About dolphins in captivity
by firmm Team
Text: Dominique Geysen, Photo credits: Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project & firmm
Some of you might be thinking of visiting a Dolphinarium as an activity during the summer holiday season. I would like to share my experience with you on the subject and hope it might lead you to think twice.
Between 1998 and 2007, I was professionally involved through several projects with the foundation firmm (Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals).
Also, throughout my 2500 days at sea, I encountered many whales and dolphins in freedom while sailing around our oceans and was blessed with underwater encounters while scuba-diving in places like The Galapagos islands, French Polynesia and Mallorca. Through these experiences, I believe to have gained enough insight about marine mammals to give you a valuable perspective about dolphins in captivity.
Let's look at it from a dolphin's point of view
From what is known, dolphins could be swimming between 100 and 200 km/day and offshore Killer Whales could well be swimming up to 400 km/day. By locking these animals up in a 50x20 meter pool (if so), a valid comparison towards us humans would be to lock-up someone in a toilet cabinet. When captured, youngsters are separated from their pod and are forced to join dolphins of a different pod and even of a different species in a confined space. The language of these individuals is therefore different in many aspects and the intensity of their clicks resonates exponentially in an enclosed basin like a pool. I trust your imagination to further expand your vision on the subject.
In order to keep the animals docile and not to freak out, the dead fish they get fed with are injected with tranquilizers and antibiotics. The second one, in order to avoid skin and respiratory diseases due to the poor and inadequate quality of the water. It is known that their obedience is gained through exchange for food, sometimes pushing it to the limit of starvation in order to meet the expectations of trainers who makes them execute “funny tricks”. Marine mammal behaviour in the wild does not include an open beak but is how they beg for food in captivity. Also, the “smiling dolphin”, as perceived by the public, is unfortunately a myth of human perception related to the shape of their beak. The fact that the life expectancy of these captive mammals is drastically reduced by all of the above probably makes sense to you by now.
The efforts, and ultimate goal, of Mr. Ric O’Barry to close down all Dolphinarium in the world is grounded on his experience as former trainer of the famous dolphin called “Flipper”. He has lived, in person, the crude reality of the captive dolphin business from inside for many years. I encourage you to read about his inspiring journey. (www.dolphinproject.com)
My experience with dolphinariums
Somewhere between 2003 and 2006, firmm had the initiative to build a dolphin-sanctuary in Morocco. The idea to retire Dolphinarium dolphins in a delimited open-sea bay, allowing to help other marine mammals with issues, was absolutely appealing to me. After years of efforts the project eventually never took place due to political matters, but the experience gave me additional understanding of the practices inside a Dolphinarium. Not only was I involved with the plans of building this harbour/bay facility but also visited a Dolphinarium in Spain to see if I could purchase dolphins in order to retire them from the shows.
During that specific visit, I was invited to talk to a “specialized trainer” in charge of gathering autistic children and dolphins in a pool. It is believed that the caring nature of these mammals could have an impact on the behaviour of autistic children. Some pretend it could lighten or even cure the syndrome. The autistic children, equipped with a lifejacket, were guided by their arm to position themselves to be approached by a bottlenose dolphin and the encounter took place without difficulty.
Therapeutic effectiveness of dolphin therapies could not be proven – but they make money.
The big dollars were cashed-in for a non-guaranteed 20-30 min. experience in the pool, and it was “all happening” for the parents sitting in the tribunes. I cannot judge on this topic as I’m not a doctor, but can only express the stressed feeling of my stomach turning into a knot when I saw one of the parents observing his child from head to toe, somehow expecting something could have changed when coming out of the water. I do not want to judge the reaction of that parent neither, not being a parent of a child with such syndrome myself. I suppose that the commercialization of such a setup probably disgusted me deeply.
An unforgettable experience
To cheer you up, and out of respect for these beautiful and charismatic animals, I can tell you about an interesting personal experience with dolphins in the wild. While snorkelling with friends in open sea we were approached by dolphins. They seemed to be only interested in one woman of the group and completely surrounded her. Something about her made them curious obviously, and it nearly felt as if they were protecting her. Once in the boat, someone made a joke by saying that she was pregnant, which later proved to be the case. We believe that the dolphins sensed the second heartbeat of the baby through their echolocation capacity and maybe they were just congratulating her?
For you to fantasize a little; realise that science still tries to link the fact that the brain of a bottlenose dolphin is heavier and also contains more brain clefts than a human, to the sense of echolocation.
Unfortunately for the bottlenose dolphins, artificial insemination is partly successful in captivity, for which this specie is being heavily used in breeding programs to cope with the demand of marine parks around the world. Several species of marine mammals, including Orcas and Belugas, are being captured in freedom and only few survive the capturing methods and transportation till reaching the entertainment parks.
Dolphinarium are still a legal business in many parts of the world and you are obviously free to visit these shows. However, realize that by buying a ticket you engage your personal responsibility of supporting these practices and provide strength to these businesses. Some people, including me, consider Dolphinarium absolutely cruel and believe that animals belong in freedom, nature reserves or sanctuaries only.
As a healthy and respectful alternative, you can go see whales and dolphins in freedom by buying ticket to go on a whale-watch boat, such as the ones of firmm in Tarifa or other boats around the world. You will enjoy an encounter with the animals in their natural habitat, instead of animals that are forced to perform tricks for your entertainment.
Wishing you a great summer!
Capt. Dominique Geysen