The public display industry keeps many species of marine mammals captive in concrete tanks, especially whales and dolphins. The Humane Society of the United States believes that these animals are best seen in their natural coastal and ocean environments instead of being held captive simply to entertain people.
Life in the wild
The very nature of these animals makes them uniquely unsuited to confinement. In the wild, whales and dolphins live in groups, often in tight family units. Family bonds often last many years. In some species, they last for a lifetime.
Whales and dolphins travel long distances each day, sometimes swimming in a straight line for a hundred miles as they search for food and socialize, other times remaining in a certain area for hours or days, moving for miles along a coastline and then turning to retrace their path. These marine mammals can dive up to several hundred meters and stay underwater for half an hour or more. They would normally spend only 10 to 20 % of their time at the surface.
The sea is to whales and dolphins much as the air is to birds—a three-dimensional environment, where they can move up and down and side to side. But whales and dolphins don't stop to perch. They never come to shore, as seals and sea lions do. Whales and dolphins are always swimming, even when they "sleep." They are "voluntary breathers," conscious during every breath they take. They are always aware and always moving. Understanding this, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy of life in no more than a tiny swimming pool.
Life in captivity
Life for captive whales and dolphins is nothing like a life in the sea. It is almost impossible to maintain a family group in captivity as animals are traded among different facilities. Their tanks allow only a few strokes in any direction before coming to a wall. Because tanks are shallow, the natural tendencies of whales and dolphins are reversed—they must spend more than half their time at the tank's surface.
This unnatural situation can cause skin problems. In addition, in captive killer whales (orcas), it is the probable cause of dorsal fin collapse. Without the support of water, gravity pulls their tall, top fins over as the whale matures. Collapsed fins are experienced by all captive male orcas and many captive female orcas. However, they are observed in only about one % of orcas in the wild.
In a tank, the environment is monotonous and limited in scope. Sonar clicks, the method by which individuals navigate and explore their surroundings, have limited utility in such an environment. These animals, who are perpetually aware, have nothing like the varied stimulation of plants and fish and other animals in their natural environment. In perpetual motion, they are forced into literally endless circles. Life for these animals is a mere shadow of what it was in the wild.
What must life be like for these complex, gregarious, three-dimensional creatures who must live in a comparatively bland concrete enclosure? The parents or grandparents of most of the dolphins in captivity in the United States were captured from the wild. Some nations still capture and sell them.
At first look, a whale or dolphin show may seem exciting, even for the animals. But when you look past the show to the high mortality rates and stress-related causes of death in captive whales and dolphins, the effects of captivity suggest a far harsher reality. The public display of whales and dolphins in marine parks and aquariums is waning in Europe and Canada, but it is still common in the United States and is increasing in developing countries, particularly those in Asia.
Although seals and sea lions may breed readily in captivity, only a few species are held in numbers large enough to sustain a breeding population. Some species of whales and dolphins, on the other hand, do not breed well in captivity and some have never produced surviving offspring. Many of the captive dolphins and whales have shorter life expectancy than others of their species who still live in the wild.
The businesses that charge the public to see and interact with whales and dolphins in captivity contend that public display serves educational and conservation purposes. However, experience has proven that public display does not effectively educate the public who generally learn little of value about the animals that are on display in shows and swim-with facilities. Profit, not education, is the reason they are captive in zoos and aquariums. For a marine mammal, tanks are prisons. The monotonous, confined life of animals in captivity is a mere shadow of what life was like for them in the wild. The Humane Society of the United States believes that animals in bare tanks do not present a realistic image of natural behaviors or natural habitats. Marine mammals are best protected by cleaning up and protecting their habitats. Truly appreciating them means seeing them along the coast and in the rich ocean environment where they belong.