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What you should know about dolphins and whales in captivity

We speak with animal conservationists about the plight of aquatic mammals in captivity.

While most of us have found it challenging to practice physical distancing for just a few months during the COVID-19 outbreak, Jessie was no stranger to isolation. The female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin spent roughly 38 years inside a concrete tank, separated from her parents and siblings before passing away in 2016.

Jessie was captured in 1978 when she was about six years old. To abduct the dolphin, poachers chased her through the waters of Penghu, an archipelago of roughly 90 islands off the southwestern coast of Taiwan, where they set up a series of traps and enclosures.

She was eventually transported to Ocean Park, a marine-life theme park on the southside of Hong Kong Island, where she would be trained to do circus tricks, give rides and interact with visitors on a regular basis. Jessie lived the rest of her life in captivity until she died at the age of 44, following severe renal dysfunction and an abdominal infection. 

According to Change For Animals Foundation, a UK-based organisation dedicated to improving the lives of animals worldwide, there are at least 2,360 cetaceans (aquatic mammals) in captivity worldwide, ranging from dolphins to beluga and orca. The group estimates that at least 5,000 have died in captivity since the 1950s.

With the welfare of these wild animals in mind, animal advocate Rachel Carbary launched Empty the Tanks Worldwide in 2013. The campaign coordinates global anti-captivity protests on the second Saturday in May each year.

During its inaugural event, Empty the Tanks protests took place at 21 locations with captive cetaceans across 12 countries. By 2019, the event expanded to include participants at over 71 locations across 22 countries.  

Dolphins performing. Credit: Dusan Smetana on Unsplash.
Dolphins performing. Credit: Dusan Smetana on Unsplash.

As part of the Empty the Tanks campaign every year, protesters in Hong Kong gather at the entrance of Ocean Park, where they hold up a 3-metre-long model dolphin splattered with red paint, as well as large banners that read: “Release the Dolphins” and “No Performance; No Captivity”. 

Roni Wong, the convenor of animal rights’ group Dolphin Family and an organiser of the annual event in Hong Kong, says awareness about animal captivity has been slowly improving in the city. 

“During protests, we have often been told by visitors of Ocean Park that they would only focus on the non-animal facilities [like roller coasters and rides] and that they don’t plan to visit the dolphin show and other animal exhibitions,” he says. 

As of June 2019, the local amusement park was home to 63 marine mammals, including Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions and spotted seals, as well as over 100 sharks and rays.

An anti-captivity protest at Ocean Park. Credit: Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society
Protest at Ocean Park. Credit: Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society

In 2016, the park released a statement saying that captive animals like Jessie play an important role in “conservation and educational messaging.” Some attractions provide opportunities for guests to engage directly with dolphins, with the aim to instil a sense of appreciation for nature and wildlife. Dolphins are also included in the park’s biosonar research on dolphin echolocation as well as its artificial breeding programme. 

An Ocean Park spokesperson told Ariana via email that, as of 23 January 2020, there were a total 22 dolphins at the park; 16 of them were born in captivity, while six were adopted from the wild and arrived at the park in either 1987 and 1997. The spokesperson declined to answer any questions about the survival rate of dolphins in the breeding programme.

“Ocean Park conducts dolphin artificial insemination based on the needs including: to maintain biodiversity, to use frozen semen from those who have passed away [a] long time ago and to use frozen semen which is exchanged from oversea facilities, etc. All these can help to maintain and to facilitate the medical, husbandry technique as well as scientific research developments,” wrote the spokesperson. 

Animal advocates and conservationists don’t agree with this position. Viena Mak, a committee member of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, stresses that captivity is a form of abuse, which not only harms the individual animal but also the entire marine ecosystem. 

“Wild dolphins are often hunted in big numbers, and the younger ones are always the targets because they are easier to train. Their removal will greatly impact the population of dolphins in the wild,” she says, referring to the notorious Taiji dolphin hunts in Japan, which allow fishermen to kill or catch more than 1,000 dolphins and whales each hunting season. 

Dolphin Captivity around the world

For instance, during the six-month-long hunting season between early September 2019 and end of February 2020, animal welfare charity Dolphin Project estimated that 560 dolphins were slaughtered, while 180 were taken captive

According to Mak, many of these captive animals will get sick or die due to harsh conditions in transit to theme parks around the region. Even if they manage to survive the journey, what awaits is no paradise. 

“Dolphins [and whales] are very sociable animals and they swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. Once trapped in tanks, they are forced to live with other unfamiliar cetaceans in an extremely boring environment, which often results in depression and bullying,” says Mak.

Several media outlets and whistleblowers have reported suspicious injuries and abnormal behaviour among the marine mammals at Ocean Park in recent years. In 2013, a video posted on YouTube showed Pinky, a then 14-year-old female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, slamming herself against a pool wall. 

A press release from the park explained that “breaching (jumping) is a play behaviour generally seen in both wild and captive dolphins. On rare occasions, the dolphin might land close to the wall or the edge of the pool.” However, Mak argues that it’s more likely a self-destructive behaviour developed due to stress from performances, noises and confinement.

A killer whale performs at a show. Credit: Neonbrand on Unsplash.
A killer whale performs at a show. Credit: Neonbrand on Unsplash.

On 8 February 2020, local reports emerged about a 14-year-old dolphin named Ginsan, who had a broken jaw last year. Ocean Park disclosed the incident after being questioned by the media and claimed that the dolphin injured himself while chasing with other dolphins in the tank. Whereas, Mak believes that the tank’s limited space is to blame, as it makes dolphins more vulnerable to injury. 

In relation to its treatment of dolphins, an Ocean Park spokesperson said: “The Park uses positive reinforcement when interacting with animals. Our animal care, husbandry and enrichment are all based on positive reinforcement and positive humane practices certified by American Humane Association (an organisation committed to ensuring the safety, welfare and well-being of animals).”

“We are committed to providing the best care for all of the animals under our care from cradle to grave. With the increasing average life expectancy of its resident dolphins, the Park has specially arranged aged dolphins to engage in enrichment activities that provide psychological challenges and physical exercise, as well as foster a voluntary, stress-free experience for the dolphins during routine and other health monitoring procedures. Furthermore, aged dolphins are not involved in conservation breeding at the Park.”

At the beginning of 2020, Ocean Park published its Strategic Repositioning Plan, which mentioned that “Ocean Park will steer away from conventional animal shows and will focus its animal exhibits and displays on environmental protection, marine conservation and education.”

Wong welcomes the decision but argues it’s not enough. He has publicly urged the theme park to cancel all exhibitions and interactive activities that include captive aquatic mammals, to ensure the animals are “free from exploitation.”

Mak agrees. “The best thing the resort can do is let the dolphins and other captive animals retire,” she says, suggesting that Ocean Park relocates the animals to a permanent sanctuary that replicates their natural habitat. “It may take years to plan and to find the right place. They need to start doing it now; otherwise, the goal of emptying the tanks will be even harder to reach.” 

An anti-captivity protest in 2017
An anti-captivity protest in 2017. Credit: Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society

Beyond Hong Kong, animal advocates around the world are increasingly worried about the expanding marine park industry in mainland China. According to a 2019 report by China Cetacean Alliance, a coalition of international animal protection and conservation organisations, there were at least 80 ocean-themed parks operating in China as of April 2019 – more than double the number of parks in 2015  – with another 27 under construction. 

The report also estimated that these parks house an estimated 1,000 cetaceans, including at least 13 different species. Of these, bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales are the most common.

Mak says that limited transparency within the industry in China has caused greater challenges for conservationists, making it difficult to keep track of the number of captive cetaceans and their wellbeing. Moreover, a lack of legal protections for animal welfare also makes captive cetaceans more vulnerable.

They are simply sending the wrong message – that it’s okay to deprive these animals of their freedom just to satisfy human needs – to the younger generation.

Viena Mak

“Chinese laws and regulations lack a legal definition of ‘animal welfare,’” states the China Cetacean Alliance report. “Specific animal welfare concepts within the laws and regulations relevant to the ocean theme park industry are therefore lacking, and facilities flout the regulations regardless. It is clear that cetaceans in captivity in China remain without proper protection from conditions that cause suffering.”

As an example, Mak recalls seeing dolphins in a tiny tank inside a shopping mall in Guangzhou in 2016. The tank was so small and shallow, she says, that the dolphins could not swim vertically in the water without exposing part of their torso.

Mak says that some parks with captive dolphins or whales in China hold that the first-hand interaction with these animals is important for education and conservation. Mak points to Chimelong International Ocean Tourist Resort in Zhuhai, a city in southern Guangdong province, as an example. 

The theme park houses a wide variety of marine animals such as orcas, belugas and whale sharks, and frequently organises family tours and learning programmes for children, in order to provide the participants with “comprehensive knowledge about animal conservation.” Ariana reached out for comment but did not hear back.

“They are simply sending the wrong message – that it’s okay to deprive these animals of their freedom just to satisfy human needs – to the younger generation,” Mak stresses. “Besides, these captive animals can’t possibly educate the visitors about nature, because they have lost their natural instincts and abilities due to their captivity.” 


Credit: Courtnie Tosana on Unsplash
Credit: Courtnie Tosana on Unsplash

Get Involved: #SelfiesForCetaceans

Due to concerns surrounding COVID-19,  Empty the Tanks Worldwide 2020 invites everyone to advocate on behalf of captive aquatic mammals, by posting pictures and videos to social media using the hashtag, #SelfiesForCetaceans on 9 May.

Keep it simple or get creative with posters, stuffed animals or costumes. Photos will be shared by Empty the Tanks and the Dolphin Project’s social media channels to raise awareness about captive animals and support marine conservation. The three most creative submissions will receive a prize from the campaign.