Updated: Aug 12, 2022
Whether marine life, in particular cetaceans, should be kept in captivity is often presented as a right or wrong issue with no grey area. I don’t think there is any issue in our oceans or on our planet that is strictly one thing or the other. Everything has multiple points of view and varying degrees of solutions. The challenge with captivity is that it often compromises animal well-being. However, zoos, aquariums, and sea life parks also provide education and facilitate stewardship towards the oceans. Seaworld, in particular, has become the “face of marine parks” and often is given the majority of the bad press associated with captivity. My opinions on captivity have changed quite a bit over the years with the more experience and education I have gained.
I grew up in Orlando, FL about 15min from Seaworld. My family always loved the ocean and brought me to Seaworld from a really young age. Every year I wanted to spend my birthday there and it was my dream to one day become a Shamu trainer at the parks. It would be hypocritical of me to claim that Seaworld played no part in my desire to help protect the oceans, as the park and the experiences I had there are a huge reason that I wanted to become a marine biologist. In college, after the release of blackfish, I wrote a research paper on the truths and falsities behind the claims made in the documentary. The paper was supposed to be completely unbiased, and while I wrote from both pro and anti captivity points of view, it was undeniable that the paper showed support for Seaworld. I worked at an aquarium at one point in my life. Although they didn’t have any cetaceans and opted for wild encounters via boats, they still housed animals like rays that are highly migratory.
My opinions on captivity have changed a lot from the earlier portion of my life.
After meeting friends that were strongly anti-captivity and doing more research into the methods and persisting issues within captivity programs around the world. While I learned a lot from reading and speaking with other individuals about the issue, I think my opinions were solidified after getting the opportunity to interact with whales and dolphins in the wild. I understand that I am extremely fortunate to have had experiences in water with wild cetaceans and that the average person will most likely not have he same opportunities. After having moments in water with whales or dolphins, where it almost appears as if they are looking into your soul, you can’t imagine that same being stuck in a pool.
Since I know most people won’t be able to see cetaceans in the wild, whether it be from financial accessibility or proximity, I acknowledge the fact that aquariums and marine parks provide the opportunity for those individuals to experience the oceans. In all honesty, I don’t find every single aquarium or park to be an issue. I personally think that there are species, like fish and some reptiles, that can be kept in captivity with little effect on their physical or mental health. However, highly intelligent animals, like cetaceans, or highly migratory species, like larger shark species, should not be kept in captivity. Aquariums and sealife parks can have great effects on conservation and stewardship (if done right) without intelligent or migratory species if they focus on education, research, and rescue. If cetaceans are going to be in captivity Seaworld definitely has the best standard of care, so I think the negative backlash is probably a little disproportionate. That being said, even Seaworld has a long way to go. Captivity should be phased out for cetaceans and highly migratory species. With today’s technology there is no reason that the “attractions” with these animals couldn’t be replaced with virtual experiences that would be just as engaging and inspirational. I know there is nothing that can replace seeing actual living animals in front of you. Parks can keep the animals more suited for captivity for that.
I know that the subject of captivity, especially when it comes to cetaceans, can be something tricky to create change in. A lot of the facilities holding these intelligent species were founded on monetary principles and that continues to be a priority for these parks. There are solutions out there. Although I can’t say that places like Seaworld didn’t play a huge role in my desire to be in the marine biology field, I also can’t say that everything they do is ok. I think we need to continue to fight for wildlife both in and out of captivity. There are ways to inspire ocean stewardship that don’t require keeping cetaceans and highly migratory species in pools.
photo credit: @chiaraphoto
Read more about my opinions on sharks in captivity here.