The Detriments of Captive Cetacean Research


Orca whale in the wild (Lacz)

Orca whale in the wild (Lacz)

In January of 2013, at the Sundance Film Festival, hundreds of people watched in horror and suspense as the truth about marine parks was revealed in Gabriela Cowperthwaithe’s documentary, Blackfish. The once jovial picture of killer whales and dolphins performing amazing tricks at parks like SeaWorld was dramatically tainted to an image of their imprisonment, mental torment, and the dire consequences of it all. This documentary sparked a great deal of controversy over the issue of keeping cetaceans in captivity, a multi-million dollar industry that’s been a source of entertainment since the mid-1960’s. Many viewers empathized wholeheartedly with the film, while others believed it was nothing but fabricated lies. An opinion piece like Blackfish allows room for this sort of debate; however, scientific literature provides concrete evidence that keeping cetaceans in captivity for research or entertainment purposes is mercilessly and unnecessarily taxing on their physical and emotional welfare, and provides little to no conclusive data for practical human use.  Although the whales portrayed in Blackfish are confined for entertainment purposes, other cetaceans held for research are kept in similar enclosures, meaning they will have similar mental and physical reactions to the captivity.



From a scientific standpoint, this is viewed as a problem because captive cetaceans are used for as models for learning about their wild counterparts as well as psychological research (Hill & Lackups, 2010, p. 415). However, these cetaceans do not provide accurate data due to physical and mental stress caused by captivity itself. These skewed test results are in direct correlation with many aspects of captivity, such as severely inadequate enclosure sizes, isolation from their familial pods, and lack of ability to perform natural behaviors.  When these cetaceans cannot live comfortably, it leads to inaccurate results. If the results are invalid, they cannot reasonably apply to humans.

Aside from the actual test results being inaccurate, there is also an ethical issue that arises since “modern cetacean encephalization levels are second only to modern humans” (Marino, 2004, p.1). Killer whales, for example, have been known to have a similar family structure to ours. When a member of the pod is dying or has died they will linger around the body as if they were in remorse. They have even been tracked revisiting the place where a mother whale died. If it’s not acceptable to perform such experiments on humans, it is not acceptable to perform them on our marine counterparts.  This issue of cetacean captivity is one that not only affects the scientists performing the research, but the people who use the results and conclusions based on the inaccurate data. If not rectified, then any research continued will propagate misinformation and inconclusive results. The funding required to perform these tests isn’t cheap, yet we keep pouring money into the research when it does not produce the most accurate data.

Captive research on cetaceans currently provides inconclusive results while causing serious psychological torment and physical harm to these intelligent creatures; therefore alternative environments and research methods must be implemented to achieve better ethical and scientific outcomes.

There is simply too much scientific evidence supporting the negative impacts captivity has on the physical health of cetaceans to deny a correlation between the two factors. It is not a matter of opinion that orca whales, bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales die prematurely when kept in captive settings, but rather a potent and recurring reality. Marino & Frohoff (2011) show that this is especially and most dramatically seen in the orca whale, with males living on average 29.2 years in the wild with an observed maximum of 60 years, and females living 50.2 years on average with an observed maximum of 90 years. Their naturally extensive lifespan is shortened severely when they are placed in captive environments, with few orcas living past the age of 20 in captivity (p. 3). Premature death must indicate something about captivity that renders it unsuitable for a marine mammal of such great size and intelligence, but what exactly is it about these enclosures that drive our cetacean friends to an early grave?

To answer this question, one must first consider the very nature of a captive cetacean enclosure. According to Title 9, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 3, Subpart E, Section 3.104 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the minimum requirements for permanently housing a cetacean such as an orca whale, bottlenose dolphin, and beluga whale is two-times the length of the longest adult kept in that enclosure and one-half as deep. To put this in perspective, the average adult orca whale is about 24 feet long, and is known in the wild for traveling over a hundred oceanic miles in a single day. Somehow, lawmakers found it humane and reasonable to keep these enormous and active creatures in enclosures barely larger than their own body lengths, limiting their physical activity to an absurd degree. This type of restraint can pose an enormous amount of stress on the whales, in addition to the stress of being transported and separated from their familial pods. Stress can manifest itself in cetaceans as physical illness, greatly contributing to their 7% mortality rate in captivity compared to their 2.3% mortality rate in the wild (Marino & Frohoff, 2011, p. 3).

    Mayer (1998) confirms, “other illnesses or stress may predispose individual animals to developing disease” (p.12), which is coherent with the scientific phenomenon that associates stressful lifestyles with poorer health in humans. Some of the stress-related illnesses that are responsible for a number of recorded deaths observed in captive cetaceans include ulcerative gastritis, perforating ulcers, cardiogenic shock, and psychogenic shock (Marino & Frohoff, 2011, p. 3). A description of erosive gastritis by the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy is wearing down of the mucosal membrane in the gastrointestinal tract due to poor mucosal defenses, which results directly in bleeding, perforating ulcers, and can indirectly lead to cardiogenic shock (Cohen, 2007). Doctor Sue Marston, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Massachusetts Amherst states,

…prolonged adrenal activity may be associated with chronic welfare problems, making these animals more susceptible to health problems, as animals that are unable to maintain homeostasis often develop pathological problems that reduce immune and reproductive function.

All of these ailments are indicative of the stress response being induced for a prolonged period of time (Orams, 2004, p. 7), suggesting that captive cetaceans are unnaturally and excessively stressed out.

Aside from the small enclosures of captivity inducing fatal, stress-related diseases in cetaceans, certain behaviors are exhibited in response to captivity that can subject these marine mammals to further opportunistic infections that can lead to their premature death. One example of a stereotypical behavior affecting a captive cetacean’s physical health is the orca whale’s act of “logging” (Jett & Ventre, 2012, p. 9). This behavior is described by the authors as “float[ing] motionless[ly] on the surface of the water” (p. 12) and can be performed by hours on end, especially at night (p. 1). This behavior can be attributed to boredom, or simply the physical lack of space forcing the whale to float sedentarily, but either way it is rarely seen in their wild counterparts. Logging is a harmful behavior because it exposes the whale’s dorsal fin to biting mosquitoes that can carry viral infections such as West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis Virus (p. 1). There have been documented cases of captive orcas dying from these viruses in the United States, however there have been no reported cases of wild orcas dying from mosquito-transmitted viruses so far (p. 10). Another example of stereotypical behavior causing health problems in captive cetaceans can be seen in orca whales biting enclosure grates, causing direct tooth damage and indirect infections (Rose, 2011, p. 6). Rose claims that tooth damage is rarely seen in wild orcas, while captive orcas display broken teeth and exposed pulp frequently (p. 6). The veterinary method used to treat exposed pulp in captive cetaceans involves drilling the tooth without capping it off, leaving the whale very susceptible to infections if the cavity is not properly flushed out on a daily basis (p. 6). Infections most associated with dental problems often lead to heart disease and pneumonia, the latter being one of the leading causes of death in captive cetaceans (Mayer, 1998, p. 12). Therefore, the behaviors developed by cetaceans in captivity can often indirectly lead to health problems and infections that very well contribute to their decreased survival rate in captivity.

Cetaceans have such a high level of intelligence and brain development that keeping them in captivity causes psychological stress.  They are unlike other captive animals because their brain development is more similar to primates and humans than most other mammals.  Since they are so aware of their surroundings and emotions, taking them from their families and putting them in small pools for studies takes a greater toll on their well being.  Mirror self-recognition is an ability that only animals of the highest intelligence are capable of.  Studies have shown that bottlenose dolphins recognize their mirror images as themselves and not a different dolphin (Simmonds, 2006).  This study shows us that these animals are more aware of their surroundings than people like to assume.  In this study, dolphins were marked black on an area of their body and were allowed to look in the mirror.  None of the dolphins attacked the mirror, but would turn their bodies to look at the area that had been marked.  They were able to acknowledge their image and even utilize the mirror to look at their bodies (Simmonds, 2006).  This study demonstrates that cetaceans truly are as cognizant as humans, and therefore captivity for them in particular is horribly stressful on their mental status.  They cannot psychologically handle being in captivity compared to other wildlife.  There are a fair amount of animals that thrive in captivity, but cetaceans are too aware of their surroundings for them to be comfortable and unstressed.  Whales who have been captured from the wild are capable of understanding how their new environment is nothing like their normal surroundings, and it causes a sort of psychosis of various degrees.

Cetaceans have an extremely deep-rooted family devotion and when they are taken away from their pods, scientists observe behaviors never seen before (Rose, 2004).  In the documentary, Blackfish, they mention a mother orca’s reaction to her calf being moved to a different facility.  The trainers and scientists state that she floated facing a corner of her pool for three days, releasing a high-pitched vocal sound never heard before.  Experts were brought in to study this new acoustic, and discovered it was a long range call suggesting that she was trying to call out to her baby, who was no longer there (Simmonds, 2006). Not only does this show the grief we cause captive cetaceans, but it also shows how captivity is causing them to do things that they are not known to do in the wild.  If research is being done to understand wild whales and dolphins better, then the data collected from these captive subjects is most likely inaccurate.  These animals are not acting how they naturally would if they were in the open ocean with their families. If the goal for studying these mammals is for a greater understanding of their behaviors, health, and mental abilities, their current captive settings provide nothing but confounding variables.

Cetaceans are gregarious animals and travel in the same pod throughout their whole lives.  When they are taken from the wild, they are removed from their families and put in a small enclosure with essentially strangers (Simmonds, 2006).  While the animals in captivity may coexist, they do not have the same emotional support and bonds that the animals had with their own families (Simmonds, 2006).  The psychological damage caused by this is astronomical, and can sometimes induce depression in the mammals, evident by them wasting away in their pools.  Without having the support of their family, some whales become listless and die, and many die within a year of being captured (Rose, 2004).

Behavioral changes amongst captive cetaceans due to captivity can become dangerous or harmful to the mammals. Conditions such as the size of their holding tanks being much too small compared to the wild where they are used to swimming near hundreds of miles per day contributes to their developing of stereotypical behaviors (Cowperthwaite 2013). In the wild, killer whales often engage other whales in physical fighting, but the submissive animal can remove itself from the situation and live to fight another day. However, in a tank where there is nowhere to go, the weaker whale repetitively gets injured (Cowperthwaite 2013). Also, in the wild these creatures are used to living in groups called pods. These pods can contain a number of generations of the same family, sometimes having up to 50 whales in a single pod (Cowperthwaite 2013). When corporations such as Sea World take a calf away from its mother, the entire family becomes saddened just as a human family would if they lost a relative or sibling (Cowperthwaite 2013).

Certain stressors and other health problems in captive cetaceans are a big concern of animal welfare activists. Studies have been done to gather information surrounding a number of topics regarding their stress levels, such as the effects of other animals introduced into their enclosures and transporting the animals through the air. A study on beluga whales measured their acoustic activity before and after their transport to another facility and when they introduced foreign harbor seals into their enclosure, which are presumed to be stressful events. Whales use their vocalization skills for a number of different reasons including echolocation clicks, social vocalizations, and jaw claps. When the animals were transported to L’Oceanogràfic facilities their vocalization pattern significantly dropped, and dropped again when four harbor seals were added to their tank. These trends continued to stay well below their normal range, indicating that these unnatural outside factors played a significant role in how these animals’ behavior changed (Castellote & Fossa, 2006). These findings suggest that acoustic activity of beluga whales, as well as other whale species, can directly be used to measure animal welfare.

There are multiple cases of captive marine mammals killing or injuring other mammals, themselves, and even humans, while there are no records of this happening in the wild (Cowperthwaite 2014). Because their tanks are so small, the whales are left swimming in circles, being hand fed by humans, and constantly badgered by spectators.  They experience boredom, sickness, early deaths, and much more. (Cowperthwaite 2014). In a presentation done by the Oceanic Preservation Society, they state that

a marine mammal survey, commissioned by the US Marine Mammal Commission and conducted by UCLA in 2004, f[ound] that more than half of marine mammal workers were injured by the animals. More than one third of the injuries are classified as severe deep wounds, fractures, or requiring stitches.

Many cetaceans in captivity develop stereotypies, or unnatural, often purposeless behaviors that can be a manifestation of poor mental health. Such behaviors include repetitive pacing, swaying, head-bobbing or circling, and bar-biting (Cetacean Inspiration, 2011). One of the most prominent stereotypies noticed in these whales is an activity known as slide outs. The whale will slide out of the water and sit motionless, sometimes for 10 minutes at a time (Cetacean Inspiration, 2011). This creates safety issues for the guests of marine mammal parks like SeaWorld. If a whale did this in the wild for too long of a time the weight of the whale could crush its own internal organs (Cetacean Inspiration, 2011).

From an economic perspective, it can be assumed that transporting large marine mammals from their enclosed facilities to open ocean pens would be costly.  Not only would transport be expensive, but the construction of the new enclosures and expenses to travel to the new location to perform the research would be additionally costly.  Although those are factors to be considered, one must also consider the accuracy of the data being collected.  Is it truly worth keeping these cetaceans in facilities that have been shown to confound the accuracy of any research that is being funded?  The benefactors of the data collected most likely want to get what they pay for and obtain the most precise information possible out of their animals.

Another factor is the change in convenience to reach the subjects of research.  If the cetaceans are moved from an easily accessible enclosure to an area with a much larger capacity and depth, it would be much more difficult to come into physical contact with the cetaceans.  However, the goal of performing research studies is to obtain the most accurate data, and if providing the mammals with an environment that will decrease their stress and improve their health is what it takes, then these are changes researchers should be willing to make.

In an effort to benefit the scientists’ data and the welfare of the cetaceans, we propose a relocation of the cetaceans to open ocean pens.  Oceanic pens have been used in the past to allow whales to become adjusted to the ocean before being truly released back into the wild (Rose, 2013).  The pen would consist of a net encircling a piece of the shoreline in cold-temperate waters close to their natural habitat.  In these pens the scientists may continue their research since the mammals will still be able to be studied as they are still in an enclosure.  However, the animals will be in a larger facility, in ocean water instead of stagnant pool water, and will have better health and lower stress levels.  The size of the pen must be a minimum of one square mile in order to allow comfortable movement of the animals, but still make it possible for the scientists to get in contact with them.  A pen similar to this was used on Keiko, a killer whale who was rehabilitated and released back into the wild.  During his transportation process, Keiko was first placed in a saltwater enclosure at an aquarium to habituate him before placing him in his pen in Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, nearby his location of capture.  Within a year of being returned to saltwater, his skin lesions caused by confinement disappeared and he gained 1,000 pounds (Sinelli, 2014).  This shows how exponential a difference that a more natural setting can have on these animals.  Not only do we suggest a change of location, but we also recommend that less invasive procedures be used to obtain information from the subjects whenever it is possible. Doctor Susan Marston explains

Researchers have begun to develop methods to collect and analyze salivary cortisol. Early data indicates that dolphins that are trained to open their mouths on command can be readily sampled and that these samples represent resting, non-stressed cortisol levels.

By using this alternative method of evaluating cortisol levels, the animal would be less       stressed by the collecting procedure, leading to more accurate data on the cetacean.

Relocating these animals can only benefit all parties involved. The researchers gain more accurate data and the cetaceans’ quality of life is improved immensely.  By providing open ocean pens for the cetaceans they are still accessible for studies, but the environment is more suitable for their well-being.  Since they will be less stressed, the data collected from them will be much closer to what one may get from a wild cetacean.




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mosquito-transmitted viruses. Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology, 5(9), 9-16.


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