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Trapped: dolphins and whales in captivity

The 8th of May was World Empty the Tanks Day. This is a campaign set up by Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, the longest-running anti-captivity dolphin and cetacean organization in the world. The Empty the Tanks mission is to use education to end cetacean captivity and promote ocean conservation worldwide to eventually end all cetacean captivity. A cetacean is a marine mammal of the order Cetacea; a whale, dolphin, or porpoise.

As they state on their website, their aim is to:

“…inspire people of all ages to understand how their individual choices impact the world around them. Empty the Tanks is not a radical movement demanding the release of all captive marine mammals into the wild. Some of these animals might be great candidates for release, but those that are not should be retired into sea sanctuaries, where they can enjoy the rest of their days in natural seawater, feeling the waves of the ocean around them.”

In this article I will be outlining the struggles faced by cetaceans- in particular whales and dolphins- what’s been done to help them already; and what you can do help now.

What’s happening to them?

Every year, these animals are under threat from hunting. They are either pursued for their usable products or caught to be taken into captivity for our amusement in aquariums and entertainment parks.

Dolphins and whales are hunted for meat or for use in marine parks. Read on to find out more about what happens to them, what’s been accomplished already to help them, and how you can educate yourself and support their cause.

What is whaling?

By definition, whaling is the process of hunting whales for their usable products.

Whaling for profit was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and all of its members must abide by this. However, countries such as Iceland, Norway and Japan relied too heavily on the profit gained through whaling and hence left the IWC when this ban was put into place. Since 1986, between these three countries alone, 80,000 whales have been killed.

More than 70 countries are in the IWC today, but countries who aren’t may still partake in this cruel practice (as well as it occurring illegally in those that are), with countries such as Peru, Ghana and Sri Lanka being identified by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) as problem areas for whaling.

Education plays a key role in these countries to help stop people engaging in whaling, while still supporting local communities and their economies in other, less harmful trades.

Why do people do it?

Whales are mostly hunted for their ‘products’ This includes:

Making money from selling their meat or body parts

Their oil, blubber and cartilage are sold for use in pharmaceuticals and health supplements

Whale meat is sometimes used in pet food/treats

Their meat is served in countries like Iceland as a ‘traditional dish’, even though this is not a traditional meal here. Fin meat is often exported, primarily from Iceland to Japan

For dolphins:

Dolphins are mostly hunted for their meat

For use as entertainment in aquariums

Other reasons include being killed in countries around the world for bait, currency or traditional medicine and charms

Example of dolphin hunting- Taiji, Japan

Japan holds an annual dolphin hunt which is highly controversial. The hunt sees the dolphins driven into a cove where they’re then killed using knives in shallow water. Young dolphins are usually captured and sold to aquariums or marine parks.

The practice has been occurring for decades but gained global attention after the release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove in 2009, and again after the release of Seaspriacy on Netflix this year.

The overall quota for the season allows for more than 1700 animals to be killed or captured. Environmentalists say the hunt is extremely cruel as the killing is not only unnecessary but inhumane, as the dolphins can take up to 30 minutes to die by suffocation or drowning.

Japan has already come under criticism for resuming whaling practices and commercial whaling after it left the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019. Despite the health risks of eating dolphin meat (it’s been found to have high levels of mercury in it) and the controversy the hunt has attracted, thousands of dolphins continue to be hunted and killed in drives here, and elsewhere, each year.

Example of whales in captivity- Orcas

Orcas, also known colloquially as ‘killer whales’, are toothed whales that belong to the oceanic dolphin family, of which they are the largest member. They are the most widely distributed mammals other than humans, and surround most coastal countries, as they can adapt to any climate. They have a diverse diet, travel vast distances in their families (known as pods), feel complex emotions, and have been identified to speak different dialects and languages.

Humans don’t generally hunt orcas as they do other whales for products such as blubber or meat. They’re more seen as pests and are usually only killed by whalers’ and/or fishermen when they ‘get in the way’.

While these animals are apex predators, at the hands of fishermen they’ve been harpooned, blown up by dynamite, and even machine gunned. But the biggest worry to these animals isn’t a whaler- it’s SeaWorld.

Okay, not just SeaWorld, but any form of captive and performative environment like SeaWorld. Aquariums, marine life parks- call them what you like, but to these animals, they’re prisons.

In the wild, female orcas live upwards of 80 years, some even to 100. Males typically live for 30/40 years, and some onto 50/60. However, this is significantly reduced by a life in captivity, where the lifespan of these magnificent animals is usually only around 10-20 years.

Killer captivity, not killer whales

70 orcas have been born in captivity (on record) around the world since 1977 (not counting the 30 that were stillborn or died in utero). Of these, 37 are now dead. Only a handful of wild-caught orcas have lived past 30 in captivity- no captivity-born orca yet has.

There are currently 59 orcas in captivity at legitimate sea parks and aquariums around the world, a third of these residing in the USA.

These animals are highly intelligent, social animals. They feel grief, they can be depressed, and they greet other orcas in a way not dissimilar to how humans may greet long-lost loved ones, with physical affection and lots of high-pitched calls. They’re the only animals we know of that speak different languages, and some of them choose to stay with their maternal pod forever. They swim vast distances in the wild of, on average, 40 miles a day to find food, and dive 200-500 feet, several times a day, every day. One pod was even tracked to travel 138 miles in a day. To then be moved or born into 35 ft deep tanks is unnatural, psychologically traumatic and physically harmful, and contributes to their short, unhappy lives. In the highly commended documentary ‘Blackfish’ (available to watch on Netflix now), one interviewee likened this to a human living out the rest of their life confined to a bathtub.

Orcas are placed in unnatural ‘families’ in captivity, where the small space and unrelatedness often leads to aggression and fights. Some orcas have been killed this way, others seriously injured. Parents and babies are separated to be sent to different parks as young as – or younger than - 4 years old, leading to depressive periods where mothers may not move for days on end, and simply cry out long-range calls for her calf.

And why? For $1.4 billion profit (Sea world, 2019 revenue).

What can you do?

Education is our greatest tool.

Further reading:

National geographic have lots of illuminating articles and interviews on the same and similar topics

The BBC have lots of informative articles about Taiji, whale and dolphin hunting etc., and about the laws and regulations underpinning it all.

Empty the Tanks Worldwide- a website that aims to end cetacean captivity worldwide and educate people of the harmfulness of this practice

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project- One of the longest-running anti-captivity dolphin welfare organisations in the world run by world-famous animal trainers turned animal rights activist Ric O’Barry, who was the mind behind The Cove, and was featured in the Blackfish and Seaspiracy documentaries


Blackfish (2013)- available on Netflix, this documentary exposed SeaWorld and a sister aquarium in Spain for their cruel treatment of their orcas and how this lead/leads to their trainers and staff being at risk

The Cove (2009)- Oscar-winning documentary The Cove investigated and exposed the Taiji dolphin slaughtering, focusing the worlds attention and scrutiny onto this brutal Japanese practice.

Forks Over Knives (2011)- While not focused on marine life, Forks Over Knives is still a good documentary to watch about the abuse and maltreatment of animals trapped in factory farms, and how we can all try to reduce our meat intake to help them

An Apology to Elephants (2013)- Exposes the brutal treatment of these intelligent and sensitive creatures as they’re trained for performances and explores the psychological trauma they endure in captivity. A good documentary to watch, especially in support of animal-free circuses

Racing extinction (2015)- Uncovers the hidden world of extinction and the international wildlife trade – illegal or legal – and how that’s putting our global wildlife at risk

Seaspiracy (2021)- Available on Netflix now, Seaspiracy gained global attention for highlighting the trouble with everything from the Taiji Dolphin Drive and global ocean plastic pollution, to the unreliability of ‘Dolphin Safe’ labels and the mass slavery that fuels fishing globally

Charities to support/ donate to

Whether you want to donate, join a mailing list, adopt, or simply research, here are some of the best, most informative animal protection and conservation charities I’ve come across:


Born Free


Orca Project Corp

The Ocean Conservancy


The Coral Reef Alliance

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Empty the Tanks

We all need to do MORE to spread awareness and educate ourselves and others on the plight f cetaceans worldwide to stop this inhumane trafficking and abuse of these beautiful creatures- before we lose them altogether.

Keep up with the #MOREmovement on our Instagram: @moresocials

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