Kids Facts Zone About Captivity
captive dolphin
Kids Facts Zone About Captivity

By Mermaid Ciara

feeding baby dolphin

Dolphins are mammals; this means that they nurse their babies with milk from their mothers. Very often mothers and babies are separated in captivity causing stress and heartache for both.

dolphin pod

Dolphins have a close family unit which is called a pod. Pods are groups of cetaceans that have chosen to spend their lives swimming the oceans together.

In captivity, they are often kept together with dolphins they may not know at all, or may not get on with and fights can occur, resulting in painful injuries.

Can you imagine being trapped in a concrete cage with people you do not know or, do not like and spend the rest of your life with them? How awful!

diving dolphin

Dolphins can swim up to 260 metres below the surface of the ocean. There is no such option for dolphins in captivity to do this.

Dolphins can stay up to fifteen minutes under water, but they cannot breathe under water and need to surface to breathe air like we do.

So you see dolphins and humans are very similar, except we humans cannot keep our breath underwater for fifteen minutes. Although, Tom Sietas, a German free diver was able to hold his breath under water for a whopping 22 minutes and 22 seconds, breaking the record of static apnea on pure oxygen!

marine tank

In the USA, the minimum size of the average marine tank is only 48ft (14.6 metres) and a minimum of 12ft (3.6 metres) deep, prohibiting the dolphins to express their natural behaviour.

Tanks cannot reproduce the ocean and therefore cannot be a suitable 'home' for dolphins or whales.

From swimming hundreds of miles a day and diving up to 260 metres in the ocean, to being trapped in a tiny tank with no room to dive, must be a very sad environment for the dolphins.

Dolphins kept outdoors have the additional hazard of being exposed to the sun's harmful rays because they do not have the depth of water in their tanks to escape the heat. This is another reason why tanks are not satisfactory 'homes' for these surfers of the ocean.

With kind permission of Lindsey Pionek

Dolphins use a technique called echolocation to find food and navigate. They eat fish and squid.

In captivity, because of the enclosed space around them, dolphins cannot use properly their echolocation. Sounds bounce back to them, causing extreme frustration, mental problems and emotional issues as the normal behaviour of the dolphins (swimming and travelling to locate food) cannot be displayed.

feeding captive dolphins

In captivity dolphins are fed dead fish, as a reward (or a better meaning for this is bribery) to encourage them to perform tricks. They never get to practice the fun and challenge of hunting for real live food. It is in their nature to chase live prey, they are built to dive down to, and forage over, the ocean bed for food.

Food deprivation is a method favoured by trainers to force dolphins to perform (jumping loops, "kissing" people or allowing trainers to use their bodies as alternative surfing boards).

It is a cruel method to enslave dolphins and modify their behaviour. They will rely on humans to get by and since dolphins are intelligent, they will soon understand that if they perform tricks they will be fed and stay alive.

performing dolphin

Although it might be fun to see your dog perform a little trick for a treat, dolphins are not pets, there were born in the wild and their natural behaviour is totally suppressed in captivity.

It is not in their nature to jump through a hoop or balance a ball on their nose. No dolphin in the wild would ever do this.

dolphin playing

In the wild, dolphins love to play, sometimes with divers, and often with their friends and family. A simple piece of seaweed can provide entertainment or, an offering to a friend!

eit graph

"The chart above shows that the EQ (Emotional Intelligence Test) of dolphins is higher than all other mammals except humans. In both ways, dolphins show extremely outstanding rankings that prove that they are smarter than a lot of other mammals"

Dolphins are highly intelligent animals that are capable of self-awareness (the ability to recognise themselves when presented with a mirror) and with a complex brain.

They use a language specific to their group to communicate. They are capable of emotions from pain, sorrow, grief, depression to joy, happiness, mischief and love, as we do.

sad dolphin

Often, in captivity dolphins will experience depression (understandably, as they are spending their lives in chlorinated pools, not able to feel the ocean, not able to travel, not able to be with their family and not able to hunt). Their diet is often complemented with anti-depressants and other drugs. Their lifespans are highly reduced too, due to stress and stress related illnesses. Some dolphins self-harm or let themselves 'go' (in other words, they lose the will to live).

Dolphins who were taken from the wild often arrive in marine parks and aquariums in a depressed state already, due to the stress of capture from the wild.

dolphins in fishing nets

Many dolphins you see in aquariums, marine parks and the like were born in the wild and were taken from their home, family members to be shifted all over the world.

Fishing nets are erected in a stretch of water (a cove) and human divers go into the water to choose the prettiest dolphins. It is a highly stressful process for the dolphins as they are in a confined area, with no possibility of escape, with people and boats all around them.

The way the fishermen drive the dolphins into the cove is highly cruel as they use metal poles to make a lot of noise in the water. Because of their highly sensitive hearing, dolphins experience a heightened sense of panic and are pushed like sheep. This can take several hours and by the time the dolphins are netted inside the cove, they are exhausted, confused and frightened.

The dolphins deemed not 'pretty' enough for captivity are simply despatched (mothers and babies too), used for food consumption or fertilizer. The most infamous cove is situated in a village called Taiji, in the country of Japan.

Every year from 1st September to 1st March, fishermen go to sea everyday to find dolphins for food consumption and captivity. This trade has been going on since the late 1960's (roughly), which means is a relatively 'recent' trend. Most of the captive dolphins in many aquariums and marine parks come from Taiji - Japan.

The Solomon Islands operate a dolphin hunt as well with the prettiest dolphins sent to aquariums, but on a smaller scale.

Some dolphins are born in captivity. Often, their parents are used as breeding machines to replenish stock (a word used by Zoos to refer to a gene pool) when dolphins have died from stress or illness.

The way the animals are reproduced is nothing natural, rather using science and artificial insemination. Another source of stress for the dolphins.

captivity graph

This chart shows the estimated number of dolphins and orcas in captivity worldwide (as of June 2015).


There are 32 different species of marine dolphin and 4 species of fresh water dolphin. The largest known dolphin is the 'killer whale' (also known as Orca).

jumping dolphin

The most recognised dolphin is the bottlenose dolphin.

You can find more about dolphin and whale species and about marine conservation on this website.

dolphins in bali

Keramas Beach Hotel in Bali - 4 dolphins kept in a 10 x 20 metres chlorinated pool. Source: Daily Mail

Many of these beautiful animals are used in travelling zoos (in Indonesia for instance), marine parks (the infamous SeaWorld, Loro Parque and so many parks all over the world) and hotel resorts (Turkey, Spain, Bali and many other places).

Some of these places try to sell the notion of conservation and/or education.

Conservation is sometimes essential to preserve a species and prevent extinction. However, many species of dolphins are not on NOAA's endangered list, sadly though, many species of whales have been endangered and continue to be, due to over-whaling.

This argument of conservation of dolphins and orcas is, at best, a flimsy one.

True conservation of species does not imply having animals on public display, up to 12/14 hours a day, performing tasks in small tanks, with loud music. True conservation does not include having the animals forced to interact with humans in order to be fed.

dolphins Tom & Misha

True conservation implies the 3 R: Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release.
Here is a happy ending story of Tom and Misha, two dolphins rescued, rehabilitated and released into the wild.

This is an example of true conservation.

Animal sanctuaries are a different ball game altogether. Sanctuaries allow animals to express their natural behaviour and to live their lives in peace, with minimum human interaction and no performing duties.

There is one dolphin sanctuary in Adelaide, Australia, and how marvellous it is for the animals to be left alone, away from human activity.

Lolita's proposed new home

Many marine organisations are fighting to create marine sanctuaries in order to retire performing dolphins and whales, such as Lolita the orca for instance.

These sanctuaries ideally will be in the sea, and the dolphins/whales will be protected and free to swim and dive in a far less constricted environment. More importantly, these animals will not be forced to entertain people any longer.

Rehabilitation will occur and eventually some dolphins or whales may be released in the wild to return to their true home.

don't buy a ticket

The positive note here is that you can help. No matter how old you are, you have the power to change all of this!

stop swimming with captive dolphins

By not buying any ticket to see a dolphin act, or swim with a dolphin you are helping to wipe out this cruel industry. These concrete cages cannot survive without your money supporting them. This is great news!

Chinese beach dolphin

800 school children and their teachers formed the shape of a Chinese dolphin, along with the word 'protect' and Chinese characters for the word 'ocean'.

Be active, mobilise your friends and together you can send a powerful message about your passion. You are the future caretakers of our fragile and beautiful planet.

a voice for the dolphins

And you can also help by being a voice for the dolphins, by telling your friends not to buy tickets to these shows. Take the pledge of being a voice for the dolphins.

young activist

Go to a protest or a demo with your friends and parents, tell the world about the captivity of cetaceans. Be active, be their voice!

You have the power to end this miserable existence and help prevent even more dolphins from a life of confinement. Knowledge is power.

You can be the voice that set them free, together with your family and friends.

whale watching

Go to see dolphins in the seas and oceans, on an ecotourist boat.

Experience first-hand the joy and wonder of the dolphins, free and happy,close up around the boats.

Together we can make it happen, living in harmony with our fellow sentient friends from the ocean.