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Uncovering the dark side of captivity

Last week we launched our major new campaign to reveal and uncover the dark side of captivity, and call on tourism giant TUI, and the rest of the travel industry, to commit to an ethical phase out of captivity. There are two sides to captivity: the show that the audience enjoys, and the dark side: what the whales and dolphins themselves endure.

The world is a dark place for captive whales and dolphins.

Just like us, captive whales and dolphins suffer serious emotional and psychological damage when they are denied their liberty. When they are removed from their family and friends, taking away all their choice, what makes them fundamentally who they are is gone.

Many of the qualities that make us human also apply to whales and dolphins. Without outside interference, we have both evolved to live rich, long, emotionally complex lives where tight family and friendship bonds are formed and much time is invested in raising young. We share similar personality traits such as curiosity, empathy and sociability and so it should be easy for us to understand that when the conditions to thrive and flourish are removed, mental health suffers.

Ikaika © Katerina Studios - Inherently Wild
Ikaika © Katerina Studios - Inherently Wild

See the world through Ikaika's eyes and help us uncover the dark side of captivity.


Like humans, the trauma of incarceration manifests itself in many ways: self-harm, psychosis, depression and aggression. It affects a whale or dolphin’s personality and their behaviour towards other individuals, including their offspring and often the humans training them.

Boredom is the most widespread condition and a serious concern because, as predators, they are denied one of the most important behaviours of their natural repertoire, the ability to hunt and forage. For captive whales and dolphins, the boredom can be relentless.

In the video below, you can see for yourself the devastating impact captivity has had on an orca named Kiska's mental health.


When a captive whale or dolphin shows signs of anxiety, stress or neurotic, repetitive behaviours (known as stereotypies), marine parks turn to pharmaceuticals to ‘manage’ that individual. The facilities claim the medication helps maintain mental health in captivity. Psychoactive (or psychotropic) drugs such as Valium and Xanax are administered for the reasons mentioned and also to calm a dolphin during clinical procedures or when preparing an individual for transport between facilities and his or her integration into a new tank. One of the more bizarre applications is its use to stimulate appetite for depressed or sick individuals even though there is no evidence that dolphins can taste anything other than salt.

Dolphins are voluntary breathers - they must be awake to breathe, so perhaps the most alarming side-effect of Valium is that it has been shown to decrease the responsiveness of the respiratory system.

Surely the very fact that psychoactive drugs need to be administered as part of a captive dolphin’s ‘tank management plan’ contradicts any industry claim that ‘their’ dolphins are thriving in a barren, concrete environment and implicitly confirms that medication for mental health issues across various facilities, species and settings is, in fact, widespread.

Dolphins are too inteligent and mobile to ever thrive in a tank
Dolphins are too inteligent and mobile to ever thrive in a tank


Sometimes captive whales and dolphins just shut down completely, especially those in solitary confinement. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, the constraints of an artificial physical and social environment severely compromise the mental health of such large-brained, intelligent, sentient, sapient, emotional beings, whether they were born in captivity or stolen from the ocean.

The solution

We're calling on the travel and captivity industries to commit to our ethical phase-out model:

  • No performances
  • No breeding
  • No wild captures
  • No trade between facilities
  • Enhanced welfare conditions
  • Support for sanctuaries

It is relatively easy to scoop a wild whale or dolphin out of the ocean and condemn them to a life in captivity, but it is much harder to return them to the wild. Sadly, as much as we would like to see it happen, change in the industry won’t happen overnight. There are more than 3,600 captive whales and dolphins in the world today, most of whom have only ever known life in a tank.  It would be irresponsible (and would undoubtedly negatively affect their mental health) to release many of them to the wild. The numerous reasons for this include the loss of their ability to hunt and feed themselves, and their reliance on their trainers for veterinary care to treat the health conditions that years of confinement have caused.

The answer is to make sure that this generation of captive whales and dolphins is the last, and create sanctuaries where those currently held can be retired and, in some cases, rehabilitated for a return to the wild.

Please help us today with a donation

This important work costs money and every single donation will help us keep fighting. Thank you.

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  1. Derek West on 29th September 2022 at 5:47 pm

    Keeping these creatures in captivity for human entertainment is abhorrent. no civilised country should allow this.

  2. Lindsay Jean Wilson on 30th September 2022 at 5:12 pm

    I have been to Florida many times but never visited Sea World. I can assure you I never will visit this terrible place. My daughter has been swimming with dolphins, but as she is a grown adult, I can only disagree with her actions.

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