death in the venue where he was exploited to entertain holidaymakers.
Meet Corky (orca)
Captured: 11th December 1969
Age at capture: approximately 3 years old
Location: SeaWorld, San Diego, USA
Corky has been in captivity longer than any other whale or dolphin. She was taken from her family at a very young age. She’s been pregnant seven times and given birth four times but only two of her babies survived. The other two starved to death because the shape of the pool was not suitable for her to nurse them properly. Corky is from the Northern Resident population of orcas and she has a large family, including a brother and sister, living wild and free in the waters of British Columbia, Canada.
Meet Tabo (bottlenose dolphin)
Born: 15th June 1993 in captivity
Location: Zoomarine, Algarve, Portugal
Tabo is the dolphin fourth from right in the photo. He is held with 27 other dolphins – more than at any other facility in the EU. As well as having to perform in shows, Tabo is part of the ‘Dolphin Emotions’ experience where adults and children as young as six years old are encouraged to kiss and cuddle him. Imagine being groped and fondled by stranger after stranger, day after day, unable to say ‘no’ or find somewhere to hide.
Meet Keto (orca)
Born: 17th June 1995 in captivity
Location: Loro Parque, Tenerife, Canary Islands
Keto has been held by five different parks during his life. In 2009, he killed his trainer Alexis Martinez in a terrible incident that his family believes was initially covered up. To our knowledge, no wild orca has ever killed a human. The film Blackfish exposes what goes on behind the scenes at these theme parks and how confinement can have such a devastating effect on an orca’s mental health that they can be driven to kill a human. His dorsal fin is collapsed - another phenomenon rarely seen in the wild.
Meet Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin)
Age: 33 when she died in 2022
Years in captivity: 26
Location: Died at SeaWorld, San Antonio, USA
Helen was born wild and free in the waters off Japan. She died at SeaWorld in Texas in 2022, having been moved there from Vancouver Aquarium when Canada outlawed whale and dolphin captivity. She was the only one left after her last tank mate, a false killer whale named Chester, died of what’s thought to have been a bacterial disease. We don't think TUI sells tickets to SeaWorld in Texas but they do support other SeaWorld parks.
Meet Skyla (orca)
Age: 17 when she died
Years in captivity: 17 - her whole life
Location: Died in 2021 at Loro Parque, Tenerife, Canary Islands
Skyla’s story is a tragically short one. She was born at SeaWorld, Orlando in 2004 and separated from her mother, Kalina and taken to Loro Parque on Tenerife when she was only two years old. Her father was Tilikum, the orca at the heart of the the film Blackfish, so she was part Icelandic and part Southern Resident. She was taken to Loro Parque with three other young SeaWorld orcas: Keto, Tekoa and Kohana. They had no older female to look up to and learn from. She was used in shows until she died suddenly at just 17.
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