Free Ride: The Case Against Whale and Dolphin Shows

Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins/iLCP
Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins/iLCP


“We gotta do better, it’s time to begin. 
You know all the answers must come from within…. Come on and take a free ride….”

From where I write, on the coast of California, I can look out and see dolphins swim gracefully through forests of ocean kelp. But I know that on the other side of the Pacific, it’s a very different scenario. Ric O’Barry is in Japan monitoring the dolphin hunt in Taiji, famously exposed in the movie “The Cove.” In picturesque Hatajiri Bay, the dolphins are being forced into a cove and trapped, then sold or slaughtered, in one of the worst drive-capture fisheries on the planet. Even though a horrified international public expressed outrage after seeing the brutality unleashed on these innocent sentient creatures in “The Cove,” the drive continues there and in other parts of Japan. In fact the capture and export of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is exploding around the world, as is the display industry that uses them.

Ric tweets real-time updates:
“Taiji: Update… 10 taken captive. Skiffs leave with pod family members and return empty, but take more… Still around 8 left fate unknown. Taiji: Bottlenose dolphin pod netted into cove, trainers reviewing for captivity, 15-20. Being pushed into shallows. #tweet4Dolphins 10:40 am 2013/02/05”

Millions of people pay to see these and other cetaceans at a marine park. They say they love these animals, but their money is what makes this practice profitable. The growing popularity of dolphin encounters, beluga interactions, and killer whales performing aerial acrobatics has fueled the market for trade in these wild species.

Even if the park has not obtained its animals from the wild, promoting this kind of entertainment stimulates sales and raises the value for cetaceans, often obtained through some form of drive fishery like the one each year in Taiji. Regardless of where they come from, their future in a marine park, “dolphinarium” or aquarium is grim. Life there bears little resemblance to the life they have evolved to live in the open ocean.

My renewed interest in this issue was sparked by a unique dive trip. Last October, I was invited to dive with my friend John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, in their Atlantic Coral Reef tank. I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame feeding a hungry porcupine fish as kids waved and photographed me from the other side of the glass! After the tank dive, John and I jumped in the rehabilitation pool to swim with some of the recovering animals–a friendly Green Sea Turtle named Calypso missing a flipper (who loves back rubs), a shy Napoleon Wrasse needing time to acclimate, and a beautiful blind Zebra Shark that kept running into us.

Then, I met the dolphins.

Meeting Bailey at The National Aquarium
Meeting Bailey at The National Aquarium

When I’ve encountered dolphins in the wild, they are very shy, very fast, and avoid human interaction; these bottlenose dolphins were different. Playful and social, they initiated a game of catch, throwing the ball at me repeatedly, and vocally complaining when I took a break. I adored them and felt that we had bonded over the couple hours of playtime. But this easy connection is why they are in so much demand. Dolphins and other cetaceans make great animals for entertainment. They can be trained to mimic human behaviors (dolphins and orcas do not wave to each other in the wild), and there is a feeling of an emotional bond between an animal and a human that is profound–even like love.

But just because it feels good, it doesn’t make it right.

This particular family of dolphins at the National Aquarium was born in captivity and probably would not be able to survive in the wild should they be released. They have participated in a number of illuminating scientific studies, including cognitive studies being conducted by Dr. Dianna Reiss, a professor of psychology, and director of the dolphin research program at the National Aquarium.Through various experiments, Dr. Reiss has found that the dolphins recognize their reflection in a mirror and even use it for self-directed behavior. This suggests that dolphins have a self-awareness that previously had been attributed only to humans and apes!

These are highly complex mammals with complex social lives, complex cognitive lives. And we know enough now to know that they are highly intelligent.”–Dr. Reiss in an interview on NPR

What remains to be seen is how intelligent we will be in using this knowledge to make better decisions about their welfare.

John Racanelli is conflicted over keeping the dolphins at the National Aquarium, and we began a discussion about keeping dolphins and other cetaceans captive in general. A passionate ocean advocate, John has suspended the dolphin shows in exchange for a more interactive program where families can simply watch the dolphins in the amphitheater as they go about their day. “You really can’t make the dolphins do show after show after show. It’s stressful, and it’s not appropriate.” Now, visitors can learn about the dolphins’ natural behaviors, as well as how that species and whales live in nature.  It seems to be a better experience for both the guests and the dolphins. Even so, he does not want to perpetuate the wild dolphin drives by encouraging the collection of cetaceans from the wild for any purpose, especially aquariums. John and his team are therefore considering what to do with their dolphins in the long term. He put it this way: “Any long-term needs should be driven by the welfare of the animal. We need to put them first.”  Which may mean not having them at all at the aquarium.

A few weeks ago, I attended the screening of a new film, “Blackfish,” at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film is about orcas in captivity and used for entertainment. It focused particularly on Tilikum, and what could have led to the death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in 2010. Watching the film, you witness Tilikum’s capture in the wild, his separation from his family and placement in solitary confinement, his repeated injuries from other orcas’ aggression, and food deprivation to force him to perform. It breaks your heart.

The killer whale Tilikum watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session. Photograph: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
The killer whale Tilikum watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session. Photograph: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

If I had any internal debate about whether captive cetaceans provide a benefit to education and conservation that might outweigh their confined lifetimes, it vanished after I watched this film. I am very clear that in spite of their loving trainers, it is not OK to confine these majestic, intelligent, wild animals in tanks that are a micro-fraction of the size of their natural habitat for any reason other than short rehabilitation. Certainly not for a lifetime!

“I think the most amazing fact I learned was that they have a part of the brain that we don’t have—a part that we can’t even identify. This suggests that they sense, understand, and even feel more than we do. It still blows me away to think about it.”—Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Despite misleading claims by SeaWorld to the contrary, scientists tell us a whale’s lifespan in captivity is about half those in the wild. The dorsal fin collapse common among captive males orcas like Tillikum occurs in less than 1 percent of the wild population! Orcas continue to be bred in captivity, though there is a high mortality rate in orca calves. Those that survive are separated from their mothers at an early age to be shipped to other marine parks, though in the wild they bond for life, adding to the significant stress they already are under.

Orca mother and calf, Baja Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins/ iLCP
Orca mother and calf, Baja Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins/ iLCP

Scientists have learned a great deal from being able to study these animals in captivity, but perhaps the most important thing we’ve learned is that keeping them in these parks and aquariums is detrimental to their mental and physical health, shortens their life span, and often kills them.

As Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with Humane Society International, remarks, “Society has recast the image of these animals from ‘killer whales’ into ‘sea pandas’. We admire the orcas’ power and grace, yet we fail to see the irony of forcing them into straitjackets of concrete.”

One would think this vast body of evidence showing the negative consequences of keeping these animals in captivity would halt the practice. Instead, it’s growing.

In 59 countries around the world, there are well over 2,000 dolphins held in unsuitably small tanks, a number of which have been captured from the wild from the now infamous Japanese coastal town of Taiji. There are currently seven countries that keep a total of 42 orcas (killer whales) in captivity – led by the U.S. which has 21. There are 161 beluga whales in captivity, 42 in Canada and 31 in the U.S. This figure increased temporarily by one last month (May) when a beluga calf was born at the Georgia Aquarium. It died five days after birth.”–Earth Race Conservation, June 2012

Currently under review by the NMFS (part of NOAA) is an application from the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild captured Beluga Whales from Russia for distribution to several marine parks in the U.S. This would be the first permitted importation of wild-caught cetaceans to the U.S. since 1993. This controversial application has had thousands of written objections. Dozens of scientists and activists spoke out against this wildlife trafficking during a public hearing. Our outdated laws and loopholes in the Marine Mammal Protection Act allow this to go on, in spite of what we know about the toll it takes on the whales.

The Georgia Aquarium insists it needs the animals for research and education, as well as for breeding. Their website claims: “..the belugas at Georgia Aquarium have become ambassadors for all marine mammals; increasing scientific knowledge and helping Aquarium staffers promote education and conservation messages on behalf of the species”. Opponents assert that this is no justification to inflict pain and suffering on these endangered sentient wild animals. According to The Dolphin Project, of the 71 Belugas that have been held in six aquariums (including the Georgia Aquarium), 34 have died. That is nearly half. And the captive breeding program has been a massive failure, with very few surviving offspring in the last five decades.

“I just want to make sure I got this right. The Georgia Aquarium has captured 18 beluga whales. They’ve got them in a holding pen. They want to put them in a truck, fly them over the ocean, and put them in their building in Georgia so they can teach the American public respect for nature.”–Ric O’Barry, NOAA hearing, October 2012

Unfortunately for cetaceans, the wildlife display industry is a very profitable business, earning millions of dollars annually for the parks. Visitors pay $169.95 for the “Beluga and Friends” experience at the Georgia Aquarium, and $215 for “Dolphin Interaction” or “Beluga Interaction” at Sea World San Diego. For that fee, you get just 20 minutes with the animals. The Shedd Aquarium’s “Beluga Proposal Experience” offers couples exclusive whale time “ complete with a private poolside moment that is perfect for popping the question” for $450!

At Sea World Orlando, where Tilikum is still living out his life, a show called “Shamu Rocks” entertains people with “more flash—and certainly more splash—than a rock concert… amazing killer whale behavior set to sizzling rock and roll music, along with dazzling lighting effects and breathtaking multimedia elements.”

Shamu Rocks Show, Sea World
Shamu Rocks Show, Sea World

What kind of natural behavior would a killer whale exhibit when surrounded by blasting music and flashing lights in a tiny chlorinated pool? Ironically, the show (which I watched with equal measure of horror and amazement on YouTube) opens with the 70’s hit “Free Ride”. For the audience, and especially the orcas, it’s anything but.

With millions of visitors buying tickets to these shows, clearly this is big business, but only if people continue to support these unnatural forced performances.

So, what are the alternatives? Aquariums and marine parks have a great educational and conservation benefit, but they can serve these important roles without capturing cetaceans and forcing them to perform circus tricks. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, New England Aquarium and the Aquarium of the Pacific, for example, offer boat trips to see these great animals in their natural habitat instead of in pools. Marine parks and aquariums can provide a greater service if they teach respect for nature through their own behavior, which would mean retiring these exploitive wild animal shows, and ending the capture or breeding of cetaceans into lifelong confinement.

Technology has allowed us to study cetaceans in the wild like never before through satellite tagging, acoustic monitoring, photo identification, and even “blow–sampling.” The University of Queensland, Georgetown University and the National Aquarium have now perfected getting DNA from a dolphin blow, instead of an invasive blood sample. This can be used in the wild for accurate genetic collection, negating the need for captive sampling. Dr. Ingrid Visser, known as “The Woman Who Swims with Killer Whales,” has spent over a decade studying wild Orcas in New Zealand by getting in the ocean with them. Her science is giving us valuable and applicable knowledge of how to protect these animals in the ocean. There are many researchers around the world who study cetaceans in the wild; it is not necessary to keep adding to the population of confined animals to serve the scientific community.

Even if we start phasing out these display programs now, it is estimated that we would still have cetaceans alive in captivity for several decades. Captive animals that cannot successfully be returned to the wild (and many cannot) should be retired to larger ocean pens; there they could live out their life in relative comfort and care.

I don’t believe that having these animals in captivity is a good way to educate the public about nature, or to inspire a pro-ocean ethic. There is nothing natural about orcas performing acrobatic tricks while accompanied by bright lights and loud rock and roll; to commercialize it this way sends the wrong message about respect and moral responsibility for protecting wilderness. People, especially children, can be more inspired through adventure and exploration than unnatural entertainment, and it will cost you–and the animals–a lot less. Take a trip on the Victoria Clipper out of Seattle to the San Juan Islands to see orcas in the real sea world, the ocean! Take a walk at Zuma beach in Malibu and you can see wild bottlenose dolphins and possibly even grey, humpback and blue whales! Let your children be splashed by an ocean wave, not the chlorinated pool water that imprisons Shamu.

These captive whales and dolphins did not choose to become the “ambassadors” of their species, but we can choose to be ambassadors of ours, by showing respect for these animals in the wild, and allowing them to be free.

Another tweet from Ric O’Barry comes in:
“Taiji: Sadly 11 have been taken captive. 7-8 more were not selected and have not been seen in quite some time… Cove is now becoming red. Hearing the remaining dolphin family thrashing very very hard. Nothing can prepare you for this insanity, I am crushed. #tweet4Dolphins 10:55 am 2013/02/05”



Environmental philanthropist and ocean activist Shari Sant Plummer is President of Code Blue Charitable Foundation, Secretary/Trustee of the Summit Charitable Foundation, Board member of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, Vice President/Trustee of Seacology, Board Member of International League of Conservation Photographers, member of the Blue Ocean Film Festival Advisory Council, and member of the World Wildlife Fund’s National Council and Marine Leadership Committee. A graduate of NYU and former Design Director at Ralph Lauren in NY, Shari is now an avid diver and ocean activist, traveling extensively throughout the world and promoting ocean conservation and environmental awareness.
  • Alex Thomson

    This message is so important to get out to the masses. I hope the magazine will pick up on this article and print it in the magazine so it can get worldwide attention.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thank you Alex!

  • JY Kim

    I remember feeling uneasy when I visited SeaWorld San Diego, and Mr. Kirby’s book, ‘Death at SeaWorld’ crystalized the reason why. These magnificent, intelligent creatures shouldn’t be confined in tiny pools, separated from their mothers and families, and be forced to perform tricks and breed for profit. We know better now and should do better.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thank you for your comments!

  • Debbie Blalock

    It was a pleasure to read such a well thought out and well written article. That we still allow cetaceans to be confined in amusement parks under a filmy subterfuge of education shows a disconnect from reality. This is the 21st century; it’s time for this uneducated and barbaric behavior to end.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thank you Debbie, I like your profile photo!

  • Robin Levine

    AMEN! God bless all those who choose to help the whales, especially the captive killer whales, exploited by humans, who are simply money hungry. Your views are applauded and supported. Thank you for speaking up. Robin

  • Christina Wall

    This is a well-written, informative article that I hope gets a lot of attention. It’s time for people to stop believing that these animals are here for our entertainment and learn about them where they belong–in the ocean. Thank you for sharing this information. I hope that people start to realize that dolphins and whales don’t belong in captivity and that the industry finally comes to an end.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thank you Christina! Hopefully it will stop being profitable and it will stop.

  • giusy ingallinera

    Thank you! Read this wonderful article in a magazine of such prestige, gives me hope for a future of radical change about our distorted view on the reality of these beautiful animals!

    • Shari Sant Plummer


  • jaimy

    You’ve wrote is prefect it discovers the capacity so well hope it reaches a lot of people all over the world

  • Michelle Lott

    Very well written and educational article on the horrors of marine mammal captivity and the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan. If I read this before visiting Orlando’s SeaWorld in 2011, I never would have went. I learned the hard way that keeping them in small chlorinated tanks is abusive. All it took was watching the orca in the pool watching video of their wild counterparts to see that it was wrong. I left the park feeling sad and depressed, not entertained.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thanks Michelle! The parks need to hear your views, maybe it will encourage them to stop!

  • Heather Baskey

    Thank you for a well thought out and written article. I do hope that NG Magazine will pick this up and PRINT in their magazine.

    With appreciation, Heather

  • Samantha Berg

    I am a former SeaWorld trainer who has been speaking publicly for the last 2 1/2 years about why large marine mammals – and particularly cetaceans such as dolphins and killer whales – do not belong in captivity. This article is extremely well-written, factual and it captures all the important reasons why captivity should be a thing of the past. Thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful and well-researched article that looks beyond the bias of a human-centered perspective.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Thank you for your comment Samantha. “Blackfish” is a powerful film, especially because of the candid interviews with you and the other former Sea World trainers. You are all to be commended for speaking out on this issue!

  • Samantha Berg

    Thanks Shari! We’re all doing our part to get the word out. I will pass your comments on to the director.

  • Karen Hanson Munro

    I, too, commend you on an excellent article. I witnessed a capture of wild orcas by whale catchers for Sea World in 1976 and it was horrifying. Very violent, with “seal bombs” thrown from power boats and a seaplane used to drive the pod of orcas into a shallow bay of Puget Sound. Fortunately, a group of us was able to challenge Sea World in court, with the help of Washington’s Governor and Attorney General. They had violated terms of the permit, and information came out about previous captures where orcas had been drowned in the nets. Sea World lost the case and signed an agreement that they would never again capture orcas in Washington State waters. It is well past time that the capture and display of orcas (anywhere in the world) in entertainment parks is stopped once and for all. An orca named Lolita was taken from Puget Sound and has been held captive in the Miami Seaquarium (whose facilities are even worse than most) for over 40 years. The “Orca Network” online gives information on her plight.

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Dear Karen,
      Thanks for your comments and your great work on behalf of the orcas! There is an orca named Morgan at Loro Parque which many organizations are trying to get freed. He was captured in the wild and in need of rehab but now he could be released to the wild, but is in the system they are trying to keep him. There is a website for him:http://www.freemorgan.org
      I wanted to write about him in the post but it was already getting too long.
      Keep up the good work! Best, Shari

  • frank drummond

    very well written shari!love it!i too hope national geographic will print this,children should see these creatures in their natural environment and not in the confines of a tank of concrete,i think the only way forwards is to stop the “entertainment” shows,take your kids out on the real ocean to see them,memories for life,your children will love you more for the experience,thank you for your words,i shall be sharing them.

  • Jeffrey Ventre

    Shari, thank you for writing this. My favorite part is how you took us through the thought process and ended with a decision. Reading how Blackfish kind of sealed the deal was extra special. Thanks again.

  • Howard Garrett

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well-informed article. As a society we seem to be looking past the seductive imagery and triumphant soundtrack to see the captive orca business for what it is: incarceration set to music. It’s a celebration of the fantasy of human dominance over nature. Readership of National Geographic overlaps with the demographic that often attends captive orca shows, so this will inform a wide audience.

  • Rachel Clark

    I’m so grateful to you for writing this wonderful, thoughtful exploration. You’ve covered so much, so well. David Kirby’s “Death at SeaWorld” inspired me to write my first novel (I’ve been a science/environment writer for 12 years), about just these issues and more….for young adults. It brings together wild orcas and captive orcas (and the people who love them) in a plot, that, I hope, will make every reader shout out, “Keep Shamu? Shame on you!!” And then take action.

    Your piece offers me more hope that this insanity can be stopped. Thank you so much for your writing and sharing.

  • Lyn Clifton

    I am choked and near to tears reading of the captive animals made to perform, kept in unsuitable tiny conditions and not even in sea water. So sad too, the treatment of dolphins and whales in the methods of their capture for such enterprises! There are so many responsible whale ;& dolphin trips that the public can go on, around the world, how can these ‘entertainment’ people justify a ‘need’, which us not there! There is still more that needs to be done in the education of the public on the cruelty of these spectacles.

  • Suza Scalora

    Hi Shari, Thank you for writing this piece. It’s so important to educate people to stop this inhumane industry. Ric is amazing!! Thanks for sharing his tweets. I’m passing it on. Love, Suza

  • Sheyka Nugrahani

    Hi, Shari, greetings from Indonesia!

    Thank you so much for writing this mind-blowing and inspiring article, Shari. You provide solutions for us, readers, in the end and I couldn’t agree more. We in Indonesia are also still poorly educated about paying respect to the animals. We don’t even have wildlife department here just like one in US. You are right about promoting the whale-watching experience. As long as it doesn’t violate the privacy of whales (you know, the regulations about distance between the boat and the whale, etc.), I think it’s alright for the whale-watching to continue. And I agree with you about how important the adventure and exploration for kids are.

    Thank you again! You are so inspiring 🙂

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Hi Sheyka,
      Indonesia is home to some of the most beautiful and pristine reefs in the world. I have been fortunate to dive in Raja Ampat and the Komodo Islands which are spectacular! You are right about the whale watching tourism industry, while it is a much better way to experience a large wild animal, if not regulated it can also be detrimental to their well being. I spent a week in Holbox, Mexico with a large aggregation of over 450 whale sharks. The demand for tourist experiences with the sharks has driven the number of permitted boats to over four times what it should be! The sharks often get injured from collisions with tour boats so this is a big problem. However, this is still better than the alternative, many of these tour operators used to be shark fishermen!
      Best, Shari

  • Sarah McCullagh

    Hi Shari,
    This is an amazing article, and captures most of my sentiments about why cetaceans should not be kept in captivity. I will still not buy a ticket to the National Aquarium, because they have dolphins in their collection, but I respect that the have discontinued their dolphin shows. As a child I was obsessed with whales and dolphins and would have probably been more happy just being able to watch the animals on their own time rather than in a flashy show.
    I have one question for Mr. John Racanelli, pertaining to the Dolphin Encounters that still take place in the Aquarium. Why are those occurring if within this article they have been painted as part of the “evil” economic cloud taking over other, potentially “educational” aquariums? And for you, Shari, why were the National Aquarium’s encounters not addressed in your article? You paint a picture of these encounter experiences being one of the main driving forces of cetacean captivity, yet, the National Aquarium, your gold standard for captivity, still continues the practice. I respect that the public desires close contact with these creatures, but people lose the fact that these animals are the top predators in the wild. We as a culture do not beg for a grizzly bear or lion “experience.” The National Aquarium is moving in the right direction, and from as much as you printed about your conversation with Mr. John Racanelli, they are asking the morally correct questions, but in the end it seems like the same old, same old… Looking for any economic value to squeeze from the animals.

    I hope that this article ends up in National Geographic as there are many cetaceans without voices that need someone to shout their plea for help. Thank you for such a thoughtful article, I wish you the best.
    Sarah McCullagh

    • Shari Sant Plummer

      Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for your comments. I think I pointed out that the National Aquarium is struggling with what to do with the dolphins they have which were born there, and would not survive in the wild. Though the dolphins are not performing shows, they do still offer the opportunity to work with the trainers and meet the dolphins. While I don’t find this abusive of the dolphins, it is still problematic if it perpetuates a market for captive cetaceans. In the article I pointed out that this is something John Racanelli is grappling with, and though I wouldn’t say it’s the “Gold Standard” yet, the National Aquarium is moving in a direction I wish other aquariums and marine parks with captive cetaceans would. “Even so, he does not want to perpetuate the wild dolphin drives by encouraging the collection of cetaceans from the wild for any purpose, especially aquariums. John and his team are therefore considering what to do with their dolphins in the long term. He put it this way: “Any long-term needs should be driven by the welfare of the animal. We need to put them first.” Which may mean not having them at all at the aquarium.”

      In fact the National Aquarium is working on something that will be entertaining, educational, and not involve live dolphins at all. They should announce it soon, but in the meantime I am sworn to secrecy!
      Best, Shari

  • Sarah Colosimo

    Thank you Shari for such a thought provoking piece highlighting not only what is wrong with captivity, but also providing a considerate and feasible solution – a must read on cetacean captivity!

  • Louise Trower

    This is an amazing, easy-to-read informative article as someone who has been against cetacean captivity for as long as I can remember I will be sharing it with my friends…

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  • Carlo

    This past Saturday I went with my family for my daughters 11th birthday to seaworld, what i saw will never want to make me go back. I filmed it and posted it on youtube and since then I am more knowledgeable then ever about dolphins, captivity, and dolphin shows. All I know is seeing a dolphin flip around and struggle on a ledge is heartbreaking.


    I currently have over 16k views and an outpour from people on the treatment of these animals in entertainment captivity

  • Cynthia

    SO you have a problem with dolphins being in captivity, but no problem with the rest of the animals exploited at the aquarium? The animals you swam with in the coral reef exhibit are wild-caught, unlike the dolphins.

  • choeeleeann

    i cant believe that somebody would do such a thing that is so mean

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