Why whale and dolphin captivity is cruel – the science

In 2017, an important new academic book brought together all aspects of marine mammal welfare as a reference point for universities, students and all those working for marine mammal protection, welfare and conservation.

Marine Mammal Welfare, Human Induced Change in the Marine Environment and its Impacts on Marine Mammal Welfare has a large section dedicated to whales, dolphins and porpoises which takes a look at issues such as whaling, entanglement in fishing nets and captivity and examines the impacts that these activities have on the welfare, or wellbeing, of whales and dolphins.

Several members of WDC staff provided their expertise to this book and I wrote the chapter on whales and dolphins in captivity with my colleague, Rob Lott. I thought you might be interested to read some of it.

Often when I’m explaining to companies or other decision-makers why whales and dolphins are not suited to captivity, and why they shouldn’t lend their support to these ‘attractions’, I’m challenged with, ‘OK, show me the evidence’. Well, here is the peer-reviewed evidence.

So if you are ever trying to explain to someone why keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is cruel and wrong, you could use the arguments below, safe in the knowledge that they are thoroughly reviewed by scientists, and you have all the references to back you up.

Captive orca with damaged teeth
Captive orca with damaged teeth


In the wild, whales and dolphins travel great distances every day, in search of food and for other activities. Captive facilities provide only a fraction of the space across which a whale or dolphin would travel in the wild (Tyack 2009). Even at SeaWorld parks in the United States, a captive orca would need to swim around the perimeter of his or her tank 1400 times each day to cover the distance of his or her wild counterpart. Space may be further limited in captivity by the introduction of visitors to the captive environment in ‘swimming with dolphins’ and other interaction programmes.

Social environment

Whales and dolphins are highly social. In captivity, individuals sharing a pool are often unrelated, may have been collected from widely different locations or may even be from different species or subspecies.

Orca societies have developed strong bonds between group members with individuals rarely spending more than a few hours apart from one another (Bigg et al. 1990). Life in a small tank removes huge portions of their capacity to make decisions, to judge situations focused on feeding, social interaction or mobility, and profoundly limits ‘choice’ for these complex, sentient beings. They are denied the ability to hunt, to explore and to migrate.


The only recorded incident of a wild orca attacking a human occurred in 1972 when a Californian surfer, possibly mistaken for a seal, was bitten by an orca before being rapidly released (Lodi News-Sentinel 1996). The last 50 years have generated a long catalogue of aggressive acts by captive orcas towards each other and their trainers (Kirby 2012). Tilikum and Keto, male orcas held by SeaWorld, were implicated in the deaths of four humans (including three trainers) as documented in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s powerful, ground-breaking film, Blackfish.

In 2015, a beluga whale died at a SeaWorld park after developing an infection in his jaw that was fractured during what was described as an ‘interaction’ with two other whales (Evans 2015). Visitors are also at risk of aggression. In 2008, three tourists were injured while swimming with dolphins in Curaçao after a bottlenose dolphin breached on top of them, seemingly deliberately (Rose et al. 2009; Marine Connection 2008). A number of such incidents have been reported in the media around the world, with many others likely going unreported (Vail 2012).

Early pregnancy and calf separation

In the wild, orcas typically have their first calf at around 14 years of age and subsequent calves at intervals of approximately five years (Olesiuk et al. 2005). In captivity, however, orcas have routinely become pregnant—including via artificial insemination—much earlier (Hargrove 2015). At Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, Kohana, a female orca, became pregnant at just seven years of age and gave birth to Adan, a male, in 2010. In 2012, Kohana became pregnant again by the same male and gave birth to a female, Vicky. This young orca mother had two calves by the age of 10 and rejected them both. One theory as to why she did this is that she had no idea what to do with them as she herself was removed far too early from her own mother.

Wild orca offspring in the most studied populations stay with their mothers for life, with some matrilines consisting of four generations (Ford et al. 2000). SeaWorld has removed 19 orca calves from their mothers, including one at 10 months, one at 20 months and one at 24 months; and only two of these removals were on medical grounds (Hargrove 2015).


A human-made tank can never replicate the complexity, expanse, choice and range of habitats in the ocean environment. Water is chemically treated, often with chlorine, which prevents the placing of live fish and plants into their tanks and can also present health problems (Couquiaud 2005). Most of the tanks are smooth sided, small and empty of stimuli, perhaps to facilitate cleaning.

Sea pens, while potentially offering greater environmental diversity and therefore a more enriched environment (Ruiz et al. 2009; Ugaz et al. 2013), have often been located in water that is too shallow, too warm and subject to tropical storms and in areas where pollution is a problem (Rose et al. 2009).

Early mortality

Female orcas in the wild can live to an estimated maximum of 90 years with a mean expectancy of 46 years. Male orcas live an estimated maximum of 70 years with a mean (average) of 31 years (Olesiuk et al. 2005). Bottlenose dolphins can live for up to 50 years in the wild (NOAA Fisheries 2016).

Two studies from the 1990s (Small and DeMaster 1995a; Woodley et al. 1997) demonstrate higher annual mortality rates for bottlenose dolphins (5.6 and 5.7% annually) and orcas (6.2% annually) in captivity than in the wild (bottlenose dolphins 3.9% and orcas 2.3% annually).

In a 2015 study by Jett and Ventre, looking at captive orca mortality on a global scale since 1961, it was found that nearly two-thirds of orca deaths occurred in the first five years of a whale’s captivity.

Re-evaluation of ageing techniques in belugas from the wild has put the maximum life span of belugas at 60 years (Stewart et al. 2006). In captivity, belugas routinely die before the age of 30 (Rose et al. 2009). Considering that, in captivity, whales and dolphins receive veterinary care if they are found to be sick, do not have to hunt for food, are not exposed to pollution in the natural marine environment (but may be exposed to long term chemical exposure in tank water) and are protected from predators; it seems probable that other factors are playing a role in reducing the annual survival rates for whales and dolphins in captivity. 

Dolphin hunt at Taiji, Japan
Dolphin hunt at Taiji, Japan

Threats to wild populations

The capture of whale and dolphins from wild populations for live display in captivity currently occurs in only a handful of places around the world, including Russia and Japan (IUCN 2015; International Whaling Commission 2014, 2015).

Beluga captures

In the Russian Far East, belugas are captured in the Sakhalin–Amur region in the Sea of Okhotsk under a quota set by the Russian government (Shpak and Glazov 2013). In 2013, 81 beluga individuals were captured and transported to holding facilities in Russia prior to onward transfers to national and international aquaria. Thirty-four whales are believed to have died during capture, seven died at the holding facilities and three considered to be at risk of death were released (Shpak and Glazov 2014). Concerns continue to be raised by local and international beluga scientists that the captures are unsustainable (International Whaling Commission 2014, 2015).

During capture, belugas are approached in shallow waters by the capture team in boats, encircled using seine nets while surrounded by further boats. Once within the confines of the net, any belugas deemed at risk of entanglement are wrapped in the net and held at the surface or tied to the side of one of the boats. The net (and the belugas trapped inside it) is then pulled to shore (Georgia Aquarium 2012). The stress involved in this process is reported to be severe (St. Aubin and Geraci 1992; Curry 1999; Butterworth et al. 2013).

Japanese Drive Hunts

Individuals are herded out at sea with small fishing vessels, and through the use of underwater noise, are driven towards the shore, where they are netted off and then removed alive for display in aquaria or killed for meat or other products (Butterworth et al. 2013; Vail 2015).

The prolonged and stressful process involved in the drive hunts during the herding offshore, dragging by the tail fluke alongside the capture boats, confinement in the netted-off cove and removal from the water and their pod mates (many of whom may go on to be killed), sometimes over many hours or even days, is likely to have profoundly severe welfare impacts (Butterworth et al. 2013; Connor 2007). Concerns regarding the sustainability of the drive hunts in Japan have been expressed by the International Whaling Commission and other scientific bodies.

Orca Captures

The first orca captures occurred in the Pacific Northwest of America in the early 1960s and continued until the mid-1970s when this practice was banned under state law (Pollard 2014). During this early capture period, 55 orcas were taken for display in marine parks. In 1976, the capture teams turned their attention towards Iceland, where 54 whales were taken over the next 13 years (Williams 2001). During the 1980s and 1990s, Japan was also active in supplying orcas to its marine parks — none of the 20 captured orcas taken during this time have survived (Jacobs 2006). The Russian government issues annual catch quotas for orcas (up to 10 per annum) for both the domestic market and export overseas (FEROP 2016), and today Russia remains the only country in the world where wild orca captures continue for the aquarium trade.

Conclusions: The Future for Captive Whale and Dolphin Welfare

Public opinion is shifting on whale and dolphin captivity. Evidence of poor welfare has been brought to the attention of the millions of viewers of documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove. Concern for captive orcas has led this quantum shift in perspective (Whale and Dolphin Conservation 2014). In March 2016, in response to what he referred to as the changing mind-set of society and a shrinking customer base, SeaWorld’s Chief Executive Officer, Joel Manby, announced an end to orca breeding at SeaWorld (Munarriz 2016).

Research reveals concerns for other species too, with a majority of UK holidaymakers indicating opposition to seeing whale and dolphin shows (Payne 2014) and discomfort about dolphin welfare expressed by people who had swum with them in captivity (Curtin and Wilkes 2007).

The number of facilities holding whales and dolphins in some parts of the world, including Europe, is declining (Whale and Dolphin Conservation 2015). However, in other parts of the world, including China and the Caribbean, it is increasing (China Cetacean Alliance 2015; Vail 2014).

Discussion is now focused on what alternatives exist for the thousands of individual bottlenose dolphins, orcas, belugas and other species currently in captivity. While a return to the wild under strict criteria may be possible for some (Williamson 2014), others may be too physically or mentally altered by long term captivity to survive without human care. Plans are now underway to create whale and dolphin sanctuaries, offering individuals the chance to live out the remainder of their lives in enclosures in a natural cove or bay, protected from storms and pollution, where their health and welfare needs can be taken care of in a more naturalistic environment, without performing in shows, and with public observation strictly controlled or from a distance (Williamson 2016). This may be the future for whales and dolphins currently in captivity, a future which has the potential to address many of the threats to whale and dolphin welfare presented by their current confinement in captivity.

List of references