Capturing a wild whale or dolphin in the ocean and confining them to captivity is a straightforward process. In stark contrast, releasing them back into the wild poses significant challenges and complexities.
Depression and self-harm are common among these intelligent animals, kept in tanks 200,000 times smaller than their normal swimming range. Some have been cruelly ripped away from their pods in the wild to live out their lives in waterparks.
The UK’s last dolphinarium shut 30 years ago, but surprisingly there is no specific ban on keeping cetaceans – aquatic mammals that include dolphins, whales and porposies – in captivity.
Our sad history of keeping them in tiny tanks goes back to 1874, when porpoises were briefly kept at Brighton Aquarium. In 1877, a beluga whale, shipped from Canada “on a bed of seaweed” was displayed at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster – but only survived a few days.
The first dolphin shows started in 1963 at Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire and it had the last dolphinarium in the UK, which finally closed its doors in 1993. But we once had well over 30 facilities, holding hundreds of dolphins, from Blair Drummond Safari Park in Scotland to Margate in the South.
The dolphinarium was the star attraction at Windsor Safari Park in the 1980s, where dolphins and Winnie the orca jumped through hoops. During the late 1970s and 1980s in Clacton-On-Sea in Essex, four orcas were kept in an old swimming pool on the pier. One died within days of arrival. All had been captured from the wild in Iceland.
While those days are thankfully behind us, there is nothing to stop a company with deep pockets trying to restart this cruel industry. Croatia, Cyprus and Slovenia have introduced bans. The UK must join them. There are 3,600 captive whales and dolphins in the world today. Most have only ever known life in a tank.
So far, Virgin Holidays, British Airways, Thomas Cook, Booking.com and TripAdvisor have stopped selling tickets for these shows abroad, but Tui and Jet2Holidays continue to do so. It is relatively easy to catch a wild whale or dolphin in the ocean and condemn them to a life in captivity. It is much harder to return them to the wild.