The Global Picture

2019 marks a critical moment for the use of Cetaceans in the entertainment industry. Dolphinaria are closing around the world as awareness of the plight faced by captive marine mammals grows.  Across Europe and the United States this increased awareness has seen a considerable fall in audience numbers at dolphinaria. However, this is not the case everywhere. In China the market for cetacean entertainment is booming, with 14 new dolphinaria under construction and 500 cetaceans from 11 different species, currently in captivity. Many of these are dolphins sourced from brutal hunts in Taiji, Japan. These animals often live in even more dire conditions than captive marine mammals in other parts of the world, with sick animals being hidden away in dying pools, a result of their grueling performance routines. Thankfully the overall industry trend is that of decline, highlighting the need for a global solution that secures a brighter future of former captive marine mammals. Natural coastal refuges are the clear alternative to captivity, with progress being made on sanctuaries for Orca and Beluga Whales in North America and Iceland. A sanctuary on Lipsi Island in the Aegean Sea would provide another important puzzle piece in the pursuit of a global solution.

Where does the dolphin go?

Recent years have seen a sizable shift in the global public perception of cetacean performances in the entertainment industry. As a result, dolphinaria are under increased pressure to end the exploitation of marine mammals; by ending their captive breeding programmes and retiring animals. This public pressure has resulted in success with dolphinaria closures across the globe. SeaWorld (perhaps the most notorious marine mammal attraction) put an end to its Orca breeding programme in 2017; Kyara, the last of her species to be born in the park, died at just 3 months old. Regrettably, SeaWorld is yet to adopt the same policy for other cetaceans, such as it’s Bottlenose Dolphins and Beluga Whales. However, as visitor numbers fall there is hope that we will soon see the last generations of marine mammals to be born into captivity. While these are undoubtedly signs of progress, one critical question is left unanswered; where will retired cetaceans go as dolphinaria close?

This very question was the inspiration for the Aegean Marine Life Sanctuary (AMLS). At present, the disappointing answer is that captive marine mammals are either sent to dolphinaria that still function, or find themselves in former dolphinaria tanks that are no longer in action. Captive marine mammals can not be immediately returned to their natural environment because they have either forgotten, or never developed survival skills such as hunting and navigation. This illustrates the critical need for monitored natural refuges, so that former captive cetaceans can either develop the skills needed for re-introduction or live out their remaining years in a far more suitable environment. Thankfully, the urgent requirement for such refuges is recognised throughout the scientific and conservation communities, with Archipelagos’ ALMS representing part of a global solution for retired cetaceans.

Success stories and hope for the future

In North America, The Whale Sanctuary Project (link) is striving to launch the continents’ first ‘Model Seaside Sanctuary’ for Orca and Beluga whales. They hope to provide a refuge for former captive animals, as well as rehabilitation for cetaceans injured in the wild. This will provide a much-needed alternative in North America, a continent which currently holds 105 captive Belugas and Orcas. Without sanctuaries, each of these sentient creatures will spend the remainder of their lives (a number of decades in some cases) in isolating, cramped concrete enclosures.

Another project making very exciting progress is Sea Life Trusts’ Beluga Whale Sanctuary (link), which hopes to welcome it’s first two residents in the coming months. Little Grey and Little White (two female Belugas) will make the 6,000-mile trip from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, to their new home, a 32,000 square metre natural sea inlet, at Klettsvikk Bay, Iceland. Here they will learn the skills lost to their years of captivity in a monitored natural environment. Just like the AMLS, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary will establish a visitor centre, aimed at inspiring change, and an overall mission of ending cetacean captivity. This might not be complete freedom for Little Grey and Little White, but it does mark a huge step in the direction of progress, and an eminently improved quality of life for these extraordinary animals.

While we are just at the beginning of solving the captive cetacean crisis, there have already been stories of success. Tom and Misha, a pair of Bottlenose dolphins, were taken from the Aegean Sea in 2006 and held captive in Turkey. Here tourists would pay a premium to swim with Tom and Misha in far less than adequate conditions. In 2010 the Born Free Foundation were handed responsibility for the dolphins. The foundation proceeded to successfully release Tom and Misha, after a 20 month rehabilitation project. 6 months of tracking revealed they had adapted well and were thriving as free animals once again. This is yet more proof of viable alternatives for captive marine mammals. Not all will be capable of being re-released back into the wild, but monitored natural sanctuaries offer a vast improvement for the lives of captive cetaceans. This international effort represents not only a tangible solution, but also a message of hope for all captive marine mammals.

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