Whales, dolphins must be retired from captivity, if not released

Willow Yang/File

Dear Editor:

Sahana Rangarajan presented an interesting story about the rise and fall of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity as tracked by television and movies through the years in her April article “How film caused the rise and fall of dolphin shows.”

Our organization, International Marine Mammal Project, formed the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation to successfully rehabilitate and release Keiko the orca back into his home waters in Iceland. One of the important things to remember, which the captivity industry (including SeaWorld) does not want you to know, is that during the time from when we obtained Keiko until his death in the wild, at least 77 cetaceans died in captivity at SeaWorld alone. This includes eight of SeaWorld’s orcas. Worldwide, about 20 orcas died in captivity during that time, and 352 dolphins and whales died in captivity. However, that number is likely too low, as several countries do not keep track of the deaths of cetaceans in their facilities. These statistics are staggering and clearly show the damage that captivity does to orcas, beluga whales and dolphins, all so we can be entertained.

At the time Keiko died, he was the second-oldest male orca ever held in captivity.  We improved his health, taught him to catch live fish and kept him for about 3 1/2 years in a large bay in Iceland, where he was often brought out to the Atlantic Ocean to get accustomed to swimming in the ocean and to interact with other orcas. Once he left his sea sanctuary for good, he swam across the Atlantic Ocean to the coast of Norway and lived about a year and a half in the wild before his sad death from pneumonia. It is likely his long stay in captivity harmed his immune system. Pneumonia and infections are common causes of orca deaths in captivity, leading to much shorter life spans for orcas in captivity than in the wild.

Not all captive cetaceans can be released into the wild, but all would benefit from being retired from their small concrete tanks and their 24/7 performances, and instead placed in large seaside sanctuaries, where they would have much more room while still receiving food and medical care.

Thanks for your continued interest in protecting the environment, including our oceans.

— Mark J. Palmer


Mark J. Palmer is associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute and a UC Berkeley graduate.