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A Rundown on Dolphin Captivity

Karina Hesselbo


Photo VIA poeticpenguin on Shutterstock

Out of all the documentaries I have watched, there are two that have stood out to me for what they expose and reveal: The Cove and Blackfish. The Cove was a movie that aimed to show the harm done by the captive dolphin industry and expose the link between it and the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Blackfish showed the suffering of orcas in Seaworld and captivity in general. The Cove came out in 2009, and Blackfish in 2013. This means nearly a decade has passed since these films were released, and still, millions of people flock to aquariums to see captive dolphins every year.

It seems that in spite of the numerous documentaries, stories, and articles denouncing dolphin captivity, ignorance of this creature’s suffering remains rampant among the public. This article will give a rundown on how and why dolphins suffer in captivity.

Imagine being bored all day. Not just for a few minutes or a couple of hours, but every day of your life. That is what life in captivity is like. This boredom comes from the inability to swim for miles in a straight line, something all dolphins, be it a large orca or a small bottlenose dolphin, need to do. Tanks also prohibit natural behaviors. No amount of tricks, rubber balls, or pats from humans is a good substitute for swimming in the ocean waves, hunting, passing on knowledge, and exploring the seabed.

With this boredom comes depression, with which dolphins find different ways to cope. Often, this includes head bashing and gnawing. One orca, Hugo, died from a brain aneurysm after smashing his head on his tank’s walls. A bottlenose dolphin named Johnny wore down his teeth beneath his gum line from chewing on the bars of his tank.

Another thing that makes dolphin captivity horrendous is how they are brought to their enclosures. Although we like to believe dolphins live in aquariums because they have been rescued or because they were bred in captivity, the truth is that many are sourced from drive hunts.

Drive hunts are performed in Taiji, Japan. Hunters create a wall of sound by banging on metal poles to drive a pod of dolphins into a cove. Once inside, the most beautiful animals, namely female bottlenose dolphins, are selected for captivity, while the others are slaughtered. The only thing keeping this operation alive is the captive dolphin industry. A live dolphin can sell for $150 000, while dead dolphins only sell for $600. The hunt runs from March to September and kills hundreds of dolphins every year. Last year, 65 dolphins were captured and 498 were killed.

The history of how dolphins and other whales have been brought into captivity is very dark and illustrates their desperate plight. An example is the orca captures that occurred in the 1970s, where southern resident orcas were rounded up for marine parks. In total, seven were sent to aquatic zoos. Five died in the nets. The worst part is that the orcas knew what was happening. They came up with ways to prevent themselves from getting caught. They tried splitting up. The mothers and their calves went one way while the males went the other to act as a decoy. However, as seen in Blackfish, some hunters in airplanes had a bird’s-eye view of the operation and told those in the boats where the calves were headed. Today, only one orca is still alive from this capture era–Lolita. Her native name, Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut, was given to her by the Lummi people. She is currently kept in the smallest orca tank in America. She has lived there for over 50 years.

There are things we can do to stop this. We can choose whether or not we want to support the confinement of these intelligent animals and the slaughter of their pods every time we go on a holiday. By buying tickets to swim with captive dolphins or to watch them perform in shows, we are supporting this cruelty. If you really want to see a dolphin, a much more ethical and rewarding way to do so, a real “once in a lifetime” experience, is to go on a dolphin-watching trip and see them in the wild. If you would like to do more to help these marine animals, you can watch The Cove and Blackfish, and inform others around you about the suffering of dolphins in captivity.



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