Marine Mammals in Theme Parks
March 1, 2010

I think it is common knowledge at this point that Comet is not a water-dog. But she is a good sport, and good sports sometimes must go with the flow. A couple of times each summer, Comet dons her thickly padded, bright red lifejacket and ventures out with my family to Nantucket Sound in our little Boston Whaler boat. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t get a little seasick, myself, but I endure the journey so I can glimpse some of my favorite animals on our big, blue planet. On these sea treks, I am almost always treated to the sights and sounds of seals, dolphins, and whales diving and breaching and frolicking in the waters they call home. At times like this, I feel as close to nature as I ever do.


Understandably, many people want to enjoy marine mammals all of the time and at their own personal convenience, which explains the popularity of marine mammals in theme parks. Many, but not all, of these parks exist near vacation spots and have a steady flow of visitors.  These people have the opportunity to see amazing animals up close, sometimes even interacting with them—helping them feed and play or even swimming with them. There is a lot of entertainment and education that takes place at these parks—and those are both good things. But we may need to reevaluate the toll that these theme parks take on the beautiful marine mammals who live and work in them.


Very recently in the news, we heard about the tragic death of a trainer who was killed by an orca whale at a theme park in Florida. The trainer was very experienced and worked for years with orcas, including this particular thirty year-old one. She loved her work and she loved whales, but something went terribly wrong. The whale pulled the trainer down under the water, thrashing her and causing her to drown. This was a horrific outcome for both the trainer and the orca. While we don’t know what might have set off this highly intelligent creature, causing him to exhibit such aggression, it isn’t hard to imagine that a 22 foot-long animal weighing over 13,000 pounds might not be happy living his life in a tank. After all, in the wild orcas live their lives in the vast ocean, following their food and living with interactions amongst other whales, seals, and marine life.


Other types of entertainment involving marine mammals are “swim with dolphin” venues sometimes located within marine theme parks or at luxury resorts. People often describe the opportunity to swim with these beloved mammals as “life-changing,” and for many it surely might be. However, we need to consider if it is wrong to keep dolphins in enclosed pools or lagoons, while—in the wild—they are used to the open sea and a very social life with others of their own kind. Wouldn’t it be better if people wanting to see dolphins would be able to do so with the dolphins’ best interest in mind? That would no doubt be less convenient, but definitely more humane. The same is true of sea lion shows and the use of other marine mammals. Tossing balls and jumping through hoops is not something we see sea lions doing in the wild. Depriving them of their natural homes and training them to entertain humans can’t be the only way or even the right way to do things.


We need to remember that just because we can train wild animals and keep them in an enclosed environment, they are still wild animals, with unique needs and instincts. Wild animals kept in captivity experience stress and can develop and display unnatural behaviors. When situations arise where rescued animals are orphaned or injured and cannot be released back into the wild, perhaps those animals can be humanely displayed for education and research purposes. But I believe wild animals should be left in the wild, where they can live the lives that were meant for them. Using animals to entertain us is often at a great cost to the animals, and can quickly turn from entertainment for us to the abuse of the creatures we so love, respect, and want to protect.


Three things you can do:

Don’t visit marine theme parks or resorts that use marine mammals for entertainment. If you want to see animals on your vacation, see if you can find a way to visit them in their natural environment. There are many eco-tours that put together exciting trips for people who care about the Earth. Other non-disruptive ways to learn about marine mammals include humanely operated whale- and seal-watch boats, movies, books, lectures, courses, and specialty summer camps.

Write Letters. I know I’m asking you to write again, but this really does make a difference. Write to theme parks expressing your concern for the care of highly intelligent marine mammals. Tell them you will not visit their parks unless they stop using marine mammals to entertain. Write to your politicians asking them to ban the use of marine mammals for entertainment. Write to newspapers expressing your concern and ask them to consider an article on this subject. Always be polite and respectful to have your best chance to elicit change.

READ. I can’t say it enough….read about the animals that interest you and share your knowledge with others. By educating and enlightening others, you can help change minds and save wildlife.


For more information, check out these articles and websites: