From military-trained dolphins to SeaWorld’s first no-orca marine park still housing hundreds of cetaceans, the abuse of marine mammals goes on
Despite widespread protests and no-going campaigns, dolphins, orcas and other cetaceans are still widely exploited for our entertainment and for nefarious military purposes.
Earlier this year, after more than half of century in captivity, plans were finally made to release Lolita the orca – who lives in a pool four metres smaller than the minimum legal requirement of 16m – from a Miami aquarium; and in June, an orca became the 17th marine mammal to perish in a Moscow-based aquarium.
The first SeaWorld facility without orcas
As of June 2023, 53 orcas (Orcinus orca) are held in captivity across the world – but SeaWorld still holds the most out of any other marine park, with 19 killer whales in its US parks.
In May, SeaWorld opened a brand-new facility in Abu Dhabi – notably orca-free after the spate of controversy that eventually halted the company’s live performances and breeding programme of orcas in 2016 – which is allegedly the largest marine aquarium in the world.
The facility – the first SeaWorld marine park outside of the US – is the only one in the MENA region (a collection of countries including Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Lebanon) to be certified by Global Humane – a certification awarded after a third-party assessment of the well-being of animals in the park’s care – and boasts the UAE’s first dedicated marine research and rescue centre.
But despite the lack of orcas at its Abu Dhabi park, animal welfare concerns surrounding the facility were raised in 2022, when 24 bottlenose dolphins were moved from other SeaWorld locations, including Orlando, to the new facility.
Others are concerned over the very principle of SeaWorld, and the continual operation of captive marine animal parks for human entertainment.
‘SeaWorld is part of an industry built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that’s natural and important to them,’ said Senior Vice President of international campaigns at PETA, Jason Baker.
According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the facilities that house these creatures lead to distressing behaviour patterns in captive animals, such as swimming endlessly in circles, lying on tank floors, and chewing the sides of the pool.
In Britain, work is underway to protect animals, including marine life, from being the subject of animal-based experiences – of which SeaWorld Abu Dhabi hosts over 100 different animal experiences, including dolphin ‘presentations’ – with the potential enactment of the Low-Welfare Activities Abroad Bill.
If successfully put into legislation, it will become illegal in England and Northern Ireland to sell and advertise activities abroad which involve poor welfare conditions for animals, preventing the tourism industry from profiting off the exploitation of animals.
The use of military-trained cetaceans
The US and Russia have a history of using cetaceans for military purposes, with the practice continuing today in both countries – although no orca were used in these training programmes.
The US’s Navy Marine Mammal Programme began in 1960, with the initial aim to study the sonar ability and speed of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), in order to design more efficient submarines and methods to detect underwater objects.
The programme peaked during the Cold War – when it still remained classified – and had over 100 trained dolphins, as well as sea lions and beluga whales in the 1980s to perform various underwater tasks – such as guarding boats and submarines, and surveilling using mouth-held cameras. At the same time, the Soviet Union was also carrying out similar research programmes.
Controversy arose when the US programme became declassified in 1992 – with allegations of abusive treatment of animals surfacing, including reports of confinement and the use of anti-foraging muzzles which prevent dolphins from naturally hunting for food when training.
While the Navy assert these devices are used to prevent the ingestion of harmful materials, some believe that the muzzles are a way of denying dolphins food which can later be used as a reward during training.
The US programme still continues today despite fierce opposition – primarily with the use of dolphins and California sea lions at a San Diego base.
There are also other recent incidences of Russia using marine life for military training: in 2022, the Russian military was reportedly using specially-trained dolphins to defend the Sevastopol harbour – a naval base off Crimea – according to analysis by submarine analyst, H I Sutton for the US Naval Institute News.
Using satiellie imagery, two dolphin pens were spotted at the Sevastopol harbour entrance in the Black Sea, with Sutton believing these pens were moved in February, around the time when the Russia-Ukraine war began.
Hvaldimir the beluga
The use of marine life for human purposes has also allegedly occurred in the use of a beluga whale, named Hvaldimir, for a Russian research programme, according to an investigation by Norway’s domestic intelligence agency.
First spotted in April 2019 on the coast of Norway’s Barents Sea, Hvaldimir was wearing a harness with a mount for a GoPro camera attached to it. Pursuing interactions with humans, it was evident that Hvaldimir was a trained whale.
Over 300 people flock to see Hvaldimir every day – who has gained popularity after videos of him interacting with humans have gone viral online – seeking him out via tour boats, private boats and jet skis. According to One Whale, Hvaldimir does not understand the danger of moving boat propellers, and approaches moving boats within inches – allegedly, something which his former captors have taught him.
To further protect Hvaldimir, the town of Hammerfest in Norway is planning to turn a fjord into the Norwegian Whale Reserve – with hopes that the reserve can eventually house other belugas and orcas.