Changing Planet

Should We Import Belugas for Display?

If you’re an animal lover, you’ve probably heard by now about the 18 beluga whales that a group of U.S. marine park and aquarium owners wants to import from Russia.  The 18 whales were captured in the wild off the Siberian coast specifically to be put on display—that is, for our entertainment. And that’s where the issue gets sticky. Because we now know from numerous animal behavior studies—in laboratories and in natural habitats–that all mammals are thinking and feeling beings.

Rats laugh; dolphins, elephant, chimpanzees grieve their dead; laboratory rats also dream about their maze-challenge tasks; horses and elephants and likely many other animals know each other as individuals and recognize one another’s voices. Stories about new discoveries of animals’ cognitive and emotional abilities appear almost weekly.  So it is troubling when we hear about parks and aquariums doing something that seems at odds with what we imagine their charter to be—in this case, helping to protect and care for these highly social and intelligent creatures of the sea.  It is noteworthy, too, that no marine mammal has been captured like this—to be put on exhibit in a U.S. facility—since 1993. Many animal activist groups are outraged at the consortium, and have encouraged their members to protest.

Before rushing to judgment, though, it’s worth reflecting on the statements issued by spokespersons from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment—both of which are part of the group hoping to import the belugas and both of which would be receiving some. They argue that the whales are needed to help with their captive breeding programs, research, and education. Although none of the whales is destined for the Vancouver Aquarium, it spoke up on behalf of the other aquariums, saying that “Seeing whales in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for seeing animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and connection…Education is vital to the survival of whales in the wild.”

I can’t quibble with that final sentence. But is it necessary to see a beluga up-close and in person to be educated about or to value them?  Does one need to don a wet suit and be nuzzled by a beluga—as you can do at the Georgia Aquarium and three others (for a price)—to feel connected to them.

Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science, and an author of four books, including the soon-to-be-released ANIMAL WISE: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Crown, February 2013).

Not only have I never petted a beluga, I’ve never laid eyes on one in captivity or in the wild. My only encounters with them have been of the virtual kind—photographs in magazines or online, and in film documentaries.  Those glimpses alone have sufficed to educate me, and to make me support the various conservation efforts underway to assure that healthy populations of belugas endure in the wild.

I’m sure I’m not alone. In fact, a study carried out by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Humane Society shows that people would still attend aquariums if orcas weren’t on display; that they feel just as positive toward these animals after watching them in films. Perhaps, most important, they are uncomfortable with the idea of capturing more killer whales for exhibit.

So it really isn’t a surprise that there has been such an outcry against importing these captive belugas—even though people do love watching them in marine parks.  After all, belugas are extraordinary animals–striking in their coloration, and mesmerizing in their behaviors.  I can understand how their pearly white skin, tubby bodies, and bemused expressions make them among the most popular of marine mammals at aquariums.  They’re kind of like giant sea-going Caspar-the Friendly-Ghosts; it’s easy to imagine squeezing into a wet suit to hug one.  And because belugas are curious about people—swimming right up to an aquarium’s window to look at you—it’s easy to imagine them hugging you right back, or at least rubbing against you like a pet. I can also imagine, though, that most belugas, and especially those who’ve lived free, would prefer not to do any of these things.

We don’t know a great deal about belugas in the wild, largely because they live in the Arctic ice for much of the year. Researchers haven’t carried out the kind of long-term studies that they’ve done on bottle-nose dolphins or orcas.  We do know that they are highly social, gregarious creatures; they make long migrations; they have an impressive range of calls, and like dolphins (to which they are distantly related) use these in a variety of ways, including imitating one another. (A just-released study shows that captive belugas can also imitate humans.)  They like to hang out in the summer in shallow coastal waters in large groups (sometimes numbering in the thousands), which are most likely made up of close relatives—mothers, dads, and kids, aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Sometimes, they make solo journeys just to visit other groups—a behavior that reminds me of elephants, who sometimes leave their families to visit clan members far away.

Worldwide there are about 150,000 belugas living in the Arctic waters of North America, Russia, and Greenland. The  international agency that tracks endangered species lists them as being “near threatened” – an animal we need to monitor as the Arctic’s sea ice melts, but not an animal needing to be rushed into captivity for special care and breeding.  So the aquariums’ other purpose—to enhance the genetic diversity of those they already hold in captivity—makes me uneasy.

I am not persuaded that there is a need for such a population. Those in captivity now will grow old, perhaps lonely, and die. But to replace them will cause other belugas harm and grief—because it can only be done by tearing apart families that are doing fine now in the wild.

The parks and aquariums hoping to import the 18 belugas seem to have broken our trust—our understanding of their purpose—and this is why, I suspect, that people are so outraged.  It’s up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to decide if the whales can be imported.  The Service normally accepts public comment on import applications for 30 days. But there has been such an outcry in this case, the agency has extended the period for 60 days—until October 29.

I'm a correspondent for SCIENCE, and an author of four books, including the soon-to-be-released ANIMAL WISE: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Crown, February 2013).
  • Sara Keltie

    I am horrified this topic is even being debated!
    Oscar Wilde wrote ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ However we must learn and understand that whilst we love these animals, and want the experience of being near them, if we truly loved them we would be selfless and let them remain in the wild with their family which is their birthright.

  • Nicolas Entrup

    Virginia raises absolute valid points. The argumentation by the proponents of the import is falsified by the proponents themselves, as white whales have already been displayed in captivity for decades but their mission has failed and the programms not lived up to the argument. It is the urgency to refill the captive population which has not been selfsustaining over the years. But sadly these institutions do not learn from their own lessons which would be to accept that some species are not suitable to be held. When the Zoo in Duisburg stopped the display of the remaining beluga (a species from the Northern Hemisphere which was originally displayed with Commerson dolphins from the southern hemisphere) which was transfered to Sea World, a spanish dolphinarium imported belugas from Russia which were previously sent to Argentina (during that transfer two bottlenose dolphins died and Lufthansa decided to stop transferring cetaceans in the future). There is lots to say and some more thoughts are addressed in my BLOG,, so the hope is again that the authorities step away from allowing the import. I am pleased to see NG discussing this issue.

  • Christine Giannini

    Well said, Sara. The only reason it’s being debated is that we have had it drilled into us by our corporatocracy that we must not interfere with the “rights” of businesses to make a dollar, even those making money off the suffering of animals. It should not be up for debate, but every Seaworld and marine park wants the cutest most iconic in their exhibits to attract ticket buyers. It’s the same as circuses wanting elephants. It’s time we “just say no” to these businesses – because that is all they are – they contribute nothing to science or conservation of the species they hold. No. Their time is up to parade suffering as entertainment.

  • Sheri Hubball

    We, as a society, must move past our archaic way of thinking that it is still acceptable to go into the wild and rip an intelligent, sentient being away from its family/pod unit and place it in an unnatural, caged environment simply for our pleasure and economic gain. I, too, have never seen a beluga whale except on film and in magazines and I still care and I am still deeply fascinated by these magnificent beings. Kids are equally as fascinated by dinosaurs and know as much, if not more, about them and they have never seen one in real life. To quote the very wise Jacques Yves Cousteau, “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.”

  • Elizabeth Batt

    Nice to see this in Nat Geo. Outside of the moral and ethical reasons why these belugas should not be imported, is the long-term ramifications for belugas if they are. Allowing Georgia Aquarium to import these marine mammals (which they are purchasing from the Utrish corporation) sets a dangerous and irresponsible precedent for wild belugas.

  • Lori Marino

    Thank you for a well argued and substantive piece on this important issue. I am a neuroscientist who has studied dolphins and whales for over twenty years. I’ve published peer-reviewed papers on the educational claims of the zoo and aquarium industry and testified before Congress on this issue in 2010. Ms. Morell’s point regarding the fact that one need not see a live beluga whale in captivity to be educated about them or care about them is borne out by the empirical research that shows there is absolutely no evidence that seeing captive dolphins and whales has any real educational value or leads to any longterm attitude change. The zoo and aquarium industry has not produced one iota of evidence for this claim. The studies and polls they rely upon are deeply flawed. So, I wish to thank Ms. Morell for her analysis and her willingness to step up and say “the emporer has no clothes”. I hope the paying public will decide to make it clear they will not tolerate being fed false claims by the zoo and aquarium industry.

  • Abbey Johnson

    The fact that this archaic and barbaric practice is even being considered is ridiculous. Those who are informed about what goes on at these marine parks know dang well that the only reasons they want these wild Belugas is because they are running out of fresh genes, and their Belugas are dying off faster than they can breed them, despite their breeding at premature ages.
    The claim that they want these animals for research education and conservation is outrageous. They’ve already got a few Belugas now, how is adding a few more going to increase education and research? For every thing discovered about a captive Beluga, scientists have already discovered 2 times as much by studying them in the wild.
    As for the education: what is having a Beluga in a tank going to teach people more than a simple documentary can? It doesn’t. children learn to think that these animals BELONG in tanks, performing stupid tricks and swimming in circles, rather than being wild animals and doing what they do in the ocean.
    Lastly, as for conservation, I would like for the aquarium to explain to me how taking from wild stocks in the ocean is preserving an already threatened species? That is the exact opposite of conservation, both short and long term. These whales that they have taken could have provided many more whales to their social family group. All of these things eventually add up. Take the southern resident Killer Whales for example. as a result of all of the captures that occurred in the last few decades, 80 whales were not born into the community, and now this whale community is facing extinction.

    I say no to this import.

  • 4MarineLife

    It is such a shame to see yet another plan to round up and hoard some more of nature’s beautiful creatures. The captive life of a Cetacean is that of an unhappy nature where they are force fed with pipes if they refuse their bucket of dead fish and have to have teeth drilled because of infection they gather being under extreme stress in the confines of a pool, like being shut in a small room for the rest of your life as a human. The only way to prevent further capture and torture of these poor mammals is to drive the economic value of these practices to beyond zero, then make the rich and thoughtless criminals involved pay for their crimes against the planet. This is enough of businesses exploiting marine animals under the guise of ‘scientific research’ and ‘conservation’. They deliver nothing of any worth to the scientific and conservationist communities other than demonstrating how these animals should not be treated and the consequences of their health if subjected to such immoral conditions. Please follow me on Twitter and help spread the word about the threats to all marine life due to human barbarity.

  • JV

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece. I once worked with belugas at the #SeaCircus for 3.5 years. In the 1990’s they were kept in 70 degree (F) water (instead of 45F like they are accustomed to) and died at a young age. Their ridiculous show names were “Bentley & Bianca,” no matter which 2 we used for the segment. Aside from pointing out some basic surface anatomy, very little education occurred. It was all about putting on “the show.” Audience satisfaction polling was the only metric the park used to measure success. Thank you for citing the WDC/Humane Society poll in this article. Here is more on the beluga situation (including a full video debriefing of the NOAA hearings by another former SeaWorld trainer):

  • Susanna Duft

    In this day & age, that this question and debate is even printed in National Geographic is a disgrace to the progress of mankind! Have we not heard enough outcry with the death & injury of trainers at SeaWorld with orcas. Have we not heard enough outcry from former trainers of animals overtly suffering at marine parks all over the world. Have we not heard enough from marine scientists of the crimes against the oceans by pillaging them to the point of no return. Or is that what it will take…when it’s too late. That is the worst form of education out there – to knowingly and without good reason exterminate another species.

  • Pam Hryskiw

    Under no circumstance should any of these belugas be kept in captivity…Loathe to quote the “if you love something set it free”…but it applies here! We keep criminals in captivity, these guys did nothing wrong and deserve to ive their lives according to their own agendas.

  • Lorena Birk

    Considering these 18 belugas will be entering a system that has failed, and will go through the same ordeals as previous captives, I fail to see how they will save the dying captive population. In addition, I fear this is a stepping stone for importing other cetaceans, namely orca or killer whales, which have a smaller American population than the belugas. That breeding program has also failed, with nearly half the calves hybrids, half of them having been sired by Tilikum, and a high risk that the animals will die before replacing themselves. The number of captive Commerson’s dolphins is also low, less then ten animals in America I think. Captive pilot whales are not at sustainable levels, and SeaWorld’s last false killer whale, Jozu, has died (she was captive born, but her ancestry has animals from the Izu dolphin drives, before they stopped importing from the drives). The belugas are just the start. Please don’t support such an inhumane practice.

  • Michelle Jean

    NO! Whale captivity doesn’t work. It is cruel, it is ONLY for profit. Society is growing conscience. We can hope.

  • s.smith

    Leave these beautiful beings alone; always and forever away from humans.

  • Lifeforce Foundation

    The psychological and physical needs of belugas and other dolphins cannot be provided for in captivity. Their social communities cannot be created in tiny pool prisons and most die prematurely. Watch Lifeforce SADquarium video about the beluga capture by the Vancouver Aquarium:
    “Belugas: Far From Home”

  • Carol

    thank you for this thoughtful and well argued piece, and for coming to the only logical conclusion: NO! i whole heartedly agree with the other comments, so far. there is no justification for approval of this import, or for keeping belugas in captivity at all.

  • JJ

    I love when places like SeaWorld use the catch-all justification that the… “whales are needed to help with their captive breeding programs, research, and education.” Yes, indeed, they do need to extend their captive breeding program so that they can continue to profit from a population housed in concrete bathtubs. You also have to love the “research” justification. The peer-reviewed scientific literature is conspicuous in its absence of research articles based on captive belugas (and orcas) in places like SW. I worked as a trainer at SW in the 1990s; no real science occurred with the captive orcas which were in my care. None. Similarly, as Lori Marino points out (above), there is little, if any, evidence in the scientific literature that seeing whales and dolphins in captivity imparts any real education to the visitor, nor does it result in attitudinal or behavioral change. So what are we left with? A bunch of corporate nonsense. Corporation like SW live in a world where the claim creates the “fact.” How about this for an approach: Instead of increasing the captive population of cetaceans for monetary purposes, place your captive whales and dolphins on birth control and let their numbers dwindle through attrition. Problem solved; SW is the hero. At the very least, leave the wild critters alone.

  • Jennifer O’Connor

    Belugas thrive in the wide-open ocean. They are extremely social animals who play, chase each other and interact in extended pods. Belugas have been called “sea canaries” because they speak and seem to sing to each other.

    Taking wild-caught animals and housing them in an artificial environment and hoping they’ll churn out babies is not only cruel, it’s folly. Breeding belugas in captivity has proven unsuccessful. Despite five decades of effort, the population of captive belugas in the U.S. has declined.

    This plan should be soundly condemned by everyone who cares about sea life.

  • Marc Bekoff

    We do not need any more animals suffering in captivity

    Plans to bring 18 whales to U. S. aquariums are scientifically and ethically misguided. We don’t need any more whales in captive breeding mills that offer romantic settings along with champagne and strawberries for $450 and other forms of entertainment. There still is time to file comments on an upcoming hearing about this inane proposal.

  • Jared G.

    Thank you for the great piece. The Georgia Aquarium’s application to import these animals makes abundantly clear that their priority is not the well-being of wild and captive marine animals. In fact, as demonstrated by the decades of unsuccessful breeding and premature deaths in captivity, these social, intelligent animals are more useful to conservation and sustaining the wild beluga population when they are able to swim freely with their families and mate at their will.

    It’s also a betrayal of the public trust. There have been no imports of deliberately captured cetaceans for U.S. facilities since 1993 because of the public outcry to ripping these animals from their homes and families. The Aquarium’s attempt to hide these recent captures from the public has failed miserably and the government now much ensure that their import application does too.

  • Kelley Shiver

    Beluga whales should NOT be imported for display. People think it’s “cruel” when a rapist gets put behind bars for a week, when he should be out back behind the wood shed. So why isn’t it cruel for animals who haven’t done ANYTHING to be plucked from their native habitat, where others of their species are, where they KNOW HOW to live, and imported like cigars to some distant land and placed in a cage for spectators to goggle at. If people are actually dull enough to think that animals don’t think or feel, and I think quite a few are, I’m almost ashamed to be a part of the human race. Animals deserve our respect and they deserve to be LEFT IN THE WILD. We don’t need to pluck them permanently and cruelly from their home so we can see them. If you want to see them bad enough, I say get your lazy butt in gear, save some money, and go on vacation to wherever the animal naturally lives and see it there.

  • bob

    though it is true captive animals do serve as ambassadors for wild ones and they do provide some services to society, the question is do we really need 18 of them. can the captive breeding of aquariums such as vancouver not offer one or 2 whales? perhaps the public is being kept in the dark about the price of such actions as there is a wild population of belugas in canada as well and im sure the cost is too much for aquariums to take.

  • Courtney Vail

    No matter the arguments put forward, it does not negate the only truth that matters in this instance: captivity is, and always will be, our entertainment at their expense.

  • Courtney Vail

    Regardless of the arguments presented, the one essential truth that cannot be denied is that captivity is, pure and simple, our entertainment at their expense.

  • Andy Heil

    I loved Ms Morell’s post, particularly because it’s dispassionate in a debate that’s as emotionally charged as this one. Condemning wild roaming animals like belugas to generations of captivity is not a black-and-white issue, no matter what each side contends. But one would hope that US authorities require extremely compelling reasons for deviating from what has essentially been two decades of moratorium on importing these wild animals. My RFE/RL colleagues and I are still seeking more information from the Russian side, where they’re regularly catching around 30 wild beluga whales a year. In the meantime, I’ve posted my own item with some additional info.

  • Amy Mack

    A gilded cage is still a cage. I really think its immoral to take an animal from the freedom of the wild and put them in cages for our entertainment. If they were rescued or endangered that changes the issue but to take fine, healthy, strong individuals from freedom and to imprison them for our entertainment is just wrong. That’s why we put law-breakers behind bars, its punishment.

  • Janet

    I completely agree with Sara. If we really did love these animals we would leave them right where they belong, in there natural habitat. Aquariums are not suitable for these whales. They cannot provide everything they need for them to survive as well as their natural homes do. We don’t need a close up experience to care for these animals. I have never seen one in person and I wish to see one someday but I would not want to endanger them in those cages just for my entertainment.

  • Bretta

    I can speak from personal experience working at a well known aquarium that do I agree with the word display no they are not just trophies. What most people don’t realize is that during feeding sessions that the general public view as a “show” is actually an educational experience for the animals the public as well as our scientists and staff. There is a lot of things the public don’t know the “tricks” you see is actually our way of handling check ups just like your child at the pediatricians office doesn’t the doctor try to make it fun for everyone? As do we and it’s not just for show or display or just for the heck of it the beluga whale numbers are on the decline and a huge part of this is to attempt breeding possibilities and to find out why it is difficult for these magnificent creatures to reproduce at a healthy rate. Also many people don’t realize that out of captivity the age expectancy has been researched and is minimal we have had belugas in captivity known to live into their 40s and 50s in the wild it’s closer to 20-30 if they are lucky and we would like to find out how to help this matter. So as many speak out researched the facts and the benefits to doing something like this particular situation it will be a truly beneficial experience for humans as well as the beloved beluga whales also they ate never forced to do anything they don’t want to. So next time you take your child to the doctor try telling the doctor to not be nice and make the visit miserable and just see what happens.

  • Rolando Jimenez

    No. Leave them alone.

  • Malik Ayob

    I’m from Malaysia and have never seen a beluga or an orca and many other creatures up close. The only images i have of these creatures are in documentaries and magazines and that’s how i want to remember them; living wild. Putting them in captivity is an outrage and only teaches children that such is acceptable. I will not bring my children to any facilities that house these creatures.

  • Ellie Payton

    Beluga’s are way cool. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and saw them all the time… where they belong… in the ocean. No way would I want a strain of belugas cut off from the natural path to entertain men… They would lose their natural capabilities. Not the real thing pretty soon. So defeats the purpose…

  • Malik Ayob

    Please edit my earlier comment to use words like marine mammals instead of creatures. The word creatures do not truly convey my strong feelings against keeping these marine mammals in captivity. Thank you

  • Danilo

    Make a Holographic Marine Park and free all the animals …I’m sure that it can be almost more interesting to the audience than real show …the freedom to conduct what will happen in aquarium will be greater and more amazing to the people…having the power to change the scenario at any time…

  • Constanza Alexieva

    No to captivity for whatever reason! Breeding, education whatever it is trying to justify a barbaric practice of keeping a living being in a place where it doesn’t want to be. Imagine if some overdeveloped alien nation decides to take some of us to study us. So why should we revive the Roman Empire favorite pastime watching what’s going on in the arena.

  • jgd

    Leave these whales where they belong. No arguments the zoo-keepers are making can hide their “commercial” interests! My fear is that as with everything in Washington, the financial connections [lobbyists?] will trump public outcry here too.:(

  • Rafael Solis

    Es muy bueno que estén protegiendo a estas ballenas en sus habitats Naturales espero que los acuarios no importen estos animales tal lindos ya que estarán dañando una familia de sus especie es decir la familia de las ballenas ya que ellas sienten actual como nosotros los seres Humanos estos animales tienen derecho a su habitat natural. espero que causen la conciencia de no importar a estas ballenas

  • Rolando

    The fact that we are still debating about these issues only reflect how primitive we are as society and as specie.

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