Durban Protest Against Marine Mammal Captivity

Each year from September to May, thousands of dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji on the south coast of Japan. Fishermen round them up by the hundreds using sound barriers to disorientate and herd the frantic pods out of their normal migrations into hidden lagoons like the one featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove.

Bottlenose dolphins, especially ones that look like Flipper, are pre-selected by trainers and sold off for upwards of $200,000 to marine amusements parks around the world, where they will remain in captivity performing circus acts.

Aquariums have defended the practice by claiming to “rescue” animals which would have been marketed as meat; yet in reality, and according to local people, the captive industry is subsidising drive hunts which may not otherwise have been conducted.

The lucrative captive dolphin industry is the driving economic force behind this dolphin slaughter. In the U.S. alone, dolphinariums represent an estimated 8 billion dollar industry, while a dead dolphin fetches a mere 600 dollars.

Just in the days leading up to Christmas of 2012, over 100 dolphins were captured for aquariums.

After the trainers and spectators leave, the rejected dolphins are massacred. In a frenzy of violence some are speared repeatedly by fisherman circling in motorboats, propellers often slicing the dolphins’ skin. Others are simply held underwater to drown. At times, a metal pole is rammed into their blubber in the hope of shattering the mammal’s spine. A cork stopper is then hammered where the rod was forced in, in an attempt to reduce the blood spilt into the sea — to conceal the extent of the slaughter.

Invariably a few dolphins try to make a break for freedom and attempt to jump over the netting that seals off the bay. However, amid the blood-red waters almost all of them eventually succumb to their fate.

For those that survive the slaughter, life might as well be over. The captive dolphins which have been torn from their natural environment are sentenced to a lifetime of confinement.

Captivity deprives these animals of everything that is important – the family bonds that form the heart of cetacean societies, the rich and varied ocean environment, the natural rhythms of the ocean, the diverse sea life on which they feed, and the freedom to swim vast distances across the open sea. In their place: a concrete tank, chlorinated water, buckets of dead fish, and endless circles swum in a barren tank.

To a dolphin, or any captive marine mammal, a tank is a cage. These intelligent, wide-ranging and fast-moving animals cannot behave naturally in captivity.

Being acoustic creatures, dolphins use echolocation (natural sonar) to communicate and navigate. When in captivity, the sound waves produced by their vocalisations bounce off the concrete walls of the tanks. It is a situation that has been compared to a human being confined to a room of mirrors for life, which is enough to literally drive some of these animals insane.

Stereotypic behaviours, which are behaviours that are repeated over and over, are common in animals living in zoos. Land mammals will pace as marine mammals will swim aimlessly in circles, and repeatedly “head bobbing” in and out of the water, along with other displayed forms of neuroses.

It has been suggested by Prof. George Pilleri of Berne University, that captivity, coupled with the destruction of the dolphin's sophisticated social structure, causes “profound psychological disturbance, and neurotic behaviour almost identical to that of humans when held in solitary confinement”. Most independent scientists believe it is not possible to adequately house and care for such intelligent, sensitive, social ocean mammals in captivity.

Many of them die due to stress-related conditions like pneumonia, heart conditions, and intestinal disease. The most prevalent disease for captive cetaceans is stomach ulcers, which form due to stress. Many captive cetaceans are medicated to treat and prevent these ulcers.

Stress is also manifested through acts of self-mutilation and self-inflicted injuries. Injuries are also caused by confrontations with other confined animals. There have been a number of reported acts of aggression not only between captive animals, but also numerous reports of captive marine mammals, such as trained orcas, and captive land mammals, such as circus elephants, attacking, even killing, trainers. It is difficult to determine if these orcas “went mad” or accidently killed trainers in orca horseplay, however, it seems likely that elephant accidents were not due to horseplay. One possibility is that trained animals that become aggressive have become traumatised by exposure to the chronic stress of simply being held captive.

Indeed, during an interview with SA Career Focus, local uShaka trainer, Lungisane Mbhele, said:

“People say dolphins are cuddly and wonderful but they can bite. I have been whacked with a tail before – deliberately. And many animal behaviourists have been dragged to the bottom of the pool and been bitten.”

It is suggested that such acts of aggression may be induced by boredom, frustration and feelings of claustrophobia, as well as hierarchical dominance behaviour within their natural social structure, which has little outlet for expression in captivity. Due to confinement, aspects of their complex social dynamics are impeded.

This area deserves the future attention of animal behaviourists.

In addition to stress-related disorders and diseases, captive marine mammals have been known to suffer from chlorine poisoning, skin ulcers, blindness, and skin lesions due to chemical exposure in their tanks.

While there exist less controversy over holding seals in captivity than cetaceans, like many captive animals, pinnipeds suffer stereotypic behaviour as they, too, are deprived of a dynamic environment.

Captive pinnipeds have been shown to suffer many ocular conditions and diseases that are as a result of the over exposure to UV light, possibly due to the reflective light blue paint covering the pool walls. Water quality, chlorination and temperature have also been associated with a number of diseases in captive pinnipeds including fur loss, skin issues, and eye conditions.

As captive dolphins are unable to dive and spend a great deal of their time near or above the surface of the water, they also suffer from painful sunburn which may later result in skin problems. Dolphins in the wild spend approximately 80% of their time deep below the surface exploring the depths of the ocean. Dolphins in captivity, contrasting with dolphins in the wild, spend only 20% of their time under the surface.

Activities like beaching themselves during performances contrast with dolphins in the wild that never would beach themselves. Scientists believe that this is extremely harmful because dolphins resting on their bellies on a hard surface, can eventually damage their internal organs.

One of the most vocal campaigners against the practice is also one of the most knowledgeable. Ironically, he is the very man who helped create and promote the worldwide aquarium industry.

Ric O’Barry became famous in the Sixties as the on-screen trainer of the five dolphins that played Flipper in the popular U.S. TV series.

For ten years he worked at Miami Seaquarium, where he trained the wild mammals after capturing them on hunting expeditions in the Pacific. But when Kathy, the main dolphin that played Flipper, died in his arms after apparently losing the will to live, he has said it dawned on him how cruel captivity is for such intelligent and social creatures.

For the past 40 years he has travelled the world highlighting the plight of dolphins in amusement parks, and even releasing them from those parks into the wild, often getting arrested in the process.

According to O’Barry, the solution lies with the consumer.

“The consumer now has to bring his power to bear on this trade, which also results in the slaughter of all those other dolphins. There is more money in live dolphins than dead ones, but the one fuels the other.”

The solution is simple; don’t buy a ticket for a captive dolphin show.

Cursed with a face that always appears to be smiling, for a captive dolphin behind that smile lies misery and a quality of life that can never compare to the complexity and richness of life in the open ocean.

Several countries, including Costa Rica, Chile, and Croatia, have banned dolphin display, while others, such as the United Kingdom and Brazil, have regulated them so strictly that it is too expensive to operate.

India recently joined this progressive group of nations in ending the display and performance of dolphins. We would like to see South Africa follow suit.

To learn more about the plight of dolphins in Taiji, watch The Cove online at



The Anti Animal Captivity Campaign is a collaboration between non-profit organisations advocating for the rehabilitation and release of captive animals, and as such does not condone any form of exploitation for monetary purposes.

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