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.

Source: Research Report the Welfare of Dolphins in Captivity

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.

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

Why dolphin shows are a facade

Often, dolphin shows involve stunts that raise serious concerns for the welfare of the dolphins involved. Swimming with dolphins, ‘kissing’ dolphins and interacting with them in the pool might be fun for you, but harmful for them. 

Source Olga Zhukovskaya

The echoes of silence: dolphins need mental stimulation

Many marine parks fail to provide an enriching environment that can meet the intellectual needs of captive dolphins. Research has found that dolphins who are trapped in a monotonous routine and an uninspiring setting, can show stress and abnormal behaviour patterns.

Source Jo Anne McArthur We Animals Media

Feeding time: From thrill of the hunt to handouts

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. However, in captivity, this is replaced by a dull routine of feeding on dead fish handouts.

Source World Animal Protection Thailand / Chanklang Kanthong

The unspoken cost: dolphins' social life in captivity

In the wild, dolphins engage in complex social behaviours, forming intricate bonds and hierarchies. Captivity disrupts these social structures. A research study suggests captive dolphins experience negative affective states, as they display limited affiliative and optimistic behaviour in their restricted environments.

Source World Animal Protection Thailand / Chanklang Kanthong

Ethics of breeding: A cycle of cruelty

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.

‘Continuing captive breeding means that young dolphins are born and raised in an artificial environment, destined to live in pools and tanks where space is limited and the opportunity to express many natural behaviours is denied.’

RSPCA Australia

Conservation or exploitation?

Marine parks often justify dolphin captivity under the guise of conservation. Yet, most species held in captivity, like the bottlenose dolphins, are not endangered or threatened on the IUCN Red List.

There is no evidence that justifies keeping and breeding dolphins in captivity to help replenish wild populations.

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 Dolphin Marine Conservation Park (Coffs Harbour) – will be the last generation to live in captivity. This gives us hope for a world where other countries also outlaw dolphin captivity to break the cycle of cruelty forever.