Why is captivity a curse for dolphins?

Dolphins are built for the boundless ocean, where they travel huge distances, socialise with their pod, hunt for food, and form unique bonds.

But in captivity, their world shrinks drastically. They’re confined in limited spaces, surrounded by artificial environments, and subjected to continuous human interaction and unnatural behaviours, all for humans’ amusement.[1]

An informative illustration comparing the living space of captive dolphins versus those in the wild. On the left, a single dolphin is shown inside a small aquarium tank labeled '14m²'. On the right, a dolphin is depicted in the vast ocean with a label '600,000m²', with the caption stating 'Captive dolphins have 42,857 times less space than dolphins in the wild

The ripple effects of captivity on dolphins

Imagine the dolphin’s tale in two distinct scenarios – the wild ocean and a marine park. Out in the open ocean, a dolphin travels many kilometres per day, dives deep into the depths, and engages with a diverse community of sea life. Contrast this with a life spent circling the same limited, chlorinated, sterile, concrete tank, day in and day out.[2]

Captive dolphins have to swim their enclosures 500 times per day to match the distance that wild dolphins swim

Dolphins in captivity suffer: is the cost worth it?

No dolphin can thrive in captivity. To understand why dolphins suffer so much in captivity, let's compare their lives to dolphins who live in the wild.

Captivity causes stress

Some captive dolphins have higher levels of the stress hormone in their system when compared to wild dolphins.[3] Stress can then cause dolphins to experience a loss of appetite, gastric ulcers, and social problems.[4]

Changing social structures

In the wild, dolphins engage in complex social behaviours, forming intricate bonds and hierarchies with sophisticated levels of communicating. But in captivity, they are often forced to live with other marine mammals that aren’t part of their pod, and sometimes not even the same species.[5]

Captivity creates health issues 

Dolphins in captivity often have dental issues because they repeatedly grind their teeth against the concrete walls and metal gates of their tanks. This behaviour is a sign of self-harm and is more common in captivity due to frustration and boredom, especially in intelligent and social animals like orcas.[6] 

In captivity, tanks are usually painted in light or bright blue to make dolphins more visible to visitors. This, combined with a lack of shade, means that dolphins in captivity are often exposed to more ultraviolet light than they would be in the wild. Also, when they’re fed by trainers, they have to look upwards, often directly into the sun, which is not a natural behaviour for them. These factors can lead to eye problems for dolphins, including lesions, infections, and early cataracts.[7]

Captive dolphins are bombarded by noise

Dolphins use vocalisations and sounds to communicate. They use echolocation, which involves emitting high-pitched clicks and listening for the echoes to gauge distance and identify objects around them. Their world is acoustic, in a way we can’t even begin to imagine.[8]

In captivity, dolphins are bombarded with noises that limit their ability to communicate, such as fireworks from shows, the pumps in their pools, or the music playing all day to entertain visitors. 

They often live in concrete tanks that have smooth walls, which discourage them from using their natural acoustic abilities.[9]  

Lack of mental stimulation

Oceans and rivers are incredible playgrounds for dolphins. Dolphins can interact with seagrasses, algae, rocks, sand and mud. They can ride waves and currents for fun. 

Yet how many dolphins in captivity live in places that mimic these natural environments? Most of them live in barren, concrete tanks with little to no entertainment, and which limits their ability to express their natural behaviours.[10]

The thrill of searching for food is gone

Searching for food is an important daily activity for dolphins, which exercises their complex brains. In the wild, dolphins engage in diverse foraging strategies, spending ~19% of their time using their intellect and social skills to catch a varied diet of prey.[11] However, in captivity, this is replaced by a dull routine of feeding on dead fish handouts. The fish is often laced with antibiotics and vitamins, as the bland diet doesn’t give them all of the nutrients they need.[12] Sadly, dolphins are sometimes trained using hunger, so they perform tricks and interact with humans in exchange for food.[13]

Why breeding dolphins into captivity is unethical

Marine parks that breed dolphins perpetuate a cycle of captivity, subjecting generation after generation to a life of confinement and deprived of natural behaviours. This is why we believe the best way to break the cycle of captivity is to introduce a ban on breeding.

Rather than for conservation, captive cetaceans are bred merely
to provide replacement animals for public display—an ongoing
need given the high rate of mortality in captivity

–  The case against marine mammals in captivity

Disrupting the mother-calf bond

The beautiful and nurturing relationship between mothers and their calves is incredibly strong and long-lasting in the wild. Calves often stay very close to their mother, learning essential foraging, social and hunting techniques. 

Sadly, in captivity mothers are more likely to be separated from their young at an early age.  This can stunt the learning development of calves, impact the emotional states of both mother and child, and can lead to high levels of calf mortality.[14] However, these factors are often ignored by the captive industry.[15]

Source Redders48 Getty Images

Conservation is the lie used to justify exploitation

A growing number of marine parks that have dolphins in captivity promote themselves as sanctuaries or places for conservation. This is often a way to justify dolphin captivity under the guise of conservation.[16] 

How can you tell if it’s not a genuine sanctuary or conservation centre?

❌ You are allowed to touch, swim or kiss the dolphins 

❌ Dolphins are not taught vital survival skills they need in the wild 

❌ There are no plans to reintroduce dolphins into the wild 

❌ The dolphins kept in captivity are species that are not endangered or threatened,  like bottlenose dolphins 

❌ Dolphins are bred, traded and sold

❌ Dolphins are kept in artificial environments that do not reflect their natural habitat in the ocean

Dolphins might look like they’re happy all the time because their mouth is permanently in a ‘smile’ shape – but don’t be misled, this is simply the structure of their face. 

Success is possible: ending dolphin captivity in New South Wales

Through our relentless efforts, we’ve successfully outlawed the breeding of dolphins in captivity in New South Wales. This means that Zippy, Bella and Jet – the dolphins currently residing in the marine park called Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary – will be the last generation to live in captivity. This gives us hope for a world where other states also outlaw dolphin captivity to break the cycle of cruelty forever.