Sea Change: The Wave of Support for Ending Dolphin Captivity

Last month, just down the road from Marineland Canada, renowned neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino gave a talk called, “Crafting the Endgame for Dolphin Captivity in Canada”. Dr. Marino is one of only a handful of dolphin neuroscientists in the world. Author of more than 130 papers, Dr. Marino co-authored the groundbreaking 2001 study which found that bottlenose dolphins could recognize themselves in a mirror. After the study, Dr. Marino refused to conduct further research on captive dolphins. Instead, she’s become an advocate for ‘animal personhood’, and her staggering academic credentials have allowed her advocacy work to achieve impressive heights.I first learned about Dr. Marino in 2016, while reading ‘Voices in the Ocean’ by Susan Casey. Casey spent years interviewing dolphin scientists and activists, and visited Dr. Marino at her home in Utah to discuss her work. When I found out that Dr. Marino was giving a talk on dolphin captivity so close to home, I knew I had to attend. Thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises are currently held in captivity worldwide. Of those, 55 or more live at Marineland Canada. The exact number, disturbingly, remains unknown. But we know that more than 55 belugas, along with a single orca, Kiska, who has lived alone since 2011, are kept at the park. The Vancouver Aquarium is also home to a solitary dolphin, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen. Dolphins have long captured human attention.The subject of countless books and movies, dolphins are seen the world over as happy, graceful, and intelligent creatures, not too terribly different from ourselves. The media has covered stories of dolphins saving swimmers from shark attacks, dolphins helping divers to located buried treasure, and dolphins drafted as soldiers by the US Navy. Dolphins, along with whales and porpoises, have been seen calling each other by name, gathering for funerals, and arranging babysitting duties.Cetaceans (the infraorder to which whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong) were first publicly displayed in 1862, when PT Barnum paid for the capture and confinement of six belugas from the St. Lawrence River. Only one survived longer than a year in that terrible undertaking. Less than two decades later, belugas and dolphins were being shipped to aquariums around the world, and by 1947, the first captive-born bottlenose dolphin was born in Florida.Dr. Marino smiles as she speaks to her audience, a group of environmentalists with whom she has easy comradery. The talk is taking place in the Pond Inlet room at Brock University, with it’s wall of floor-to-ceiling windows backing onto a landscaped pond. The view stands in stark contrast to the cement tanks in Dr. Marino’s slides, as she describes the harsh conditions at Marineland.Captivity is detrimental to both the physical and mental health of dolphins:Captive dolphins in Canada are kept in concrete tanks.All enclosures are constructed with public display as the primarily goal.Tanks are built small and shallow; all the better for the public to view them.Dolphins, who rely on sound and hearing to navigate, are subjected to the restraints of a concrete pool. Their vocalizations echo off the walls of the tanks, and all outside noise vibrates through the pool, causing untold stress.The size of these tanks also severely limits physical exercise – dolphins can and should swim hundreds of kilometres in a day, and dive hundreds of metres.Their natural habitat is impossible to simulate in captivity, and their health suffers as a direct result. • Dolphins experience extreme stress in captivity, which manifests itself in various stress-related diseases, and can result in death.Stress also decreases immune system function, leading to an increased susceptibility to infectious diseases.Antibiotics are overused, which can lead to antibiotic resistance and leave further infections difficult to treat.Additionally, mental health in captive dolphins can deteriorate, leading to self-harm. Captive orcas, for example, often wear down their teeth through grinding them on the walls or gates in their tanks, leaving them so worn down that veterinarians must drill them out.Captive dolphins display various other indicators of psychological distress, including unresponsiveness, submissiveness, self-harm, and excessive aggression exhibited towards other dolphins and humans. This aggression is evidenced in the long record of dolphins (including killer whales) seriously injuring and even killing humans and other dolphins in captivity.The health impacts that dolphins experience in captivity become especially jarring when considering their intelligence and social nature. Dolphins are not only highly intelligent; they are known to have a culture. Dolphins have vast social systems, with relationships that go beyond their own territory. Further, their ability to learn new skills is extraordinary. Dolphins have been seen teaching their young different activities, with some unique to certain communities.In Shark Bay, Australia, wild bottlenose dolphins teach their young to use marine sponges to search for fish in the seafloor. In South Carolina, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins living in salt marshes strand themselves on land to feed on fish they have pushed ashore.Orca pods each have their own unique dialect, taught to them by their mothers. The complex lives of dolphins have become more apparent due to these recent studies, and in a recent paper, Dr. Marino urged that their behavioural, physical, and psychological needs must be met and protected.For these reasons and others, public opinion on dolphin captivity has been changing. A number of countries have banned captivity, including Bolivia, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, India, Nicaragua, Slovenia, and Switzerland. In addition, the U.S states of California, New York, and South Carolina have joined the ban, and in Brazil, Luxembourg, Norway, and the United Kingdom, captivity is legal, but the required living standards are so stringent that no facilities are able to operate.Canada is on track to add its name to the list – Bill S-203, brought to the Senate by now-retired Senator Wilfred Moore of Nova Scotia, which proposes a ban on keeping dolphins in captivity, passed the House of Commons fisheries committee on April 1st, 2019. The bill was originally introduced in 2015, and Senator Murray Sinclair took over as Senate sponsor following Senator Moore’s retirement in 2017. Senator Sinclair was joined by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (MP, Saanich-Gulf Islands) as House sponsor. In a letter to her constituents, May wrote, “Keeping these highly evolved creatures in captivity is cruel, as is the entertainment value of watching whales and dolphins swim circles in concrete tanks. The sooner the House of Commons passes this, bill the better.”In the days prior to the vote on April 1st, approximately 20,000 phone calls and emails in support of the bill were received. The final vote for Bill S-203 is expected to take place Monday, June 10th. Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, offered up his debate slot so that the bill has an opportunity to become law before Parliament rises for the summer break on June 21st.While critical to preventing future breeding and display of marine mammals, whales and dolphins already in captivity in Canada need help as well. Sanctuary, Dr. Marino says, is the immediate next step necessary for these individuals. Simply releasing these animals into the wild, after years of captivity, is not always possible. Whales that have been born in captivity never learned how to live in the ocean, and require lifelong care.The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to create a seaside sanctuary where retired captive whales and dolphins can live out the rest of their lives. The sanctuary will consist of a roped off area with room for 6-8 residents, and be a minimum of 100 acres in size and an average of 15 metres in depth. Residents will have rehabilitation and veterinary care, and will never again be used for entertainment. Possible sites in British Columbia and Nova Scotia are currently being inspected. Although the images and evidence of the impacts of captivity on marine mammals were sometimes difficult to take in, Dr. Marino left her audience with the vision of the Whale Sanctuary Project as “not just a place to live but a place to thrive, and to be an example of change in our relationship with cetaceans.” To learn more about the Whale Sanctuary Project, visit