For Current Captives
The first step to ending cetacean captivity would be to phase out the current population of whales and dolphins at a marine park. SeaWorld, arguably one of the biggest marine mammal attractions in the world, has already announced that they have ended their killer whale breeding program. The orcas which already reside at the three SeaWorld parks will be the last generation, a commendable and big step in the right direction (though the same cannot be said about the other cetaceans at SeaWorld, but in due time).
What is to be done once the breeding of whales and dolphins has ended at a park? Many experts have encouraged retirement as an option. The Whale Sanctuary Project is one such organization that is working towards the rehabilitation and retirement of captive cetaceans. Their mission is to: "establish a model seaside sanctuary where cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins and whales) can be rehabilitated or can live permanently in an environment that maximizes well-being and autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat." Seaside Sanctuaries, or Seapens, are closed off portions of the ocean, where animals can live out the rest of their lives in a semi-natural environment while still being cared for by people, since years of captivity have made many cetaceans incapable of living freely on their own. Already one such facility is in construction, the "SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary", and it will become the new home to two beluga whales in Spring 2019.
Some whales and dolphins do have a strong possibility of being released into the wild and surviving. Animals that were originally from the ocean and have only spent a handful of years in captivity are good candidates for rehabilitation and release. However, it is still a highly delicate process that is still evolving. But one doesn't have to look far to see a success story. Tom and Misha, two male bottlenose dolphins, were illegally captured from the Aegean Sea at some point in 2006. Malnourished and obviously effected by their captive life. Through careful rehabilitation and training, Misha and Tom were released in May 2012 back to their native home. For six months they were tracked using satellite tags on their dorsal fins, and they were found to have adapted to living in the wild remarkably well. Another example of a success story would be of the three Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins Jedol, Chunsam, and Sempal, who were also illegally captured from the ocean in 2009 and 2010. After proper training and rehabilitation, the Jedol and Chunsam were released back into the wild in 2013. Sempal managed to slip out earlier into the sea, but was still able to rejoin a pod and even had her first calf in 2016. In 2014 the other two dolphins were spotted, and have joined a pod of 60-70 other indivduals, a sign of their accomplishment in returning to their ocean home. You can read more about their story here.
The Next Step
There are solutions and alternatives to cetacean captivity. Advancements in science allow people to experience and learn about whales and dolphins without having them in tanks, and rehabilitation, retirement, and sometimes release are becoming more available to current captives.
For Human Understanding
Even without having cetaceans in captivity, there can still be opportunities for people to learn and understand these amazing animals. Already there are huge leaps in the technological field that allow people to get up close and personal with whales and dolphins. National Geographic, a leading resource that connects people to nature, has created the "Ocean Odyssey", an immersive entertainment experience which "harnesses ground-breaking technology in new ways to transport guests on an incredible underwater journey." Using augmented reality and interactive screens, guests walk through and connect with cetaceans and other sea life in the Pacific Ocean. It has already proved to be a hit with consumers and has been getting rave reviews. Technology such as this can be implemented to oceanariums, museums, and other public education venues, and can help people learn about whales, dolphins, and porpoises without keeping them captive.
Virtual reality is also becoming more widely available to the general public. VR is a strong tool that can be used to help educate and inspire people to learn, care, and be aware of cetaceans and ocean conservation. Games have already been introduced on various platforms, and with advancements VR could be used for public education all around the world.
Photo credits: Action for Dolphins, Brian Skerry, Matt Brown, M. Partica.
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