Stereotypical Behavior in Captive Whales and Dolphins


    Like many animals in captivity, orcas and dolphins have been known to exhibit stereotypy, or abnormal, stereotypical behavior. This behavior is a repetitive habit that has no actual goal or function. Some examples of stereotypy include: vomiting, head bobbing, pacing/circling, comotose-like states, self mutilation, biting on gates and bars, and tongue playing. Most of these behaviors can be seen at Seaworld behind the observation glass, and most Seaworld fans and supporters will obliviously watch, thinking that the behavior is “cute” or that the whales are playing and having fun.

     Many of the more unnatural behaviors the animals are taught to do on command, become habits by cetaceans, and may lead to dangerous situations. The most common form of this is

Seaworld whales have been seen to repetitively and habitually slide in and out of the tanks, exhibiting stereotypy.

the use of the slideouts. Orcas in captivity slide out and lay there without moving like Kalia is in this video, or this video showing Nakai laying motionless on a slideout for nearly 10 minutes. Orcas have been seen to slide out and thrash violently as seen here. Of course the most common and easy to spot symptom of stereotypy is repetitive behavior. In orcas this is observed in their consistent, repetitive behavior of sliding in and out of the tanks in their free time. Like the whale seen here at Kamogawa Seaworld, or the several orcas in this video who take turns sliding out and laying motionless at Seaworld. Dolphins have also been seen to exhibit this behavior, throwing themselves out of their tanks and sliding down the platforms. This is very dangerous to the animals, guests, and is highly abnormal.

“Recently, she [Orkid] has been sliding out in various slide-out areas on her free time which has resulted in possible dangerous scenarios for guests at the Dine with Shamu area.”- Orkid’s behavior profile

   In the wild, this behavior is generally considered neurotic, and dangerous. If cetaceans remain beached for too long, their body weight can crush their internal organs. 

     Several whales have also been seen laying perfectly still underwater appearing to be comatose. This has been observed in Seaworld’s whales Ike, and Ulises, while Malia has had

Dolphins often bite down on the gates in their tanks out of habit.

issues with these comatose states as well.

“Malia has had 6 instances of abnormal behaviour. The abnormal behaviour ranges from listing to no-movement seizure like states.”- Malia’s behavior profile

  Whales sleep at, or near the surface of the water, drifting or “logging.” They do not lay stationary at the bottom of the pool.

     Whales and dolphins have been seen “pacing” their tanks, swimming in endless circles as seen here and here . In the wild, these animals swim in straight lines across vast oceans. In tanks, they are reduced to doing laps in their tiny habitats.

      When animals are confined in small, under-stimulating environments, they will often begin chewing. Birds will chew their feathers, animals with fur will over-groom themselves, horses chew the sides of their stalls, whales have been known to chew on the steel gates, or even pick paint off the bottom of the pools.

“Tuar, a SeaWorld San Antonio whale, has been observed picking at paint at the bottom of the pools.” Tuar’s behavior profile/Orlando Sentinel

The obsessive chewing is one of the main reasons why captive cetaceans break their teeth and must have the exposed pulp drilled out.

    Chewing, pacing, aggression toward each other, trainers, and sexual aggression are all results of the captive cetacean’s repressed energy and repressed true nature, in addition to boredom and lack of stimulation.

To learn more about stereotypy, view videos and pictures of stereotypic behavior, and the scientific explanation for such behavior, visit this site .

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9 thoughts on “Stereotypical Behavior in Captive Whales and Dolphins

    • Yes! Only a few orcas from two distinct populations participate in beaching as a hunting method. None of the orcas in captivity (with the possible exception of Kshamenk in Argentina), would participate in such a method in the wild.

  1. I’ve come across this article before and now that I’ve learned a bit more, I just don’t think any of the examples listed here are stereotyping. I’m not saying that it never occurs, but I’m skeptical about the claims presented here. The self-inflicted beaching looks a lot like play behavior, and this is encouraged by the trainers for them to perform. I don’t think this is abnormal given the context; in the wild, there are no slideouts. There are beaches, and as you know an orca whale population in Argentina has learned to risk their lives to hunt seals this way. Is this abnormal? The animals learn different ways to interact with their environment. Obviously, captivity is not the wild, and the animals are doing what they need to do to get their food, perform ‘tricks’. I would not expect any animal to perform natural behaviors 100% of the time when captivity is a different dynamic, with food provided and humans as essential ‘affiliates’. Whether or not this is harmful is another topic, but animals changing their behavior to adapt to captivity is not what I would consider stereotyping, even if it does appear repetitive. I think those particular behaviors have a goal. As for the ‘temper tantrum’, I have no idea. I’m sure the trainer would have some insight on why that was occurring. It could be a number of things. Yet if it’s not re-occurring, I doubt it’s a stereotype.

    And as for the ‘pacing’ or circling, I can’t see what other behavior the animal could perform to make it ‘not’ stereotyping in that environment. If the animal swims diagonally back and forth, that would still make it a stereotype. If the animal lays still, again, still a stereotype. In the wild the animals swim in a straight line; obviously this can’t be performed in a tank. That might be a criticism you hold against captivity, but again, is it stereotyping? Such behaviors are goalless in nature, but it seems to me the animals have no choice but to do this. I mean, it’s a lot like saying a stalled horse is ‘stereotyping’ because it is standing still. Most captive animal situations involve a bit of control. Orca whales could probably use a lot more space though, to say the least.
    I just also want to say that not all stereotypes are created equal, and not all are a result of compromised mental wellness. A hamster running on a wheel is the most common example of such behavior that is not harmful. It is unnatural, but it provides the hamster what it needs and promotes well-being (homeostatic balance) Given what I’ve read about animal cognition, I’d find stereotypies more concerning in animals like great apes, elephants and cetaceans, because I suspect their occurrence is more likely with animals that posses more primitive mechanisms in their brain functioning.

  2. Its funny how you THINK you know about “stereotypical behavior” and yet your not even a biologist, so how can you actually prove its true ? Get your degree first, instead of making assumptions based on what is seen on youtube or random pictures. Cetaceans pace when they rest or are in a sleep state of mind that has been prove (google is your friend). As for orcas and other cetaceans; they’re playful and creative with everything they see or can interact with. Its a damn shame; there are people like you out there who are so full of themselves to think they’re more intelligent than those who know and care for those cetaceans. Random videos and photos dont count, studies over the past 10-15 years count, years of research count.
    Anyone can write a blog, but that doesn’t make you anymore important than those who spend many years gathering proper research. You can promote freedom all you want but its not going to happen because there are much more powerful people at involved who know better; who know that there are so many issues in the oceans today, and also aren’t stupid enough to send animals already dependant of human care into the ocean especially those in their mid 30s ; You just need to think harder and smarter. Activists are nothing but big mouth people, who complain and yet dont get off their butts and do something about it, think like a hippy screw the internet and go out there and protest. BUT If you cant do anything about it, well there’s a reason for it. Why dont you give up all together.

    • Well, I am in college to get my biology degree, and I do know quite a bit about stereotypical behavior from the research I have done in psychology. I posted the pictures and videos to give examples for my more visual readers, but don’t be fooled! Each of my blog posts is a result of hours and hours of careful research. So while I haven’t studied for 10-15 years, all my information comes from those that have.
      I apprieciate your feedback, but I don’t think it’s very fair of you to make a judgement on my personal life. You say that I, as an activist, only complain and never get up and do something about it…but you know nothing of me personally. If you want to know my stance on “freeing the whales,” you can read my blog post here: http://cetaceaninspiration.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/a-translation-of-free-the-whales/

      Thanks for reading!

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