I talk a lot about the impact of plastic on the ocean and in our lives but there are many other issues of ocean health that are important and pressing. The conservation of marine wildlife and their habitats is an issue that I’d like to take some time writing about as well.
As a biologist and especially as a whale biologist the topic of whales and dolphins (cetaceans) in captivity often comes up a lot. The species that I study (humpback whales) aren’t kept in captivity so I’m perhaps not as invested as others. None the less, it’s difficult to not form an opinion and I’m of opinion that cetaceans should not be kept in captivity due to their high intelligence, social structures, and their history in captivity.
Captive populations can and do hugely benefit science, conservation, and education. Species survival plans which maintain genetic viability of captive populations are protecting species from extinction, but these can only be effective when habitat is protected along side genetics and when the end game is to reintroduce species into their native habitat. Many zoos and aquariums that are a part of these schemes do so wonderfully and are an important part of conservation success. They also go the important extra step to educate visitors about these species and the importance of their conservation and in the context of captive populations.
The recent announcement by Sea World that they plan to end their orca breeding program has been met with equal amounts of elation and suspicion by many of the ocean minded folk that I follow through social media.Sea World has not bred it’s killer whales (orca and killer whale are both correct terms and can be used interchangeably) with the end game of protecting genetic diversity and reintroduction to wild populations. In most cases they have interbred between different subspecies and eco-types which would have naturally different habitats, prey types, and social structures and by and large captive orcas can not be reintroduced to wild populations. Sea World bred its killer whales because it viewed them as money making commodities, and that in my opinion is the exact wrong reason to keep any wild animal in captivity.
The second issue in the cetacean captivity debate is education. I work as whale watch naturalist and I try incredibly hard to ensure that my passengers not only understand and value the animals that they’re seeing but also their context within the wider ecosystem and the threats wildlife and the marine environment face. Anytime you view an animal, in captivity or in the wild, and don’t leave with that understanding is a missed opportunity.
Last summer I was in Baltimore for a conference and I decided to take a break and visit the National Aquarium which was just a short walk away. I’ve always felt that change in the captive cetacean display industry was going to come from within the industry so I had been excited to hear that the National Aquarium had made the decision to end their dolphin shows and were actively thinking about the retirement and future of the dolphins in their care. The National Aquarium has a lot more going for it than just its captive cetaceans, it’s a wonderful aquarium with some interesting and engaging displays showing a number of different ecosystems from around the world. A highlight by far is the rooftop glass cladded hothouses displaying Amazonian and Australian freshwater habitats.
The dolphin exhibit is an entirely different wing of the aquarium and initially I was going to skip it. As I took the stairs down from the Amazon exhibit I overheard a woman with her small son ask an educator about the dolphin show. The educator was quick to correct her that is was a training session and was focused on educational topics and NOT a show. Far from being offended the woman actually was much more interested after hearing that it was educational. I thought that was an encouraging sign of public opinion, so I decided to have look. The training wasn’t happening when I got there so instead I walked around the underwater viewing area and despite the goal to be educational I was disappointed by the lack of educational material. If I was an uninformed visitor to this exhibit I would have come away with no understanding of this species in the context of global dolphin species, no understanding of issues facing cetaceans in the wild, and no understanding of the issues of cetaceans in captivity.
There’s no denying the welfare and moral concerns around keeping whales and dolphins, particularly orcas, in captivity however there’s also no denying that there are whales and dolphins in captivity and will continue to be for some time. Institutes that display them should commit to retirement of their current animals, the discontinuation of breeding programs, and the phasing out of these displays altogether and the public should demand this but while these animals remain on display you should be able to visit and leave with an understanding of these animals both in the context of captivity and in the wild and feeling of wonderment and responsibility to protect them and their habitats.