In the Tanks

The differences between the environment for a captive cetacean and wild cetacean is extreme. The ocean is ever changing, endless, and full of natural enrichment. There are different creatures and landscapes to see, different depths to explore and weather to experience.

Captive environments are completely different from the sea. Cetacean tanks are sterile, all the animals have are concrete walls and a floor. The space in whale and dolphin tanks are severely limited as well. In fact, at SeaWorld, a orca would have to swim 1,400 laps in the main show pool to swim the same distance a wild orca would in a day.

Animals can also grow easily bored in this type of environment and can begin to develop stereotypic behaviors such as head bashing, teeth grinding, head bobbing, etc, which can result in poor physical and mental health. To try and make up for the lack of stimulation in their tanks, trainers will give them toys such as balls and ropes in hope that it will give the animals something to do when they are not performing.

Dolphins and whales have heavily complex brains. So while those toys can keep the animal entertained for a short period of time, it does not suffice for the ocean.

The water quality in these tanks do not fair much better either. While it is true that wild cetaceans are open to pollution in the sea, the water quality in some marine parks is deplorable. Often times chlorine and ozone treatment is used to keep the water clean, which can cause potential harm to the animals if it contacts their skin, eyes, etc. The US government closed Ocean World in Florida when it determined the heavy chlorination was causing dolphins' skin to peel off.

The water in the animals environments is also exponentially clear. After all, nobody wants to not be able to see Shamu the killer whale or Dolly the dolphin in the underwater viewing area. Unfortunately the clearness of the water does have negative effects. In the wild, the ocean has natural bacteria that acts as a shield against the sun, providing shade for cetaceans underwater. In captivity, where the water is crystal clear, the sun easily penetrates the surface of the water, causing sunburns.

The animals spend far more time near the surface of the water in places like SeaWorld due to their performances and interaction with trainers. Many believe that the prolonged surface resting is what causes the dorsal collapse you can see on many captive orcas. And while this isn't a sign of bad health, it is an unnatural effect that the captive environment has on them.

Photo credits: The Orca Project, Mark Van Coller, mriz4 via photopin cc.