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CFAF’s Work for Whales and Dolphins in Captivity

CFAF is a partner organisation of the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA). This alliance brings together NGOs striving for improvements to the lives of cetaceans, as well as whale and dolphin watching businesses and concerned individuals, so that they can campaign with a united and powerful message. CFAF has representation on the WCA’s working group dedicated to ending the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.


The captivity working group is developing resources that will strengthen the work of the WCA and its partners on issues concerning the captivity of cetaceans. We add our weight to any campaign or project that is compatible with WCA’s vision and objectives. Specifically we are supporting Orca Network with their campaign to free Lolita from captivity, assisting the Free Morgan Foundation with Morgan’s case, and supporting the Sea Lies campaign run by the Captive Animals Protection Society. The WCA campaigns for changes in policy and legislation where appropriate and when opportunities arise, such as the USA bills to prohibit the keeping of orca in captivity. In addition, the WCA are partners with Responsible Travel in the campaign to end orca circuses.

The Issue


The worldwide captive marine mammal industry inflicts cruelty and suffering on the thousands of individual animals kept in captivity and continues to threaten wild whale and dolphin populations.


There are currently at least 2,360 cetaceans in captivity worldwide - ~2,000 dolphins, 227 beluga and 53 orca (killer whales). However, more than 5,000 cetaceans have died in captivity since the 1950s. The industry is big business and is driven by the attraction for tourists to see these amazing and iconic animals up close and, in many cases, to swim or interact with them. However, life in a marine park is totally unsuitable for these animals.


No captive facility can provide for the needs of whales and dolphins - social, intelligent and wide-ranging animals. Captivity presents a lack of the social, visual and auditory stimuli of their natural environment, and many suffer from the stress of confinement, often resulting in increased aggression, illness and death.

Life in a tank


A life in a tank is so far removed from a cetacean’s natural environment that the effect this has on their mental and physical state is almost inconceivable.


In the wild, orca have been documented to travel more than 9,400 km in 42 days and reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. The largest tank in the world is only 70m long.  The deepest recorded dive for an orca is more than 400 meters, the deepest tank in the world housing an orca is ~12m.


Tanks are many times noisier than the ocean, the glass and concrete walls inhibit the natural use of sound by whales and dolphins and the water and cooling pumps are heard underwater 24 hours a day.


Naturally cetaceans live in social groups, however in captivity many are kept alone – for example, Kshamenk is an orca who has lived alone for 21 years in captivity, Lolita has been alone for 34 years out of her 42 years in captivity and mothers and calves are regularly separated.


Nothing in their evolution has prepared whales or dolphins for life in captivity. The result is abnormal behaviours, injury, illness, premature death and aggression, not to mention the mental suffering. 

This thought provoking short film explores the issue of keeping animals in captivity through the eyes of young people. Featuring the inspiring and passionate marine scientist Dr Ingrid Visser. 

Welfare is often considered in terms of the ‘5 Freedoms’, however, these simply can’t be met in captivity


1. Freedom from hunger and thirst:

    This is not always met, for example gelatine (from the bones of cows) has to be fed to prevent dehydration        and animals are often kept hungry so that their food rations can be used in training.


2. Freedom from discomfort:

   This is impossible to meet when the cetaceans are confined, unable to properly swim without incurring            grazes on the sides of the tank. In addition, there is often no escape from the sun, and chemical burns from    water treatment solutions are common.


3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease:

    This can never be met in captivity. Dental disease is common, as are wounds from attacks by other animals     sharing the same tank.


4. Freedom to express normal behaviour:

    This is impossible to ensure because of the size of the tanks and the fact that cetaceans are unable to form     their usual social groups. Abnormal behaviours are very common, and drugs are often used to modify             behaviour.


5. Freedom from fear and distress:

    This is impossible to avoid in captive circumstances – for example, cetaceans are usually kept in                     inappropriate social groupings, and rape and bullying are common. Welfare is further compromised by their     training, excessive noise and the proximity of people and the other cetaceans they are kept with.

Misconceptions about captivity

  • Misconception: The marine parks conduct useful research into cetaceans

Reality: Actually, there is minimal research output from marine parks compared with academic institutions. Marine scientist Dr Naomi Rose said: “About the only thing we have learnt from research of captive cetaceans is that they shouldn’t be in captivity”


  • Misconception: Training is enjoyable for the animals because it involves positive reinforcement (the animals are rewarded with fish)

Reality: “Positive reinforcement” is a technical term that means that after performing a ‘desirable’ behaviour or trick the animals are given a fish to increase the chances of them doing it again. However, being trained this way is not as positive as it seems. The animals have to work for their food (performing behaviours that would not be natural for them to do in that context, or sometimes ever) and so this method of training doesn’t reflect a true desire to enact that behaviour. Food is usually withheld outside training sessions and so there is very little choice in carrying out the behaviours as the animal tries to satisfy its hunger.  


  • Misconception: Captive cetaceans are ambassadors for their species – facilities are ‘educational’, they create awareness and encourage ocean conservation

Reality: Misinformation is reported as facts, and the shows do not create awareness of the real issues faced by wild whale and dolphin populations. Facilities housing cetaceans present an unrealistic vision of these animals and their needs, emphasising the ‘showmanship’ of the performance rather than providing any educational or conservation value.  


  • Misconception: Animals bred in captivity do not suffer, as they do not know any different

Reality: All animals suffer when their physical and mental needs are not met. These needs do not change depending on the animal’s previous experience or its birth location. Wild animals kept in captivity are still ‘wild’ and have the same instincts and desires as those living in their natural environment.


  • Misconception: Cetaceans removed from captivity wouldn’t survive in the wild

Reality: As many cetaceans have unfortunately been kept captive for many years they may not be able to be fully released into the wild. However, this doesn’t mean that we should leave them suffering where they are. Retirement plans may include individuals remaining in human care for as long as necessary for their well-being, but they would no longer be forced to endure the daily stresses currently faced and would be relocated to sea-pens to enjoy access to more space than is possible in a land-based tank.


Globally, we are seeing an ever-growing number of countries passing laws prohibiting the capture and/or keeping of marine mammals in captivity. This trend reflects the recognition of the risk the captivity industry  poses to animal welfare and conservation.


If marine parks were no longer allowed to keep cetaceans in captivity, these animals would not simply be released into the sea to fend for themselves. Retirement plans would include extensive rehabilitation programmes tailored for each individual animal and could be undertaken by marine mammal experts and organisations. Some cetaceans will never be able to be released into the wild, but can be moved to more appropriate “sea pens”- usually bays that are closed off from the ocean with nets providing an enclosed area that is more natural than a concrete tank.


More than 100 individuals of 13 species of cetacean have been successfully rehabilitated in this way. The WCA would be prepared to work with the marine park industry to create innovative programmes for rehabilitation that could truly educate and inspire people and explain the essential move away from keeping cetaceans in captivity.


The WCA will achieve its aims by raising the profile of whale watching in the wild (whilst safeguarding wild animals through responsible practices); working with the marine park industry on innovative modern entertainment facilities (such as virtual holographic whales, 3D immersive experiences); and campaigning for adequate legal protection of cetaceans in the wild.


It is encouraging that some countries are introducing bans on the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity but tragically others are increasing their number of captive cetaceans, with the largest growth in the Caribbean, Russia and Asia. The public in these countries are, in general, unaware of the welfare problems of captive cetaceans. As members of the public, you can help by spreading the word that it is not OK to keep cetaceans in captivity, ensuring that you never attend tourist attractions that involve these animals, and instead support ethical dolphin and whale watching boat trips to see the animals in the wild. 

Make a pledge today to make your voice heard


As an industry driven by demand to see these iconic animals, your actions make a difference – please never visit an “attraction” with captive cetaceans! Please take the pledge to never buy a ticket to a dolphin show.


Together our voice is louder in calling for an end to the captive cetacean industry - an industry that continues to threaten wild populations and inflicts suffering on thousands of individual animals.


Globally, we are seeing an ever-growing number of countries passing laws prohibiting the capture and keeping of marine mammals in captivity; and, as a result of public opposition, international tour operators are under increasing pressure to end the promotion of tours and attractions with the inclusion of captive cetacean experiences. For example, earlier this year, the German division of Touristik Union International (TUI), one of the world's largest tour operating companies, announced that it will no longer offer trips to dolphin and orca shows, and this move was soon followed by Sir Richard Branson’s statement that Virgin would no longer deal with organisations that continue to take cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises) from the ocean!

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