It's quite a spectacle. Black and white killer whales, choreographed with special effects, their trainers dressed in matching wetsuits, surfing on their backs or balancing on their noses as the animals leap out of the pool. At marine mammal parks other 'animal stars' include bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, pilot whales, seals and sea lions.
But these are wild animals. Their world is the oceans in which they swim huge distances, dive to great depths and move fast. Most of their time is spent deep down in the ocean.
It's a pathetic sight to see these huge, athletic animals confined in barren, concrete pools. The contrast with the open ocean could not be greater.
Cramped for space in chlorinated water, without shelter from the sun, their tragic frustration often shows in strange and unnatural behaviour like head bobbing or chewing the concrete sides of their pools or the pools' metal gates (damaged teeth are sometimes removed by staff - with power drills).
Other signs of stress are vomiting and aggression.
In the wild, killer whales (the largest of the dolphins and also called orcas) stay with their mothers all their lives. Their pods are family groups. But in marine mammal parks, quite casually and without thought, mothers and baby's are separated from each other leaving the animals bereft, grieving and traumatised.
In March 1980, at the Miami Seaquarium, Hugo the orca, after 12 years of performing 3 times a day was unable to take any more. He died after repeatedly smashing his head against the wall of his tank. He had been taken from his mother in the wild when he was a calf. His top dorsal fin was curled over - a common sign of depression and ill health in captive orcas. His companion, Lolita, has been alone ever since.
Confinement in marine mammal parks, it seems, is literally, torture: a never ending, ghastly, excruciating torment - not only psychologically but physically too.
Stress and trauma weaken immune systems. Intestinal gangrene; acute haemorrhagic pneumonia; pulmonary abscesses; chronic kidney disease; cardiovascular failure; septicaemia; influenza - these are all causes of high mortality in captive marine mammals. In oceanariums 7 years is a common lifespan (in the wild it can be up to 50). This would be shorter still were the animals not kept alive with regular doses (stuffed into chunks of gelatine) of antibiotics to stave off diseases; with valium-type drugs to help calm them; with pain killers to ease the pain of teeth damage from chewing hard surfaces - not to mention antacids and vitamins.
In one marine park a pilot whale celebrity was in fact thirteen different whales - introduced by the same name to dupe spectators.
The high death rate means that animals need replacing. There aren't enough bred in captivity but bottlenose dolphin and orca hunts in the wild ensure a supply. For 'marine collectors' this is big business. A bottlenose dolphin is worth far more alive than dead: US$200,000 alive, but dead, for meat, $600 is a more likely price. Live orcas are worth $1 million or more.
Imagine what it's like for the hunted animals. The boats close in. The nets are thrown out. Coralled in their hundreds exhausted dolphins drown. Some die of stress. Babies are separated from their mothers. Those that haven't been caught try and save their family members but then they themselves are often captured. Half the dolphins that survive the capturing process die within 3 months.
Meanwhile the surviving captive animals wave to spectators, shake their hands, splash them with water. Their trainers claim they perform for pleasure. The evidence is to the contrary. They perform because to refuse is not to be fed. And besides, in such very small, barren pools what else have these sensitive, intelligent animals to do?
If a ticket to a marine animal park is on your wish list you would, in any case, have to go abroad since the British voted against them with their feet and the UK's last dolphinarium was closed in 1993.
But to see these animals in their own environment - wouldn't that be wonderful? There are whale watching trips all round the UK's coasts from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall. Or watch Blackfish, the DVD, which features Tilikum, a six ton orca, famous for drowning his trainer by pulling her under water. Or read David Kirby's book Death at SeaWorld. Or become an activist: sign petitions and support campaign groups like the SaveLolita.com campaign, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society or the Born Free Society. In doing so you would be taking heed of what Philip Larkin said in his poem The Mower (after he had killed a hedgehog in the mower's blades):
"....we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time."Suggest a correction