The End Of Dolphinariums?

Naomi A. Rose PhD

Marine mammal scientist, Animal Welfare Institute

When I began working in the field of marine mammal protection 25 years ago, I was one of a tiny number of scientists speaking out against the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity. To me it seemed obvious that these large, wide-ranging, socially complex, intelligent predators could not be adequately housed in concrete tanks, even at the best facilities.

At the time this was an unpopular view. Most of the marine mammal science community assumed that cetaceans were fine in captivity and many of my colleagues felt I was allowing emotion to overwhelm my scientific objectivity.

Over the next decade and a half I honed my arguments, monitored the scientific literature and identified an increasing amount of research consistent with my position. Along with the efforts of dedicated activists, we made incremental but steady progress on changing the consensus on this issue. Some facilities were closed by protests; others were built despite them. Still, we moved slowly forward.

Then, in 2010, an orca named Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld Florida. This dramatic tragedy changed everything. I don’t really know why, but the media frenzy around this event seemed endless. There were major news stories, an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (which ultimately banned waterwork -- trainers performing in the water with the whales), the book Death at SeaWorld, and eventually the documentary Blackfish that reached millions of people.

Tilikum’s moment of violence was the tipping point that fully captured public awareness and anger, bringing popular opinion in line with years of science-based arguments. The science remains, but now it’s about right and wrong, kindness and cruelty, black and white (pun intended).

I have been fighting in the trenches of the campaign to end cetacean captivity for a quarter of a century. It was a long, slow slog… until Dawn’s tragic death. The acceleration of debate since then has been breathtaking. It is clearly now a matter not of if, but when, the last dolphinarium will close.