This week I had an amazing experience with 3 Bottlenose dolphins just outside of Simpson Bay. I was on a routine trip to check moorings with St. Maarten Nature Foundation when a small pod of dolphins approached our boat.
After traveling with us for a few minutes while we motored slowly out of the bay, I learned that both of the students on board had only ever seen dolphins in captivity before. So, I asked the ranger to let us enter the water for a quick swim. As I hoped when we jumped (lightly) in the curious pod came in for a closer look. It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen a dolphin, an experience like this is always breath-taking.
-There are no words to really describe how it feels to dive below the surface and have a dolphin come in close to look into your eyes.-
Of the three dolphins one in particular was more playful and curious. She kept coming in close as we dove underwater and even turned over to show her stomach. I could go on and on about how it made me feel and what an amazing experience it was but that isn’t really what this post is about.
Remember when I said the students had only seen dolphins in captivity? That stuck with me. Normally it is easy to forget that our neighboring island, Anguilla, is home to a Dolphin Discovery where dolphins are kept in captivity and rewarded (and punished) with food for spending their day with tourists.
I know that there have been several waves over the years in support of releasing animals in captivity, especially marine mammals. I hope that you have already ‘drank the koolaid’ and, like me, no longer support institutions that promote marine mammal captivity or entertainment.
If you haven’t yet and don’t see what is so bad about places that provide one-on-one interaction with dolphins please take some time to read what I have to say. To be clear I know that a lot of support for such business comes from a well-intended place, I have been to SeaWorld and even preformed with a dance troupe there when I was younger. I am not trying to call anyone out that didn’t know better, but I am trying to help spread awareness about why marine mammals should not be kept in captivity for our entertainment.
The Basics About Wild Dolphins:
Dolphins living in the wild are known to swim up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) per day and use distinct whistles and body language to communicate. Individuals often stay with their same social or family groups for their whole lives. In addition dolphins are known to have the cognitive ability to demonstrate a wide array of traits similar to humans including self-awareness, problem-solving, and empathy, innovation, teaching skills, grief, joy and playfulness.
So why is captivity a problem?
First and foremost is the space allotted to these creatures. Have you seen the viral photo comparing SeaWorld’s parking area vs the allotted tank space for their animals? Here it is:
Animals that are meant to swim 60 miles a day are kept in tanks that are often smaller than that of an Olympic swimming pool.
What did you think of our lockdown and stay-home orders? Did you get a bit stir crazy? Miss going out into the world? How would you like to spend the rest of your life like that?
Did you survive by reading a book or using the internet to learn knew things or just escape for a while? A dolphin cannot do that. The only interaction they have incorporates food deprivation training disguised as ‘positive reinforcement’, meaning the dolphin received dead fish as a treat for completing a trick.
Secondly, they are unable to carry out their normal social behaviors. I just mentioned our Covid-19 lockdown period. Now imagine that you had to stay in a one-bedroom apartment with someone you had never met. You have to spend the rest of your life sleeping, eating, using the same bathroom with someone who isn’t family and you share no emotional connection with. Yes, eventually you will get used to each other, but what happens when you fight? You can’t leave, you can’t escape, you can’t go outside and walk it off. Dolphins in captivity are much more likely to show signs of aggression towards one another and even to harm each other. This results in scratches and scrape marks on their skin (this is common in all captive marine mammals).
Not only do captive dolphins harm their pool-mates but they are also known to harm themselves. “One of the earliest documented examples of such behavior was observed in Hugo, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium. Hugo was observed repeatedly smashing his head against his tank walls, a behavior that has been observed in other captive marine mammals, along with gnawing on tank walls and gates.” (Source: https://www.dolphinproject.com/campaigns/captivity-industry/facts-about-captivity/)
There are several more reasons for keeping dolphins and other marine mammals out of captivity; but instead of writing an article so long that no one will ever finish it I am going to address one last thing.
The most common argument in favor of captivity. What about the Research and Education being done by these parks? (I intend for that to be read in the high-pitched dialect of a Karen calling for a manager to approve a coupon that expired two years ago)
Yes, years ago before the world had documentaries and National Geographic and YouTube and the freaking internet this was the only way for a lot people to see these amazing animals. These parks inspired several young people to become marine biologists or scuba diving instructors (myself included) or try to find another work with these animals . But this just isn’t true anymore. You can learn more facts (actual facts) sitting on your ass on the couch watching a documentary than you can at a ‘Dolphin Encounter and Swim’. So education? Not so applicable anymore.
Marine mammals living in captivity do not live the same as their wild counterparts. They get different diseases due to the chemical filled water and stress of contestant human interaction, they don’t act socially as they do in the wild and they certainly do not reproduce as they would naturally. So what exactly are you researching? Why can’t research be carried out at rehabilitation facilities which would focus on release back into the wild? Did you hear about the amazing new open sea whale sanctuary in Iceland?
Alright so this got super long. I am sorry I tried to cut stuff out and I just couldn’t do it. So obviously, I do not support marine mammal captivity, I hope this gave you enough information that you feel the same. Do your part and only support tourism activities that view dolphins in their natural habitat, the open sea.
To learn more about marine mammal captivity I suggest you check out these amazing sources:
Blackfish– the 2013 Documentary that focused on the controversy of captive orcas, in particular Tilikum
Beneath the Surface– Book by John Hargrove a former SeaWorld Trainer who speaks out about the treatment of animals in captivity.