Confinement of Marine Wildlife

Captive orcas - photo by Shelley Powers

Whales and dolphins are complex social animals and are not well suited for a life in captivity. When confined, they are prevented from carrying out natural behaviors, which include roaming up to 100 miles per day, hunting live prey, and interacting with their pod mates—who also suffer when pod members are removed.

When forced to interact with humans in a captive situation they have been known to behave aggressively.

By manipulating animals in such a way, we are not only affecting their lives but are also distorting our belief system and that of our children—promoting the view that these wild animals should be taken from their homes and “tamed” not merely for utilitarian purposes, but for our entertainment.

The cetaceans most commonly held in captivity for human entertainment are orcas, beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphins.


The tradition of housing cetaceans in captivity began over 100 years ago in the 1860s, when circus mogul P.T. Barnum paid for the capture of two beluga whales off the Labrador coast and transported them to New York. These belugas and later others were housed in Barnum’s American Museum. In the 1870s, many dolphins and belugas were captured for display in aquariums in Europe and the United States, with few surviving very long.

In fact, Barnum played up the likelihood of belugas dying quickly to motivate the public to visit his exhibits! In July 1865 he wrote in the New York Herald that “NOW IS THE TIME to see these wonders as THEIR LIVES ARE UNCERTAIN, seven of the same species having died while being exhibited at this Museum.”

In 1938, at Florida’s Marine Studios, Cecil M. Walker discovered it was possible to train bottlenose dolphins—thus increasing the popularity of dolphins in captivity. But the real boost for those displaying captive cetaceans came in the early 1960s, with the release of the movie and TV series “Flipper.” Growing demand for dolphins soon fueled the capture and trade of thousands of cetaceans.


Though tanks are bigger and cetaceans in captivity are less callously treated than in P.T. Barnum's day, the fact remains that captivity for these active, social, intelligent animals is still inappropriate. In recent years, more people have become aware of the ethical and philosophical arguments against cetacean captivity and in some places the popularity of dolphin shows has dwindled. In addition, the science is growing that cetaceans, especially orcas, adapt poorly to confinement. Sadly, many captive facilities still exist, and while they are in decline in the developed world, more are being built in developing countries, and these intelligent animals continue to be bred in captivity and wrenched from the wild for captive display.

China Cetacean Alliance
This alliance of international animal protection organizations includes Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, Whale & Dolphin Conservation, Marine Connection and the Animal Welfare Institute, as well as organizations in mainland China and Taiwan. The aim of the alliance is to raise awareness of the negative welfare impacts associated with the wild capture of cetaceans and their subsequent captive display in ocean theme parks in mainland China.

The ocean theme park industry is expanding rapidly in China. There are more than 80 ocean theme parks in operation and more under construction. These parks house over 1000 cetaceans, representing at least 12 species. Bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales are the most commonly-held species. The China Cetacean Alliance has prepared a second edition of a report in English and Chinese, based on web searches, examination of international databases, and on-site visits to more than 30 parks.

Dolphinaria-Free Europe
This European coalition of NGOs and professionals works together to end the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. AWI’s Naomi Rose acts as committee member and consultant to the coalition. Dolphinaria-Free Europe (DFE) seeks greater protection for captive cetaceans through investigation, advocacy and education. Members of the coalition share the position that wild animals should not be exploited for human entertainment.


Learn more about dispelling the arguments of captivity proponents, the differences between wild vs. captivity, and the truth about swim-with programs and dolphin-assisted therapy.

AWI advocates for responsibly watching cetaceans in the wild as a means to experience the thrill of seeing these creatures in action. AWI only supports cetacean captivity in exceptional circumstances, such as when an animal has live stranded and has been deemed by responsible experts as unable to be safely returned to the wild. In these circumstances, we support initiatives to ensure that the animal is truly an ambassador for its species, is afforded proper respect and a decent life and above all, is not trained to perform unnatural tricks or participate in shows.