Dolphins in Tanks? No, Thanks, Say Brits

Poll finds a large majority of U.K. citizens have zero interest in visiting tourist attractions like SeaWorld.

Bottlenose dolphins entertain crowds at SeaWorld Orlando. (Photo: Tom Ross/Wikimedia Commons)

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

The marine-mammal captivity industry may have to rethink its strategy of labeling opponents as “fringe,” “radical,” and “extreme” if a new poll of U.K. citizens is any indication: Nearly 90 percent of Brits asked said they would not want to visit a site that keeps whales and dolphins in tanks.

On Sunday, the wildlife charity Born Free Foundation and the ecotourism company Responsible Travel released the results from a survey of 2,050 people in the U.K. According to a news release announcing the poll, it showed that “watching dolphins and killer whales perform tricks in small tanks is no longer on the travel bucket list of the average British tourist.” The survey was conducted by Censuswide, a London-based polling and public relations company.

As part of the poll, respondents were asked their opinions on captivity before and after learning damning truths of whale and dolphin life in aquariums.

People in the U.K. are known for supporting animal welfare issues generally, and no cetaceans are kept on display in that country. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that 61 percent of respondents agreed that they “would not wish to visit a marine park to see whales and dolphins as part of an overseas holiday.”

That was before they read the statement, which included facts about wild cetaceans, such as that they “live in family groups called pods of up to 100 individuals,” live “considerably” longer than captive animals, can swim more than 100 miles a day, and dive “to depths greater than the height of Niagara Falls.”

In contrast, the statement continued, animals confined to tanks “are fed dead fish and commonly develop problems such as abnormal repetitive behavior and aggression. They are trained to perform tricks and stunts, often to loud music and a cheering crowd.”

After reading the statement, nearly half the original industry supporters changed their minds, with 87 percent of respondents saying they would not visit captive facilities.

Some might quibble with the validity of a poll that prompts people to answer a certain way, but it is hard to dismiss the depth of opposition to captivity that permeates British society, which surpasses anything found in the United States. A July 2012 poll revealed that just under half of U.S. respondents opposed killer whale captivity.

Captivity opponents hope these new survey results will help change public opinion around the world and deflate the “radical extremist” label that industry leaders try to pin on anyone who disagrees with their business model. The times, critics say, are changing.

“Visionary governments, tourism companies, and even some of those involved in the captive industry itself must respond to this sea change in public attitudes and plan for the humane closure of such facilities,” Born Free president Will Travers said in an email. “Without doubt we are in the process of redefining our future relationship with these magnificent animals.”

On this side of the Atlantic, whale and dolphin activists were thrilled with the news.

Alex Dorer of the group Fins and Fluke expressed “sheer happiness and excitement” at the results. “It’s a sure sign of changing times when the public is given scientific facts about captive and wild dolphins/whales and are easily able to make an ethical decision not to visit a marine park,” she said.

Dorer, who is originally from England, said that books like Death at SeaWorld and the documentary Blackfish are likely “causing tourists to choose a better and more responsible option for their vacations. I’ve seen that many British tourists are simply opting for whale-watching cruises and tours instead of a dolphin show.”

Dr. Jeff Ventre, a former SeaWorld orca trainer and Blackfish cast member, said the poll heralded the beginning of “the collapse of support for marine mammals in captivity, analogous to the collapsing dorsal fins caused by orca incarceration.”

At least 14 countries have banned dolphin captivity.

“When SeaWorld is forced to evolve,” Ventre said, “it will accelerate the process on this issue globally.”