Why we think keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is wrong

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Responsible Travel & World Cetacean Alliance logos
Just as nothing can justify the use of tame wild animals in circuses, I believe the time has come to end orca and dolphin circuses too.
Above quote by Justin Francis, CEO at Responsible Travel

Our stance

We believe that keeping dolphins and whales (collectively known as cetaceans) in captivity is morally and ethically wrong and should be stopped. Below we explain why:
  1. Restrictive space
  2. Limited social environment
  3. Provision of a suitable environment
  4. Noise
  5. Lack of environmental enrichment
  6. Behavioural restrictions

1. Restrictive space:

In the wild, bottlenose dolphins have home ranges as large as 300km2 and have been recorded travelling up to 1076km in 20 days4. Orcas are known to dive as deep as 400 metres5 and travel as far as 160km in a day. Almost always in motion, cetaceans spend only 20% or less of their time at the water's surface. Captive facilities cannot compare to the vast, complex natural environment of wild cetaceans and even the largest facilities offer just a tiny proportion of their natural home range3. When denied space, as in captive facilities, these wide-ranging carnivores commonly develop problems such as abnormal repetitive behaviour and aggression1.

2. Limited social environment:

In captivity, dolphins sharing a pool are often unrelated, from widely different locations or from different species, which can result in changes to the group's dynamics and dominance-related aggression, injuries, illness and even death3,6. In the wild, a majority of cetacean species live in interrelated family groups, or pods. Some species can be found in pods of more than 100 animals.

3. Provision of a suitable environment:

Captive facilities cannot provide an environment that simulates the natural environment of cetaceans. Some dolphinaria (i.e. Belgium, Lithuania, Bulgaria) only provide indoor facilities, lacking any natural light and possibly offering poor air circulation2. Good water quality, species-specific water temperature and appropriate salinity are all vital to the health and survival of the animals.
Justin Francis, Responsible Travel:
"In our opinion it is morally wrong to keep these super intelligent animals in small, purpose built tanks and train them to perform tricks and stunts to loud music and a cheering crowd."

Dylan walker, World Cetacean Alliance:
"The time has come to end the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity. The experts know it, the scientific literature supports it, and the public are increasingly getting it."

Justin Francis:
"I believe it's time the entire travel and tourism industry took a long, hard look at what is going on with the captive cetacean industry."

4. Noise:

Loud music and the regular, repetitive noise of pumps and filters are thought to cause significant stress to the captive cetaceans that are highly dependent on their sense of sound6.

5. Lack of environmental enrichment:

Most pools are smooth-sided, small and virtually empty of stimuli3,6. As the water is chemically treated, often with chlorine, the inclusion of fish and natural vegetation is not possible.

6. Behavioural restrictions:

Whilst training and performance in shows may provide limited stimulus for whales and dolphins in captivity, in shows they only carry out conditional behaviours, which are either entirely unlike any behaviour seen in the wild, or highly exaggerated or altered versions of natural behaviour3,6. Food, usually thawed dead fish, is used as a reward for carrying out the correct performance; therefore, natural feeding (varied diets) and foraging patterns are lost. Natural biorhythms in general are lost, as cetaceans are forced to become diurnal (active during the day) in captivity, while in the wild they can be equally active at night.
We believe there are some wonderful alternatives in the form of responsible whale and dolphin watching trips around the world where travellers can safely (for both tourist and animal) view these majestic marine mammals in their natural surroundings. Ultimately, we should all be working together to offer such experiences to travellers and to protect these intelligent animals for the future.

Dylan walker:
"Tellingly, now even those holiday companies that make money from ticket sales to marine park dolphin shows are beginning to vote with their feet. we applaud the situation and taking a stand."

Justin Francis:
"I hope the travel and tourism industry can translate the current tide of public sentiment into real action on this issue."


1. Clubb, R & Mason, G (2003). Captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores. Nature 425: 473-474.

2. ENDCAP website, endcap.eu (March 2014).

3. Humane Society of the United States & the World Society for the Protection of Animals (2009). The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity.

4. Frohoff and Packard (1995). Human interactions with free-ranging and captive bottlenose dolphins. Anthrozoos, Volume VIII, Number I.

5. Matkin, C. O., Andrews, R. D., Saulitis, E., & Gaylord, A. (2012). Expanding perspectives: Investigating pod specific killer whale habitat with ARGOS satellite telemetry. Paper presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, Anchorage, Alaska. Poster only. Figure 8. Dive profile for AI9. "Feeding dives of over 200m occurred regularly and one dive was to over 400m."

6. WDCS et al (2011). EU Zoo Inquiry 2011. Dolphinaria. A review of the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity in the European Union and EC Directive 1999/22, relating to the keeping of wild animals in zoos.
Written by Justin Francis
Photo credits: [Page banner: Centrilobular] [Top box: Bodyalive NJ] [Seaworld – performing orca: Ted Murphy] [Wild orca: gailhampshire]