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Pens and pools: prisons for cetaceans

An orca trainer's death has highlighted the plight of marine mammals kept for commercial gain

The death in February of a killer-whale trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, made headlines all over the world. As has been widely reported, Dawn Brancheau, an experienced orca trainer, was dragged by her hair into the whale’s pool, where she died of traumatic injuries and drowning.

The incident has led to a chorus of disapproval about keeping cetaceans in captivity, and debate about whether captive animals should be freed. Anti-whaling campaigners from the United States who complain about Japan’s whaling program might want to reflect on how their own country treats cetaceans next time they criticize Japan.

But even though the orca fatality occurred in the U.S., I believe it should make Japan reevaluate what it is doing with captive cetaceans. In fact, I have looked into the situation in Japan, and this country has absolutely nothing to feel smug about.

Japan has around 50 dolphinariums, a relatively large number, and it also exports captive dolphins, including many captured in its waters, to other countries in Asia and elsewhere.

For example, there is a dolphinarium in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture, called “Dolphin Fantasy,” where the dolphins are kept in pens constructed in the ocean. However, Richard O’Barry, director of the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, who was the dolphin trainer for the world-famous “Flipper” television series, is adamant that the conditions are not adequate.

“The pens are open to the pollution that fills any harbor — diesel fuel in particular burns dolphins’ eyes and skin,” he reports on

“They also receive the full force of motor noise as ships and yachts steam past them all day long.” The mortality rate in the pens is high.

According to a study by researchers from the Department of Wildlife Science at Nihon University in Kanagawa Prefecture, captive cetaceans in Japan — including bottlenose dolphins and an orca killer whale — are infected with the Toxoplasma parasite. This parasite more commonly infects cats, where it can have fatal effects on a fetus, or on animals already suffering stress to their immune systems — as captive cetaceans almost certainly are. Stress from pollution and parasites is known to affect captive dolphins.

Most of Japan’s captive dolphins are individuals selected from the many animals caught in drive hunts. The Japan Times has reported in depth over many years on the infamous Taiji drive fishery in Wakayama Prefecture — the subject of last week’s Oscar-winning documentary film, “The Cove.”

The animals in a new dolphinarium — Enoshima Aquarium in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture — were collected during one of the Taiji hunts. As O’Barry asks: “Can you imagine what they felt being man-handled from the water while their families were butchered?”

But in case some may regard such comments as being overly emotive, let’s hear what biologist Lori Marino, a cetacean expert at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has to contribute here.

In February, before the incident with the orca at SeaWorld, she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Diego, California, that captive cetaceans are suffering psychological problems: “Dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life,” she explained, adding that “they are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma.”

So, even before the SeaWorld orca, given the name Tilikum, had “lashed out” and killed its trainer, Marino was alerting U.S. scientists and the public to the fact that we keep cetaceans in inhumane conditions, and that we can add psychological stress to the list of woes facing the marine mammals.

As Humane Society International notes, there are no international standards for the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.

Nonetheless, many nations have now banned live imports and exports of cetaceans. These include countries as diverse as India (imports) and Costa Rica (imports and exports). The United Kingdom and Brazil do not hold cetaceans in captivity, and Italy has banned swim-with-dolphins programs. Chile has prohibited the commercial display of all cetacean species.

These countries have decided that animal welfare is more important than commercial interests.

And — no surprise — that’s what it comes down to: making money.

Three days after Dawn Brancheau was killed, SeaWorld in Orlando had resumed its killer-whale show. Tilikum did not immediately perform, but the huge adult male will be returned to “active duty.” Despite calls for him to be freed, he will remain in captivity, and in fact as a general rule animals captured young and held for many years, like Tilikum, shouldn’t be freed as they lack the skills to survive in the wild.

There are two other SeaWorld parks — in San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego — and the company owns more killer whales than anyone else in the world. It was bought by the private-equity firm The Blackstone Group last year for around $2.7 billion in a deal that included two theme parks and several other attractions. The Blackstone Group obviously want their investment to make money for them, and killer whales are an important attraction.

We face a dilemma. Everyone loves seeing dolphins and whales. It is educational and inspirational to see these highly intelligent animals up close. But I believe that a dolphinarium is the wrong way to get close to them.

On a recent visit to Boston, Massachusetts, I joined a boat trip out into the open ocean and saw a dozen humpback whales, including a mother and calf. On the packed boat there was universal delight when the whales breached the water, and exclamations in a number of languages.

The whales didn’t hang around for long near our vessel, but this sort of encounter — with truly wild animals in the open ocean — is undoubtedly more humane than any that comes with an animal in captivity. It’s not cheap, and it may be less accessible than visiting captive cetaceans in a pool, but that’s a small price to pay.

Follow Rowan Hooper on Twitter at The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”)

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