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Orcas and Dophins - Tilikum

Tilikum appears during its performance in its show ‘Believe’ at Sea World on March 30, 2011 in Orlando, Florida, and the first time since the six-ton whale performed since killing trainer 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau at the marine park on February 24 2010

It is with great sadness that we read about the death of Tilikum, the captive orca whose story inspired the movie Blackfish, and brought attention to tragic conditions of marine mammals in captivity. Following is a completely revised version of our previous article about captive marine mammals as per the advice of and consultation with experts in the field.

No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.

                                                                                     — Jacques Yves Cousteau


It is a familiar image to most Americans: an orca or dolphin performing tricks at a marine mammal park, to the delight of hundreds of onlookers. But the story behind this image is more complex. As our understanding of our points of commonality with these sentient beings deepens, we can no longer in good conscience stand by as orcas and dolphins are taken into captivity from the ocean, violently torn from their families and environment, in the service of public entertainment.

Orcas and Dophins - seaworld-orca-performance

(Image credit: Irina Silvestrova / Shutterstock.com)

The captivity debate began in the 1960s; since then, evidence of the cruelty of marine mammal captivity and the extent to which the animals suffer has become ever clearer. The dedicated efforts of experts and advocates, scientists, former trainers, and organizations like The Humane Society, AWI, and IMMP, have not only changed the attitudes of millions of people worldwide, but influenced a multi-billion dollar industry to address their concerns.

The more I learn about this issue the more questions I have. What do we know about intelligence and empathy and how boundless they are? What potential is there for understanding between sentient beings living on this earth? What makes a life sacred and inviolate? Where is the line between hubris and responsibility?

Orcas and Dophins - orca-breaching-in-ocean

The case against marine mammal captivity has myriad points at which one could begin: that these creatures have lifestyle and social patterns that are completely non-harmonious with a captive lifestyle, that their use of echolocation, and their complex vocalizations are not yet understood, that the process of their capture is dangerous and often fatal to them or others in their group. But perhaps one the most interesting ideas is that the “intelligence” of cetaceans is not so unlike that of humans.

How do we measure intelligence? Self-awareness and more complex abstract thought is still a point of debate among scientists, but a strong indication of self-awareness is the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. For years, it seemed this ability was limited to apes and humans alone. So when, in 2001, Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist, and Diana Reiss, a comparative psychologist, demonstrated mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins in a ground-breaking study for the National Academy of Sciences, it forced some questions. “Person doesn’t mean human,” Dr. Marino explains in an article in 2014 by Virginia Morell for National Geographic. “Human is the biological term that describes us as a species. Person, though, is about the kind of beings we are: sentient and conscious. That applies to most animals too. They are persons or should be legally.”

Orcas and Dophins - dolphin-in-turquoise-water-looking-at-camera

What is an Oceanic Dolphin?

Oceanic dolphins—a category which includes both dolphins and orcas—are highly social and intelligent are creatures, with long expected lifespans. (A wild orca’s lifespan ranges from about 30 years to up to 90 years; the lifespan of a wild bottlenose dolphin ranges from 20 to 50 years.) Their taxonomic order is Odontoceti, meaning “toothed whale”, and their family Delphinidae is very diverse, with 37 different species. The two most common marine mammals used for entertainment in marine parks are the bottlenose dolphin, weighing up to 1400 lbs, and the orca, the largest oceanic dolphin, weighing up to 8000 lbs.
Orcas and Dophins - dolphins-underwater

Orca families are matrilineal, headed by an adult female. In the wild, nuclear families stay together throughout their lives. With closely related family members they form what are called pods—groups consisting of anywhere from 5 to 50 family members. Because orcas are so long-lived, the pods are slow to change and can span generations.

Each individual pod’s cultural habits can extend to their food choices, their roaming habits, and their calls. Clans are made up of pods which share the same basic calls; however, each pod makes their own slightly different combinations of sounds, called their dialect. Clans may group together to make communities of up to 200 members. Orcas are very social—within these communities, even clans with different calls will socialize.

The bottlenose dolphin generally roams in small groups of 5 – 15 members. They can join with other pods further from shore in open waters, to form larger groups or herds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The composition of their social groups is more fluid than that of orcas.

Orcas and Dophins - school-of-orca-in-blue-ocean

How Do Dolphins Communicate?


Dolphins and orcas, like bats, have evolved to use echolocation for navigation, to find food and to communicate with each other. Echolocation is a kind of seeing with sound, the use of sound waves to locate and identify objects by reflecting sound off their surfaces. Echolocation can be used to determine the size of an object, its location and how far away it is, the depth of the water and the number of objects in the area or along the way.

The sounds orcas make by pushing air through nasal sacs in the area of the blowholes, come out as high-pitched calls, whistles and clicks. Each pod has their own unique sound or combination of sounds (or dialect as mentioned before). Beyond their practical applications for hunting and navigation, it is thought that orcas’ communications may be very much more complex and sophisticated than people first imagined.

In their natural habitat, orcas live in social communities and family groups, called “pods”. Pods usually consist of between 6 and 30 individuals, including adult males, females and calves. In some cases, orcas can form complicated social groups of over 200 whales. According to Animal Welfare Institute, these marine mammals will travel long distances socializing and communicating with other members of their pod. This social interaction and stimulation is an essential element to the health of all species of whales. In fact, their very survival depends on it. They use this interaction in building and sustaining family and peer relationships, as well as for feeding and hunting.

Orcas and Dophins - group-of-orca

What is Sentience?

The importance of animal advocates’ work to understand the thought processes of non-human animals, has, at its core, to do with understanding sentience. Defined as “Feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought” (Webster), or described as “awareness” or “consciousness,” sentience is the determining characteristic of personhood. But an essential problem remains: how do we evaluate sentience in an animal we can’t communicate with?  “The other minds problem” (2016 article), is a dilemma described by Stevan Harnad, and it describes the ethical difficulty we face in assessing another being’s feelings or suffering when we don’t share a common language.

Dolphins jumping out of wave

Research Shows Developed Intellect in Dolphins

Despite this obstacle, research shows that oceanic dolphins’ intelligence parallels ours in multiple ways. These animals are clearly aware of themselves, can strategize and problem-solve, and feel empathy. They have large brains relative to their size, with certain areas of their brains larger and more physically complex than in a human brain.

In 2010, after 34 years of research on dolphin intelligence at the Marine Mammal Laboratory in  Honolulu, Louis M. Herman wrote a paper summarizing what he had learned about dolphin intelligence (What Laboratory Research has Told Us about Dolphin Cognition). In his conclusion he enumerates the ways in which dolphins’ brains work similarly to humans’ brains, and the statement is worth quoting in full:

[It is] an intellect that meets with some of the hallmarks or offshoots of human intelligence: the mental representation and manipulation of symbol systems and the understanding of symbols as references to tangible objects; the extraction of general rules or concepts from exemplars; an ability to interpret and act on images representing reality as effectively as interpreting and acting on real-world events; innovation of behaviors and strategies in arbitrary situations; social perception (an awareness of the behaviors of others in sufficient detail to closely imitate them); a conceptual understanding of behavioral synchrony through an eliciting symbol requesting synchrony; sensitivity to the referents of the indicating pointing gestures of humans; self perception (conscious awareness of and mental representations of self-initiated behaviors); an understanding of symbolic references to one’s own body parts, including an ability to conceive of these body-parts as objects that can be consciously attended to and utilized in novel ways as instructed by symbols.

Clearly perception can be multifaceted and understanding has nuances that may be difficult to conceive, given our limited human experience. Could this research indicate new frontiers of intelligence? That is exactly why it is so important to value and respect other “persons”, and what they have to teach us.

Orcas and Dophins - orca-in-sterile-tanks

Cruel Capture, Cruel Captivity

As we learn more about their complex social structure and their physical and emotional needs, we can understand why many oceanic dolphins are ill-suited to captivity. Most orcas die prematurely when removed from the wild—at least 164 have died in captivity since 1961—and it is estimated that thousands of bottlenose dolphins have died in captivity worldwide.

It was in the 1960s when, almost by chance, people realized these large and beautiful creatures could be displayed to an audience. That the first orcas captured died very quickly was a warning that keeping them in captivity was a disastrous idea. Wanda, the first orca captured by a marine park in 1961, died within 2 days after repeatedly striking her body against the sides of her tank. The following two orcas seized from the ocean died within a year of their capture.

Some think captive orcas suffer severe psychological trauma from their sadly shrunken lives. And that’s heartbreaking, because when you’re out with orcas in the wild, you sense what no show can ever capture: their spirit and sagacity, their joy and cunning, their love of the open ocean and of hunting and of life.”

Virginia Morell

Orcas and Dophins - orca-performing-in-front-of-crowd

(Image credit: bill mathies / Shutterstock.com)

The process of capturing orcas and dolphins is brutal and deadly, and many orcas and dolphins die during capture operations. What is really heartbreaking is that other orcas in a family group try to rescue the ones who are captured or hurt, and are subsequently devastated by their loss. The Penn Cove orca capture operation in August of 1970 drew public condemnation for its brutality, and resulted in Congress passing The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. This act protects all marine mammals within U.S. waters and requires a special permit for anyone wanting to trap a marine mammal.

And yet, currently there are 58 orcas and hundreds of bottlenose dolphins still in captivity around the world.

In captivity, orcas and dolphins are often forced to live with animals with whom they are incompatible, in concrete tanks which are much too small and cannot in any way compare with their natural environment. They are fed an unnatural diet and are forced to learn unnatural behaviors for public display. Orcas are under so much stress they commonly chew on metal bars and concrete walls and break their teeth. Captive orcas are more prone to violence towards themselves or others, and more susceptible to opportunistic infections.

The small cetaceans typically held in captivity, such as bottlenose dolphins and orcas, are wholly aquatic, wide-ranging, fast-moving, deep-diving predators. In the wild they may travel as many as 150 kilometers in a day, reach speeds as high as 50 kilometers an hour, and dive several hundred meters deep. Small cetaceans are highly intelligent, extraordinarily social, and behaviorally complex. Their perception of the world is largely acoustic, a difference in mode of perception that makes it virtually impossible for humans to imagine what they see.”

…No facility can simulate the vast reaches of the ocean that these animals traverse when they migrate, or can include in the enclosure oceanic flora and fauna. In short, in physical terms, the captive environment of these animals is profoundly limited and impoverished.

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, (2010) by Naomi A. Rose, E.C.M. Parsons, and Richard Farinato

That orcas will deliberately harm themselves due to the stress of captivity is distressing enough, but sometimes they will direct their frustration outward. The movie Blackfish (2013) is the story of Tilikum, a performing orca that killed several people during his time in captivity. It is an emotionally wrenching, insightful view into the treatment of marine mammals in captivity, their trainers and the pressures of the industry. For producer and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the story of Blackfish was about telling the truth. She describes it as a “journey of shock of discovery”, which unfolded over a period of two years, a period when she and her team were “bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees, and unhappy animals – a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image.”

One of the highest grossing documentaries of all time, Blackfish effectively turned the tide of public opinion. The captive marine mammal industry suffered a corresponding drop in attendance, putting financial pressure on the industry to change its policies regarding marine mammals.

Orcas and Dophins - orca-breathing-at-surface-choppy-water

Marine Mammal Expertise Brings Critical Legislative Change

After years of dedication to this cause, advocates have begun to see real change. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act, a bill prohibiting the breeding and theatrical performance of captive orcas in California, as well as their export (consistent with federal law) out of North America—with exceptions for scientific and educational institutions holding orcas for research or rehabilitation—was introduced in California in 2014. It was authored by Assembly Member Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, and co-sponsored by The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), represented by AWI marine mammal scientist and advocate Dr. Naomi Rose, and former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, and John Hargrove.

Due to initial opposition from SeaWorld, it took two years for the bill to pass, but in 2016 Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. It is hoped that the bill will be a model for more legislation. Dr. Rose explains, “California can serve as a model for other states, including Florida and Texas where other orcas are displayed, to end the confinement in concrete boxes of these magnificent top ocean predators” (as quoted in California Legislature Approves Historic Legislation to End Orca Captivity (AWI)).

Establishing a Marine Mammal Sanctuary: The Whale Sanctuary Project

The next pressing goal is to create an ocean sanctuary for orcas, belugas and dolphins released from marine parks, and for injured animals rescued from the wild. Here resident marine mammals would either transition back to the wild or live out their lives in the sanctuary.

The Whale Sanctuary Project, a non-profit organization conceived of by a group of professionals in the field and headed by Dr. Rose, Dr. Marino and David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project, is looking for suitable locations to establish a sanctuary in a bay, cove, or network of islands whose access to the open ocean could be closed off with anchored nets, perhaps in the upper Northwest (possibly British Columbia). The resident animals would be able to live an infinitely more normal and comfortable life in a natural ocean environment. They would be monitored carefully by a team of caretakers and managers and they would have access to veterinary care or any health services they might need. If possible, they would be trained to eat live fish and forage for themselves.

“There are sanctuaries for other large, highly social, and wide-ranging mammals, including elephants and great apes, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales,” says Dr. Marino. “Cetacean sanctuary initiatives are long overdue, and we now have the best possible team of experts to ensure an optimal quality of life and care for individual cetaceans.” The vision for the sanctuary includes its acting as an educational center, both to help support its maintenance costs and to allow visitors to observe the animals in a natural setting.

And in June of this year, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced that it would build the first North American seaside sanctuary by the end of 2020 for its Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.


Orcas and Dophins - orca-jumping-out-of-water


Who are these remarkable animals? What they can teach us? How do they contribute to our lives? Considering these questions is, I think, key to changing our relationship with them. We are reflected in our treatment of them; it defines us as a society. We look at them as in a mirror and see ourselves.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

                                                                                          —Mary Oliver, poet

The delicate and essential relationship to nature with which we must strike a balance, is continually being redefined. The work and dedication of the many scientists, activists, and advocates who fight for captive marine mammals bring their cause to our attention and challenge us to act with integrity. Their efforts open a window for us into the extraordinarily sophisticated intellect of dolphins and orcas, and make it abundantly clear that we as humans have a responsibility to safeguard their freedom and autonomy.

What You Can Do

Here are some of the actions you can take to protect marine mammals already in captivity and stop further exploitation of those in the wild:

Do not visit or support marine parks that keep whales and dolphins captive.

Read Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby and watch the movie inspired by real-life events, Blackfish.

Contact your elected officials to let them know your position on captive orcas and dolphins.

Donate what you can to The Whale Sanctuary Project or any of the other charities listed below. Keep up on current developments by visiting these sites:

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