How Does Captivity Benefit the Animals?

(NEW! Video on my Youtube channel showcasing the differences between captive and wild orcas. Don’t miss it!)       I’m going to start this post by addressing an observation of mine regarding the cetacean captivity rumor mill. One great journalist who tends to keep a close eye on the marine mammal industry is Tim Zimmermann. Awhile back he reported that Kohana at Loro Parque was pregnant, and even showed pictures of her “baby bump.” Immediately, captivity supporters began to pass it off as being simply a rumor. They claimed that SeaWorld would never breed her so irresponsibly. They said that the pictures were no indication of pregnancy, that in fact, Kohana has always been a little pudgy. And Tim Zimmermann was condemned as being an

Kohana (on the far right) is pregnant and due later this year.

unreliable source. But in the past couple of weeks, Loro Parque has confirmed Kohana’s pregnancy and announced that she is due at the end of this year. For the longest time, SeaWorld supporters didn’t want to believe Kohana was pregnant and so denied it as long as possible.

     The same thing happened with Keet’s transfer. Once again, Tim Zimmermann wrote an article claiming that Keet was going to be transferred from Texas to California…it would be his 5th transfer! Once again, captivity supporters responded by passing it off as a rumor, saying that Mr. Zimmermann is unreliable – even claiming that the trainers had publically denied the transfer would happen. But today, Keet was indeed transferred. For what purpose? According to SeaWorld it was: “…to enhance the groupings of the killer whale family.” Almost everyone knows that orcas have very tight family bonds. How is dropping Keet into a strange social situation supposed to “enhance” groupings between the whales? Does SeaWorld truly expect to fool people in this way?

Alright, and now to the purpose of this post:

How does captivity benefit the animals? If you were to ask this question to captivity supporters, you would likely get at least one of 3 various answers:


     Are people truly more educated when they leave places like SeaWorld? There is no evidence out there to indicate that this is the case. Seeing cetaceans in captivity is not a prerequisite for appreciating or understanding their species. In fact, picking up a dolphins and whalesbook in the children’s section of the library is probably more educational than


going to a marine park show. To quote a great statement from a Smithsonian Handbook to Whales and Dolphins I recently read:

“If there is any educational element [to marine parks] it merely pays lip service to the concept of an ‘informative commentary.’ Choreographed shows are contentious and perpetuate our domineering and manipulative attitude toward nature.”

     If there is aneducational aspect of marine parks, it may be found in a commentary usually at the beginning of the shows. The trainers may tell the audience how large the animals are, how much they eat, how fast they can swim, etc. Nothing that cannot be

It is more educational to read a book about dolphins and whales. Plus, it's better for the animals.

found elsewhere. In fact, the other places that one may become educated about cetaceans, in documentaries, books, online research, etc. will give much more information than can be found in one of these “informative commentaries.” (For more on this point read my blog post: “The Message Behind the Dolphin Show.” )


Do marine parks conserve the species that they are holding captive? Obviously simply keeping cetaceans in captivity doesn’t do a thing for conservation. The question is: how much is this organization doing to urge people to conserve the planet, or to directly aid in conservation efforts? The answer in regards to marine parks is usually, nothing. While there are many parks around the world that pay top dollar to care for the animals – they are a minority. Most facilities in the industry are not the SeaWorlds and the Loro Parques that we are so used to seeing. Most of them are not like these other parks that push the conservation facade. The fact of the matter is that people leave places like SeaWorld wanting to be dolphin trainers – not wanting a career that seeks to learn how to conserve the species. SeaWorld may encourage people to recycle, or tell the audience about global warming…but this is of no practical benefit for the animals. (For more information check out my blog post “SeaWorld and Conservation”)

It’s a Trade-Off

There are a few captivity supporters who may argue that captivity is a simple trade off. Basically, the animals give up their freedom and any control over their own lives to live in the lap of luxury – being hand fed dead fish and gaining protection from predators. A good way to view this argument is to consider an analogy like human imprisonment. People who

Marine Parks do more to harm orcas and dolphins than to help them. The Southern Residents are endangered because of marine parks. They are protected because of activists.

are in prison give up their freedom and in turn they don’t have to worry about bills, work, buying food, etc. Obviously as we know, that’s not a very fair trade-off for humans, nor for cetaceans.

Now that I’ve tackled a few arguments regarding the benefits of captivity…can any of you determine anything regarding captivity that benefits the animals? Anything at all?

If you have any further thoughts on the matter, let me know in the comments, or let me know if you liked this article by voting or following me. If you have an article that you would like to see in the future, be sure to give me feedback. Thanks for reading!


Superpowers in Nature: The Dolphin’s Sonar

This is my most recent process essay. I thought others may be interested in reading it:

      Dolphins are acoustic creatures who live in a world of sound. In the ocean, visibility is oftentimes limited, so dolphins rely on a complicated system that aids them in their underwater lifestyle where they are surrounded by the dark depths of the sea. In their challenging aquatic environment, dolphins must be able to detect topographical changes, pressure changes, and variations in their dynamic world. The system is called echolocation, and it allows the dolphins the amazing ability of sensing sound waves. It sounds like something right out of a superhero comic book, but in truth, the power to see sound waves exists in the natural realm, although it involves a fairly complicated process.

     Dolphins must rely on echolocation to navigate through the murky depths, to hunt for food, or simply to explore their surroundings. This process is especially valuable to freshwater dolphins who often have poor eyesight and live their entire lives in muddy rivers. These dolphins have no lenses on their eyes and can only see light and darkness. Therefore, they must find their way around almost exclusively by this complex sonar system. Dolphins who live in clear waters don’t have as much of a need to communicate through echolocation.

     The auditory nerve is thicker in dolphins than in humans, and is the largest nerve in the dolphin brain. (G. Carleton Ray, Jerry McCormick-Ray 1999) Sound is important to the natural lifestyle of dolphins, and acts as a vital survival tool, not just in echolocation, but in group communication over long distances. The large size of the auditory nerve is probably due to the large amount of information that must be transmitted and received in the process of echolocation. Several of the dolphin’s organs must work together in four distinct steps in order for the echolocation to work: Creating sound, focusing the sound, receiving sound, and translating the information that was received. The dolphin’s head operates as a complex array of sophisticated sonar equipment that is very effective in a watery world where sound travels 4.5 times faster than it does in air.

     The first step of echolocation is the creation of the sound. We create sounds with our vocal chords and form them with our mouths, but dolphins do not create sound this way. In fact, dolphins have no vocal chords at all. Instead, this process of sound creation begins in a very complex group of nasal tissue called the dorsal bursa. The dorsal bursa is located beneath the dolphin‘s nostril which is at the top of its head. Many people know it as a blowhole. Most mammals have two nostrils, and many large whales have two blowholes, but dolphins only have one. The dorsal bursa is the second opening in the dolphin’s skull that was once the animal’s second nostril. Over time, this second nostril formed the nasal and sound generating organs that are found beneath and behind the animal’s single functioning blowhole.

     If you have ever heard dolphins communicate, you know they make a wide variety of sounds; from clicks, to chirps, to whistles. They even make high-frequency sounds that our human ears are unable to hear. All of these noises are produced by the sound creating organs here in the nasal region. The exact location where the sound is produced in this region is unknown to researchers, and much debated in the scientific community.

     We cannot see into the dolphin’s nasal passages while it is emitting sounds. The technology we use today to see into the heads of human beings is difficult to use on dolphins. Until medical technology progresses, scientists are limited in their ability to gain insight into the dolphin’s sound mechanism. Because we cannot directly observe all of the inner workings of how echolocation is done, scientists are left to hypothesize.

    There are two plausible hypotheses that may explain where exactly the dolphin sound is produced in the dorsal bursa. Many scientists say that echolocation begins when the dolphin passes air between the phonetic lips located within the dorsal bursa. The passing air causes a vibration and can produce high frequency sound that is undetectable by the human ear. The frequency range of echolocation may vary from .2 to 150 kHz. (Reynolds & Rommel 1999)

     Other scientists believe that the sound is produced in three pairs of nasal sacs. When the dolphin holds its breath, air from its lungs moves into the channels that lead to the nasal sacs, which in turn inflates them. The dolphin may force the air out of the air sacs to create sounds; not unlike filling a balloon and pinching the end while releasing the air. This action emits sounds similar to a dolphin’s whistle. The passing of the air back and forth in the nasal cavity means that the dolphin has an air re-use system that allows it to create underwater sound without losing air in its lungs. After all, dolphins are mammals like us and breathe air.

     The sounds dolphins produce may be in the form of burst pulses, individual clicks, or many short clicks called a “click train.” The sounds may be audible to the human ear, or too high in frequency for us to hear.

     Dolphins have a great amount of control over the muscles in their blowholes which allows them to manipulate the kind of sound they are producing. Of course dolphins have the most control over these sounds above water when they can use their blowhole as an orifice like you and I use our mouths in order to form different sounds. These noises may seem like mere whistles or clicks to us, but they actually contain a lot of information; just like a dolphin language. Dolphins even name each other with “signature whistles” and calls that are unique to each individual of the school. The types of sounds emitted by dolphins probably vary depending on depth and pressure in the water. Because dolphins are designed to live underwater, some scientists believe that gravity could have an effect on the dolphin‘s sound, so they choose to focus their research on the sound dolphins emit underwater.

     After the sound is created, the dolphin continues to the second step: Focusing the sound into a beam. This part of the process takes place in the dolphin’s forehead called the “melon.” The melon is a lens-shaped organ that consists of fat in different densities. It acts as a sort of lens that focuses and steers the beamed sound toward an object. The dolphin will direct its head and aim the sound, scanning its surroundings. It may sweep its head back and forth and use its sonar as though it is a spotlight, searching the deep, dark depths of the sea.

     Once the sound has passed through the melon it will travel quickly through the saltwater environment until it hits a solid object. When the sound is deflected, the echoing sound waves will bounce back to the dolphin. The sound waves are received during the third step of the process. Through fatty channels in its lower jaw called “the acoustic window,” the dolphin is able to catch the incoming sound waves. These channels are critically important for receiving the high frequency signals of echolocation, because they are connected to the ears.

     Some scientists speculate that the dolphin’s teeth play a large role in receiving echolocation clicks. The teeth on one side of the jaw are spaced exactly one tooth space apart. The teeth on the other side of the jaw are spaced exactly one half a tooth space forward from the teeth on the other side. This pattern could act as an antenna, or help the dolphin gain more information from the echoes. (Goodson & Kilnowska 1990) The mandibular nerve (a nerve located in the dolphin’s jaw) may also play a part in the reception of information from echoes.

    The sound travels through the jaw channels, into the middle ear and ultimately is received by the dolphin’s brain where the information is translated and analyzed in the fourth stage of the process. The time lapse between click and echo, as well as the strength of the incoming echo is analyzed to determine nearly everything about the object that deflected the sound. From the density and distance of the object, to the shape and size, the speed at which the object is swimming, and the distance between it and the dolphin. Both of the dolphin’s inner ears are located on either side of its head, and act independently of each other. This allows them to determine which direction the object is in.

  The dolphins’ brain is capable of forming a mental picture of the object that the echoes bounced off of. The information received by the dolphin through this sonar is truly remarkable and very detailed. Dolphins aren’t just able to create a picture of a sound, but they are able to sense objects that are hidden. Fish that live beneath the sand are not safe from the jaws of a hungry predator. The dolphins sometimes echolocate at close range over the sandy bottom and detect fish that are hidden in the sea bed. They can even tell if a creature is pregnant. Some scientists who have studied captive dolphins have found that they can see objects that are hidden within wooden boxes by using their sonar. It seems as though the sense of vision and hearing are highly connected.

     Scientists speculate that dolphins are able to see these patterns of sound just like we are able to see images with our eyes. Yet they have neurons in their brain that give them the ability to hear sounds in very high frequency. This makes the dolphin sonar as good as vision. Maybe even better. Dolphins have learned to use this high frequency sound to their advantage when it comes to hunting and foraging. They have learned that blasting schools of fish with sound to corral or stun them makes them easy prey.

     The dolphin’s sonar is truly an amazing device that leaves us humans shaking our heads and wondering what else it is capable of. We have been studying the system for years and still are in awe of its accomplishments and its mysteries. United States Navy specialists have become envious of dolphin sonar. Because of dolphins’ great intelligence and amazing abilities, the United States Navy has actually trained dolphins to detect underwater mines, and to take part in underwater missions. Nearly every species of cetacea (dolphins, whales, and porpoises) has echolocation abilities to some degree, and all of them possess very complex communication skills. The technologies in nature often surpass the technologies that our human hands and minds are able to create. These superheroes of the sea, dolphins, with their amazing abilities and wondrous mysteries, continue to amaze us.


Fulton, James T. Dolphin Biosnoar Echolocation: A Case Study

Goodson & Kilnowska. Sensory Abilities of Cetaceans. New York: Plenum Press (1990)     p.255-268

Ray, G. Carleton and Jerry McCormick-Ray. Coastal-marine conservation: science and policy. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press (1999) p. 19

Reynolds, John E and Sentiel Rommel. Biology of Marine Mammals. Melbourne University Publishing. (1999) p. 287-323


SeaWorld Supporters Don’t Want You to Read “Death at SeaWorld”

    According to the first amendment, it is okay for people to protest something if they disagree with it. But it is not okay for those same people to try to halt their opponent’s first amendment rights by preventing the person they disagree with from also protesting. Most dolphin activists are no stranger to this kind of censorship. Many online videos, posts, or

"Death at SeaWorld" is due to be released in July, 2012

mention of marine parks by captivity supporters come with a  tagline notifying any would-be commenters that opposing arguments will be repressed: “No anti-captivity comments allowed!!!” Such statements have often led me to wonder why captivity supporters feel the need to repress opposing information. After all, if you have to resort to deleting your opponents’ arguments rather than actually rebutting them, you have already lost the debate. 

    With the upcoming release of David Kirby’s publication entitled: “Death at SeaWorld,” it’s no surprise to see captivity supporters using their closed-minded tactics in attempt to prevent anything and anyone from expressing disapproval of their beloved theme park. “Death at SeaWorld” has gotten a lot of media attention even though the release date is months away. That hasn’t deterred SeaWorld supporters from launching a petition in attempt to censor the information that the book contains. The petition urges media outlets to refrain from selling or promoting the book. The creator of the petition claims that “Death at SeaWorld” should not be bought because author David Kirby will make money off of a text that “mentions incidents between killer whales and trainers, including Dawn’s death.”

     David Kirby has said that “the book is not about Dawn Brancheau” (although Dawn will be respectfully mentioned in one of the last chapters.) However, making money by selling a book that mentions a death is nothing new. Thousands of books mention deaths, tragedies and the like, and have been sold around the world. This hasn’t ever been deemed wrong, and no author that mentions a death in their work for informative purposes have ever been condemned of “exploitation.” Especially not when they are simply reporting on actual events. Of course this means that the “exploitation” argument from the makers of this petition haven’t got a leg to stand on (and apparently do not know what exploitation is.)

     The overview of the petition contains a very long-winded rant about the SeaWorld vs. OSHA court case. Ironically enough the author of the petition that is supposed to be justifying their attempted censorship, also describes the book in very fair and informative terms. They say the book: discusses controversy, describes court cases and mentions eyewitness reports. But at the end of the description, is the statement: “This book should not be sold or promoted in any way.” Why? This cannot be justified in the simple mentioning of Dawn’s death. I think it goes deeper than that… 

    How can SeaWorld supporters attack a book that nobody has even read before? How could they react so strongly as to launch a petition against a book based solely on its title and what is said to be on its pages? My first thought: the book is controversial. It is going to address controversy and possibly expose some of the issues of keeping orcas captive. The book is threatening to SeaWorld fans. This might be what has led them to do something as extreme as attempt to censor this author. 

    Is the petition going to do anything? No, of course not. My guess is that most of the signers are other young SeaWorld fans – not bookstore owners or media outlets that the petition is targeting. The book will still be published and captivity supporters who refuse to acknowledge the controversy surrounding the industry are just going to have to keep their ears covered and their eyes closed.

    To see what David Kirby has to say about the petition, click here.