The cruel captivity of cetaceans
A marine waterpark in Tenerife has been exposed as potentially abusive and unsustainable — so why do tourists keep on booking?
Loro Parque, one of the most popular attractions in Tenerife, housing orcas and dolphins in a show pool, has been under scrutiny after being exposed in “Blackfish’’, a documentary that uncovered the abuse towards cetaceans in SeaWorld, its American cousin. It aroused fierce public criticism because of the death of Alexis Martinez after being attacked by one of the orcas in 2009.
Since then, there have been several births and deaths at the park. However, just this year, Loro Parque has made the headlines twice because of the death of Ula and Skyla, 17 and 2 years-old respectively. This is not a surprising fact, as the average survival rate of killer whales in captivity is 6.1 years, compared to the wild where they tend to live 30–50 years.
From the moment that cetaceans are taken from the ocean, the process of their capture is severely unsustainable. Female mammals are more targeted to be taken for public display as they are generally identified to have a better temperament. However, by taking young females the threats to their conservation are notably higher.
Live removals from the ocean mean that these animals cannot contribute genetically, increasing the bias gap in the wild population. Moreover, the levels of cetaceans’ survival when transported to the holding facilities is extremely low.
Indeed, the capacity of dolphins and whales to see the world and understand it leaves them in the highest range of sensitivity to pain and suffering. Clearly human activity not only leads to an acute level of suffering, but it also means that these animals lose their conspecifics, who they will not be able to see ever again.
Mercedes Reyes, a marine biologist with over twenty years of experience in cetacean research and conservation, hopes people become more aware of the sensibility and intelligence of these animals. And while recent documentaries and campaigns have slowly influenced public attitudes towards marine mammal welfare and rights, astonishingly, over 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums on an annual basis, while more than 100 million animals ‘working’ for the purpose of entertainment.
Some change is occuring. Recently, travel companies like Expedia and Virgin Holiday have stopped selling experiences that include attractions with captive cetaceans, while whale watching has been suggested as a good alternative to this practice.
The whale watching industry in Tenerife is one of the most popular in the world, and because of its biodiversity, the observation of these animals has been legally regulated for over twenty years, attracting approximately 1.4 million tourists annually. However, Loro Parque remains the number one experience in Tripadvisor, so what keeps tourists choosing this attraction?
Moises, a captain that has been working in the whale watching industry for over 15 years, says that because the industry in Tenerife is run just by local boat drivers, they cannot compete. As even if they have noticed an increase in tourists visiting every year, they do not have the resources to advertise to the level of Loro Parque.
I decided to visit Loro Parque and ask tourists about the overall experience of their visit. After interviewing six families from different countries, my analysis indicated that the overall experience was very positive. However, a family mentioned that they would have liked to see more action, “most of the animals we saw were not moving at all, I don’t know if it was because they were depressed or maybe they were not well-nourished.”
When asking them what they knew about the consequences of the animals living in captivity, most of the tourists did not know what to answer. Indeed, according to a study by the World Animal Protection, 80% of tourists are not aware of the negative impact of these parks on animal welfare.
Although many of the tourists agreed that they would prefer to see the animals in their natural habitat, they chose Loro Parque as in the wild nothing ensures they will see the whales.
Moises says that tourists that see cetaceans in the wild after visiting Loro Parque find it much more rewarding, but he agrees that it is uncertain to see what you paid for, as the whales can travel many miles during the day, so it can be hard to find them.
He also mentions the struggles faced by boat drivers working in the whale watching industry, which included the lack of support by the government during COVID-19 compared to the support given to big industries like Loro Parque.
As a way to inform, some whale watching companies have an educational program on the boats to inform tourists about the effects of captivity. However, they remark that more support from the part of the government is needed, as most of the tourists that choose whale watching are already educated about the impact of captivity.
In 2016, SeaWorld declared that it will put an end to its captive orca breeding program and that it will not capture any more cetaceans for its parks, which includes Loro Parque. So even if the public does not abandon the idea of visiting animal-themed amusement parks, thankfully this will be the last generation of cetaceans that will be held in captivity.