Should dolphinariums be banned?
Despite being shunned by the Oscars the documentary film Blackfish has caused a storm about keeping cetaceans in captivity for human entertainment. Mike Unwin wonders if the weight of scientific opinion might just spell the end for dolphinariums
"We need an SOS for a dead person at SeaWorld," comes a chilling voice down the line. "A whale has eaten one of the trainers."
So opens the documentary Blackfish, from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which has been nominated for a BAFTA. The movie focusses upon the real-life events of 24 February 2010 at SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida when, in full view of the public, senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, an orca she had worked with for years.
In fact, Brancheau had not been ‘eaten'. She met her death when the whale dragged her under the water and drowned her. This was the second fatality involving Tilikum and a trainer, and came barely three months after another trainer, Alexis Martinez, was killed by different orca at Loro Parque dolphinarium in Tenerife. Recent years have seen numerous other incidents in which orca trainers have been injured or narrowly escaped when their charges have suddenly started ‘playing rough'. In virtually every case the trainer has had a close bond with the animal, built up over years.
Brancheau's death sent ripples through the industry. At first, conflicting stories raged about the circumstances, eyewitness accounts appearing to contradict SeaWorld's official line. The park was fined US$75,000 by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for three safety violations. New guidelines for trainer safety, including the suspension of any ‘water work' (when a trainer enters the tank with the animals) were adopted and the public assured that such an incident could never happen again.
Blackfish is likely to divide opinion on the thorny issue of keeping cetaceans in captivity. Cathy Williamson, captivity programme manager at global charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), has no doubt about its importance. "The film is quite monumental," she says. "It exposes exactly what happened."
To understand exactly what did happen, believes Williamson, we need to understand the animal in question. The killer whale (Orcinus orca), also known as orca and occasionally blackfish, is a toothed whale found in oceans worldwide. Known for its size (males may top eight tonnes) and bold black and white markings, it is the planet's top marine predator, hunting everything from fish to larger whales.
‘Killer', however, is a misnomer - at least in interaction with humans. The name derives from bygone whaling days when orcas were known to help themselves to a harpooned catch. No wild orca has ever been known to target a human as prey. Furthermore, we now know that this is a highly intelligent animal, with social structures as complex as those of great apes, and hunting techniques and communication skills passed across generations. "When you look into their eyes," says one trainer in Blackfish, "you know somebody's home."
The problem, argue animal welfare campaigners, is that captive orcas are very different to wild ones. Imprisoned, alienated, traumatised by their capture, these animals are severely psychologically damaged - and, on average, live only half as long as wild orcas. "Tilikum has had the most awful life," says Williamson. "Torn from his mother, confined in the dark, beaten up by older females: it's hardly surprising that something went wrong."
45 orca in captivity
Today 45 orcas are kept in captivity worldwide. There are also more than 800 bottlenose dolphins and around 200 belugas. Indeed, some 19 different species of cetacean have been held captive in one way or another ever since the 1860s, when the New York Museum first displayed two live belugas.
The appeal is understandable. Seeing the grace and power of these animals close up is thrilling, especially if you've never had the opportunity in the wild. And observing their close bonds with trainers makes them even more captivating. Small wonder that swimming with dolphins tops many a ‘bucket list' and that close contact with them is thought by some to have therapeutic powers. Small wonder, too, that an orca - effectively a super-sized dolphin, with added predator glamour - is the greatest hit of all.
Dolphinarium on the way out
But times have changed for the dolphinarium industry. 50 years ago demand peaked with the popularity of 1963 movie Flipper. During the 1970s, however, a better informed public began questioning the ethics. New legislation, notably the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act in the USA, had international impact. By 1993 the last UK dolphinarium had closed and the import of live dolphins ceased. Other countries have followed suit - India, this year, being the latest to prohibit the keeping of any cetacean in captivity.
SeaWorld, however, is still going strong. It argues that Brancheau's death was a one-off, tragic accident and that there is no harm in keeping captive cetaceans, provided that they are treated humanely. All its animals, it insists, are safe, well fed and well cared for, and receive plentiful attention and stimulation from their dedicated trainers.
The SeaWorld chain, which has some 12 oceanariums and other marine mammal parks and facilities across the USA, also claims to have improved our knowledge of cetaceans. And by educating the public, it believes it promotes an understanding that will benefit conservation. Meanwhile SeaWorld's own conservation programme has used its impressive resources to help rehabilitate numerous injured sea mammals, notably manatees in the Florida Everglades.
Opponents, however, are not convinced. Williamson argues that captivity so distorts cetaceans' behaviour that anything the spectator learns is more ‘unnatural' than ‘natural' history. She also questions the science. "You can't study a captive killer whale," she insists. "It's depressed, it's stressed, its body chemistry is altered; it's unable to socialise."
Then there are the capture methods. In brutal Japanese ‘drive hunts', for example, young dolphins are taken alive from the nets while the adults around them are butchered. The shocking 1970 capture of orcas in Penn Cove, Washington State, during which at least five animals drowned, was pivotal to public opposition. SeaWorld no longer involves itself with such practices. But as long as the industry continues, argue its opponents, then so will wild capture - often using outlawed, inhumane methods. A decision is currently awaited on the legality of importing wild belugas from Russia to an Atlanta aquarium.
There is also the question of ‘humane' confinement. Wild orcas travel some 170km a day, so a tank - however large - is still, effectively, a prison. Many stop echo locating, their main navigational and communication technique, simply because they have no fish to catch and no submarine topography to navigate. The collapsed dorsal fin of some 60-90 per cent of captive male orcas, a condition seldom seen in the wild, seems a poignant symbol of their malaise - like the plucked feathers of a self-harming caged parrot.
And just because cetaceans forge tight bonds, not all of them will. The capture and confinement of orcas often shoves together individuals from populations that would never meet in the wild, regardless of social structures. Aggression ensues and, with no escape, bullying can be fierce. Tilikum was one victim of this.
Meanwhile, the world has changed. Today's public is more clued up on both animal welfare and the animals themselves. Fabulous footage of wild orcas beats any hoop ¬jumping in a dolphinarium. Whale watching has also boomed as an industry: people know it's perfectly possible to enjoy cetaceans in their natural habitat. Social networking has helped spread this good news, and enabled activists and campaign groups to broadcast their instant messages far and wide.
So you would have thought - especially after the death of Brancheau - that the writing was on the wall for the captive cetacean industry. Williamson is not so confident. "I'd like to see SeaWorld wake up and smell the coffee," she says, pointing out that wild capture continues, and captive cetaceans still perform in the USA, Mexico, Japan and across Europe, and new aquariums continue to spring up in the likes of Dubai and China. Indeed China is due to open the world's first whale and dolphin lake by the end of 2013.
Ticking time bomb
In an ideal world, WDC would see dolphinariums phased out. "You'd look at returning some animals to the wild, where possible, and retiring others in a suitable sea pen facility," says Williamson, suggesting that sanctuaries for retired dolphins could provide excellent educational opportunities. But she acknowledges that such ambitious schemes would require serious funding and are strictly for the long term. The priorities for conservationists, meanwhile, lie with talking to governments. Only with international agreements, acknowledges WDC, is it possible to make a real impact on the capture and confinement of wild cetaceans.
"We couldn't be blamed, 40 years ago, for wanting to understand these animals," says director Cowperthwaite. "But now that we've learned about them - and know that we're not equipped to provide them with what they need - the experiment has to stop."
And if the experiment doesn't stop? "I'm afraid that there could be more accidents waiting to happen," says Williamson. "It's just a matter of time."
For and against: representatives from both sides of the argument state their cases
FOR DOLPHINARIUMS - SEAWORLD PARKS & ENTERTAINMENT
"The purpose of SeaWorld," says Stewart Clark, head of SeaWorld's Discovery Zone, "is to allow people a place to come to so they can actually connect with an animal, learn about the world that they live in and then take that message onward."
AGAINST DOLPHINARIUMS - WHALE AND DOLPHIN CONSERVATION (WDC)
"We understand why people love dolphins and why many want to see them close up," says Cathy Williamson, captivity programme manager for WDC, "but putting whales and dolphins in tanks for ‘entertainment' is wrong."