Most organisms are adapted to live in and thrive in their own environment no matter how extreme they appear to be, for example Polar bears which are located in the blistering cold of the Artic have evolved and adapted to this harsh climate in order to not freeze and survive. However what may not appear extreme to one species can be a nightmare to another species, especially when some animals are forcibly removed from their own habitat and placed into a captive environment. With a vast amount of the attention towards captive marine animals building in the last few years, not many scientific studies have been conducted about the condition, mental health and general health of these marine mammals in captivity.

Bottlenose Dolphins socialising in the wild, living in pods. (Source)

Some studies have given us an insight to potential mental health issues for some of these animals: where the Bottle nose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) would show an increase in stress hormones when in captivity when compared to those dolphins in the wild, free to roam. One of the key differences between the captive homes of these animals and the wild is the space restrictions in their tanks as opposed to the open ocean. On average a Killer Whale will travel around 75 miles every single day in the wild, which simply cannot be matched within a singular enclosure away from the ocean.

Aerial view of the “Shamu close-up” tank. Scale bar indicates this tank is ~35m by ~20m with 5 Orcas in the tank. (Image from Google Maps 2015)

Intelligence

One of the more highlighted facts about the Whales and dolphins used for entertainment while in captivity is their intelligence demonstrated by on command flips, breaches and assisted swimming for the trainers present. Actions for the Dolphins such as flipping is a tweak in their natural system where they often use their ability to flip and spin in order to communicate with one another in pods in the wild for social interaction with other dolphins in their pod. Another fan favourite trick preformed by the Orca whales at these shows is to create a large wave action to soak the audience members in the “splash zone” however in the wild this would commonly be seen as a strategy by the whales in order to cause their prey to enter the water as opposed to on land.

Video: Orca whales creating waves for predation.

They’re still animals

Despite the vast intelligence shown by these marine mammals by ways of social interaction in the wild, or consistently preforming in captivity at shows in places such as SeaWorld, the animals removed from their natural environment will still rely on their natural instincts and when faced with extremes, incidents have occurred resulting in the animals attacking their own trainers. The change into these new environments allow for the Orca Whales in particular to attack each other when in captivity as they are not from the same pod. At the end of the day, despite these animals being displayed for entertainment, they are still the most lethal predators of the ocean meaning that when they fight, they can inflict great amounts of damage with ease due to their great muscle mass, fast powerful swimming and razor sharp teeth.  This damage can cause added stress to the mammals potentially causing these attacks on their own trainers.

A view of the deadly teeth with the mouth of a Killer Whale (source).

Media outrage

The majority of the conditions of these mammals in captivity such as SeaWorld went overlooked for years, until in 2013 the documentary “Blackfish” was released giving a a heartbreaking insight into the horrific conditions these animals have to face in their new environment after being taken as calfs away from their mothers in the wild, having to adapt to their new enclosures, preforming, detailing the lives of these captive whales until their early deaths. The backlash from this documentary has been large, causing SeaWorld to lose a substantial amount of profit from their parks, as well as protesters frequently campaigning outside of the parks to end the captivity of the marine mammals help captive. Thankfully a start has been made when in 2015 SeaWorld announced it would completely end the breeding of Whales in captivity with a look to end the shows, however due to the mammals currently inhabited in parks such as SeaWorld being removed from the ocean for almost their entire lives, or their the full life span in the case of breeding in captivity, these animals cannot simply be returned back into the oceans as it would become an extreme environment for these animals where it would be likely that they would struggle to survive if integrated back into the wild.

 

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