The world is a dark place for captive whales and dolphins
Whales and dolphins are intelligent, conscious, self-aware, emotional, social, highly mobile beings. Captivity robs them of what it truly means to be a whale or a dolphin. Being confined and denied social contact with individuals they want to associate with has a serious impact on their mental wellbeing. Like us, their mental health suffers when their choices are removed.
Yet whales and dolphins are still captured from the wild, kept in tanks that are far too small to accommodate their needs, and exhibited for our entertainment. Many are forced to perform in shows or interact with humans in ‘bucket list’ activities like swim-with-dolphins experiences.
As the largest travel company in the world, TUI can help make this generation of captive whales and dolphins the last.
Please show your support by signing our letter to TUI:
You've helped us achieve big wins
Holiday companies fuel this whale and dolphin mental health crisis by promoting these ‘attractions’ to their customers. We’ve been campaigning successfully to persuade all UK tour operators to stop perpetuating the cruelty of captivity.
Our campaign is working. We've already persuaded Virgin Holidays, British Airways, Thomas Cook, TripAdvisor and Booking.com to stop selling tickets to captive whale and dolphin 'attractions' and Expedia followed last year. Let’s help the rest of the UK travel industry to shake off the past and build a kinder, more sustainable future for tourism.
Worldwide, around 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises are held in captivity. This includes more than 3,000 dolphins, around 360 belugas, and around 57 orcas. Many of these individuals have families in the wild while others have been bred in captivity and have never even seen the sea.
Let's meet some of them
Meet Kiska (orca)
This disturbing video of Kiska violently thrashing herself against the side of her tank shows the devastating impact that captivity can have on an orca’s mental health. Kiska has been confined for more than 40 years. She was stolen from her family in the waters around Iceland in 1979 when she was just three. Since 2011 she has been alone. She is deprived of every aspect of the rich life and strong social bonds she would enjoy in the wild. All five of her children have died which will be devastating for her, as orcas feel deep emotions. When not swimming in slow circles, she often floats in one spot, staring at her bleak, barren world.
See the world through Kiska’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
Meet Morgan (orca)
In this video, you can see Morgan, confined in the small medical pool while the orca show goes on in the stadium in front of her. The music a disturbing contrast to the trauma she is displaying as she chews the bars of the gate and cries out in frustration. She has been here at Loro Parque in Tenerife since 2011 after she was found alone and emaciated in 2010. The plan had been to nurse her then release her, but she was never freed. She was made pregnant and tragically her baby, Ula, died suddenly a few weeks before her third birthday in August 2021. Morgan’s world should be vast and dominated by family, but her reality is a small and disturbing place.
See the world through Morgan’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
Meet Qila (beluga)
Qila was the first beluga ever to be born in captivity. She died at Vancouver Aquarium aged just 21 and her mother Aurora died nine days later. Qila was known for her unnatural, repetitive behaviour. She would swim one length of her pool upright and then another length upside down, pausing for a breath in the same spot, and she’d repeat this pattern over and over again. This ritualistic behaviour is a massive mental health red flag. Qila never enjoyed a natural ocean home and her confinement caused psychological damage which manifested in these repetitive swimming patterns. Intelligent beings like Qila need to be free to travel, play, hunt and socialise. A concrete tank can never meet these needs and so their mental health disintegrates.
See the world through Qila’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
Meet Shadow and Chelmers (bottlenose dolphins)
Shadow and Chelmers died from brain damage after a two-day rave took place at Connyland, Switzerland, the facility they were held at. A toxicology report found a heroin substitute in their urine. A keeper told local media that Chelmers was drifting under the water and foaming at the mouth for over an hour before he died. It’s believed that the narcotics may have suppressed their instinct to come to the surface to breathe. A court found the cause of death to have been too high a dosage or too long an administration of antibiotics used to treat an infection. Activists said they recorded noise levels of 100 decibels during the rave – as loud as a pneumatic drill.
See the world through Shadow’s and Chelmer’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
(the picture shows dolphins at Connyland)
Meet Tilikum (orca)
Tilikum will be remembered as the orca implicated in the deaths of three humans, and as the ‘star’ of the film Blackfish. When humans took him from his ocean home, they condemned him to a life of serious mental health problems. As a young orca, he endured constant attacks from the two females he shared a tank with. But what was more disturbing was what happened when the shows ended. Each night Tilikum was isolated and ‘stored’ in a metal 'box' for up to 14 hours at a time. This contributed to his psychosis and subsequent behavioural problems. After the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum was kept alone for six years before he died. Orcas are too big, too intelligent and too mobile to ever thrive in a tank and the impact of captivity on their mental health is devastating for them, and in Tilikum’s case, for humans too.
See the world through Tilikum’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
Meet Ikaika (orca)
Ikaika was born in captivity in 2002. He has never known the ocean or a closely-bonded community to guide and teach him. He was separated from his mother, sister and brother when he was four and now has serious mental health issues which manifest mostly in sexual aggression but also in biting other whales and grabbing humans. This behaviour wouldn’t be seen in wild orcas who learn from their elders how to thrive and fulfil their role in their close-knit orca society. A Toronto Star investigation revealed that SeaWorld vets sedated him twice a day with Valium to ‘mellow him out’. How many wild orcas need Valium? His brother Taku also had a tragic life - he made their mother pregnant and died at SeaWorld aged just 14.
See the world through Ikaika’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
Meet Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin)
Helen was born free in the waters off Japan but she died at SeaWorld in Texas in 2022. She was moved there from Vancouver Aquarium when Canada outlawed whale and dolphin captivity. She was the only one left in Vancouver after her tank mate, a false killer whale named Chester, died. Dolphins are social beings who live in societies in which each individual plays their part, depending on their personality and their culture. They have complex emotional lives too; on a level we may never comprehend. So you can imagine the loneliness, boredom and depression that a dolphin like Helen would suffer – alone in a barren tank, deprived of the companionship of her own kind and of the ability to just be a dolphin.
See the world through Helen’s eyes and help us uncover the #DarkSideOfCaptivity.
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The dark side of captivity
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.
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.
When a captive individual 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/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.
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.
We're calling on the travel and captivity industries to commit to our 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.