If SeaWorld Is About Educating the Public, Why Doesn’t It Have Any Porpoises?

The absent species reveals much about aquatic theme parks’ real purpose (sorry).

Dall's porpoises (Photo: Chris Cheadle/Getty Images)

May 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Marine mammal “theme parks” often boast that educating the public about whales and dolphins is just as important to their core mission as entertaining people is. But when it comes to acquiring animals, it seems that some marine species are more equal than others.

Consider the lowly porpoise, whose name originates from the Latin for “pig fish.” Thousands of cetaceans are held in captivity around the world. But the vast majority of animals in theme parks are bottlenose dolphins, followed by other members of the dolphin family, including common dolphins, pilot whales, false killer whales, and orcas. Only a handful are porpoises.

Why so few members of this dolphin relative? SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs did not respond to an email asking why the company counts zero porpoises among its vast collection (but then, he’s not one of my biggest fans). The question is especially pertinent because harbor porpoises can be found off the coasts of California, Florida, and Texas, where SeaWorld operates. Shouldn’t visitors be learning about local species?

Critics say the industry generally considers porpoises undesirable because they don’t draw crowds in the same magnitude as killer whales or the iconic bottlenose dolphins popularized by the TV series Flipper.

Perhaps even more important, critics contend, porpoises are just not well suited to show business.

“It could be that their ‘crowd appeal,’ or lack thereof, has discouraged facilities from trying to display porpoises,” Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, wrote in an email. “Facilities only have room for so many individuals, and it is the more common bottlenose that is the favored species for captive display.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at Animal Welfare Institute, noted another reason. “They are ‘shy’ and less acrobatic—that’s probably the main reason they aren’t frequently held,” she wrote in an email.

Perhaps most significant, porpoises “can’t be trained to do much in the way of shows, and that’s what people come to see,” wrote Rose.

Historically, captive porpoises have not survived for long, but that may be because many were acquired through rescues or strandings—they were already sick, aging, or injured before being put in a tank.

But the survival argument is no longer valid. Dolfinarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands has shown that porpoises can be maintained in captivity. It houses six harbor porpoises; three were rescued more than seven years ago, and one was rescued in 2011. The other two were born at the facility in 2012.

But there are no backflips, no porpoise-riding trainers, and no loud music. “Curious about what porpoises look like? Come soon and take a look,” the facility’s website suggests.

In Denmark, Fjord & Bælt, which describes itself as “a combined research and experience center that communicates knowledge about marine life in the waters of Denmark,” invites patrons to “observe our daily routines of training and feeding our three porpoises.”

Education, conservation, and research are major components of the park’s activities. “We intend to preserve and protect—through research and information—the only member of the whale species to breed in Danish waters,” its website says.

One porpoise, Freja, is estimated to be about 19 and has been in captivity for 17 years. Eigil, also in captivity for 17 years, has been trained for and taken part in “quite a few research projects, including studies of porpoises’ ability to identify fishing nets,” according to the website. The third porpoise, Sif, was rescued in 2004 and is now about 11.

At least two aquariums in Japan also have porpoises on display. Captive porpoises have not fared as well as, say, captive bottlenose dolphins. But even then, as Rose pointed out, “in most facilities globally, captive bottlenose do very poorly. It’s only in the ‘best’ facilities that they match wild mortality rates.”

Of course, just because porpoises can be kept captive doesn’t mean they should be; in any case, they, like all wild animals, ought to be provided with enclosures of an appropriate size and level of enrichment, as indicated by the latest research. Their absence from SeaWorld just shows that the company is less about informing the public than about lining its own pockets.