With the tragic event at Florida’s Sea World this week, where Tilikum, a 12,000lb Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) accidentally or intentionally killed its trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of an audience, the question of whales & dolphins in captivity has again been thrust into the spotlight. This heated debate which has education and scientific research on one side, and animal cruelty and corporate greed on the other, has been raging since dolphins and whales were first placed in captivity and taught to perform tricks to members of the paying public.

With calls of “enough is enough” from leading conservationists and animal rights groups we have to question the reasoning and benefits gained from the imprisonment of these highly intelligent beings. Scientists say they have learnt a lot from studying dolphins in captivity and have come to the conclusion that they are very intelligent creatures with a social network structure similar to our own. In fact just recently scientists have been appealing to have dolphins categorized as Non-Human Beings as opposed to just “animals” due to their superior intelligence and self-recognition, combined with the various states of emotion they have shown. Many say that research could be obtained just as well from studying dolphins and whales in their natural environment. A theory supported by the fact that we have learnt more about both whales and dolphins in the wild than we have in captivity.

Breeding programs in parks and zoos have proved to help species threatened with extinction recover. However worldwide, leading scientists and park officials alike have said how un-realistic it is to re-introduce whales and dolphins back to the wild after an extended period of time in captivity. The most famous of these was Keiko the killer whale made famous in the movie “Free Willy”. After filming was completed, it took four and a half years of rehabilitation and millions of dollars of private funding before he was finally free. Therefore creatures breed in captivity will only be kept in captivity for their entire lives. If this is the case then how can there be any scientific benefits, except possibly their physiology for which most data can be gained from autopsy’s of dead animals. Their behavior will be adversely different in captivity in comparison to the wild.

Here in Hong Kong, Ocean Park is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment project to enable it to compete commercially with other theme parks in the Asia Pacific region. One of the new features planned is Polar World, where visitors will be able to visit both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Ocean Park will be “stocking” the attraction with penguins and polar bears, removed from their natural habitat and flown to sub-tropical Hong Kong where they will be housed in a small artificial enclosure and have thousands of people daily paying top dollars to have a look at them.

Beluga whale in captivity Beluga whale in captivity

There is also a state of the art tank being built that will house beluga whales. The beluga whale or white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is an Arctic and sub-Arctic species. It is commonly referred to as the sea canary due to it’s high-pitched twitter. The beluga is considered “near-threatened” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and in some areas of the world it is listed as Critically Endangered. If we want to research beluga whales we can either study them in their natural environment or at one of the numerous theme parks that already imprison them with no possibility of freedom. The scientific study excuse just won’t cut it this time.

So if it is not for breeding or scientific research, what benefit can be gained from having any of these species on our doorstep for our viewing pleasure?

Well according to the Ocean Park website the direct and indirect impact will create 17,700 construction jobs and a total of 37,100 jobs by 2022. It will increase tourism and contribute to 0.5% of our GDP. The value of the economic impact over 40 years could be as much as HK$145 billion. Now we start to see why there is such a strong argument for keeping whales and dolphins, among others in captivity. Nowhere is it mentioned how much revenue Ocean Park will stand to make.

The final argument made by the entertainment parks will be that of education and increasing awareness to the general public. Seeing is believing they say. Well in the 21st century with all the technology available and more being invented on a daily basis, the possibilities to create interactive multi-media attractions are becoming endless. What would be the difference in having a huge tank with walkways and having images projected onto them of the different creatures in their natural habitat. It is not like you can reach out and touch the whale, and if you were able to, that would be considered wrong anyway.

In parting, here is an excerpt from a recent interview between the Santa Barbara Independent and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late world famous Jacque Cousteau.

“We’ve learned enough with captive animals today that we need to leave them in their environment and stop capturing them and putting them in jail. For what? For our pleasure and profit. It’s all about making money. [Marine entertainment centers] are in the business to make money; let’s not argue about that. Is it educational? No.”

If your interested to see where the dolphins and whales actually come from and how they are caught, you may want to check out the movie “The Cove” with Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer for the world famous Flipper TV series in the 1970’s. Ric has also put together this clip clearly showing Dolphin trainers working together with fishermen to capture Dolphins for Dolphinariums and Marine parks.

Gary Stokes,
Underwater Photographer & Videographer for Oceanic Love.

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