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Forgotten dolphins # 3 – the sad stories of the dolphins held by SeaWorld

Please sign our petition now

SeaWorld holds dolphins in a number of different “attractions” across its facilities, from daily shows to interaction programmes such as swimming and wading in the dolphins’ enclosure. At Aquatica, for example, you can take the “Dolphin Plunge”, which sends you racing down an enclosed tube through the tank holding four Commerson’s dolphins. Discovery Cove is an all-in-one exclusive theme park, offering swimming with dolphins packages. 

Bottlenose dolphin in captivity

SeaWorld holds 153 dolphins (as well as 15 belugas) at five parks across the United States. Of these 153 individuals, 138 are bottlenose dolphins or bottlenose dolphin hybrids, the result of captive breeding between bottlenose individuals and other species such as common dolphins. There are also five Pacific white-sided dolphins at SeaWorld San Antonio; six short-finned pilot whales (who are also dolphins!), four in Orlando and two in San Diego and four Commerson’s dolphins at SeaWorld’s Water Park, Aquatica. 

The majority of the bottlenose dolphins held at SeaWorld’s parks in Florida, Texas and California were born in captivity. A few were captured from the wild in the 70s and 80s and a few others were stranded and rescued, sadly never to return to their ocean home. All the pilot whales held were captured from the wild or stranded and the Pacific white-sided and Commerson’s individuals include wild-caught and captive born individuals. 

I visited SeaWorld in the early 2000s to film at their dolphin petting pools for WDC’s 2003 report Biting the Hand that Feeds. The parks are attractively landscaped, with calming music playing as you walk around. It detracts, somewhat, from the tanks, until you get a closer look. What I saw at the petting pool, a huge, lunging creature, with madness in his eyes, was not a real bottlenose dolphin. I saw those the following summer on a whale watching trip to the Azores, full of life, full of fun, full of energy. The poor individuals I saw at the SeaWorld petting pool were their sad relations. Confined, cramped, subject to aggression from their pool mates, attacks by seagulls trying to steal fish and fathers grabbing their tails to give their children a better look, putting them at risk too. It’s a life of stress, constant noise, human interaction and dead fish, stuffed with vitamins and medicine. Veterinarian Heather Rally witnessed what she called a “concerning number” of dolphins at SeaWorld’s Orlando park in 2015 with “skin lesions consistent with infectious disease”. She suggested the petting pool dolphins were likely to be stressed and exposed to bacteria from visitors not having washed their hands. The feeding element of these petting pools is no longer available at SeaWorld parks, although direct interactions continue. 

While the focus of public and media attention has been on the orcas held at SeaWorld since Blackfish documented their plight, stories about what we are calling the forgotten dolphins have also dotted press stories in recent years. One particularly sad story concerns Betsy, a 33-year-old Commerson’s dolphin, who died in January of this year only days after her transfer from SeaWorld San Diego to SeaWorld’s Aquatica park in Orlando. She hadn’t eaten since her arrival in Orlando. Betsy was captured from the wild in Chile in 1983 when she was just a few months old, along with 11 others. She never saw the ocean again. The move to Aquatica may have been a poor husbandry decision by SeaWorld. Mortality rates spike every time an individual dolphin is moved to a new environment. 

Twelve-year-old Dart, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, died in February. He was born at SeaWorld’s San Antonio park and lived there his whole short life. Dolphins, like other captive individuals, often show very little sign of ill health before an apparently sudden death and before any veterinary treatment can be administered. Eight-year-old bottlenose dolphin Lagos, who died at SeaWorld’s Orlando park in June 2015, is a similar case in point. He reportedly showed reluctance to eat on Sunday, only to die on Monday, possibly as a result of pneumonia. Bubbles, a pilot whale, died in June. Between 2004 and 2014, at least 62 bottlenose dolphins died across four SeaWorld facilities. 

So let’s not forget these forgotten dolphins. Please sign our petition calling on British Airways to stop selling trips to SeaWorld until similar commitments to those made for captive orcas are made for all whales and dolphins held at SeaWorld’s parks.