one green planet
one green planet

In the groundbreaking film, The Cove, dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry states, “A dolphin’s smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy.”

It is this illustrious smile that allows humans to exploit dolphins for their own gains and carry on the fallacy that dolphins do indeed enjoy interacting with humans in captivity.

So when visitors pay for a ticket at an aquarium, they’re convinced that the dolphin they’re swimming with or having their picture taken with is actually smiling and therefore, radiate happiness. Of course, this is only a myth, and we are more than familiar with the power that myths have to perpetuate harm against animals.

Even when their mouths are smiling, their hearts could be breaking inside because these are dolphins kept in captivity and restricted from their natural habitat they prefer.

The Paradox of the Dolphin's Smile: How the Captivity Industry Capitalizes on Dolphin's Miseryloliljuah/Flickr

Kathy, the Dolphin Who Changed Our Understanding of Captivity Forever

The bottlenose dolphin is one of the most common captive species. Many people have grown up seeing dolphins used for entertainment, largely because of the hit 1960s television show, Flipper.

Ric O’Barry was the trainer for the dolphins in Flipper, but filming stopped when the dolphins grew aggressive. At the time, few understood why captive dolphins would suddenly turn aggressive. After working with dolphins over a long period of time, O’Barry began to realize that there was something extremely tragic hiding behind their smiles, and it seemed that these animals were actually depressed.

This was the case for, Kathy one of the dolphins Ric O’Barry trained.

“She was really depressed…,” O’Barry recounts, “You have to understand dolphins and whales are not air breathers like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort. They can end their life whenever. She swam into my arms and looked me right in the eye, took a breath and didn’t take another one. I let her go and she sank straight down on her belly to the bottom of the tank.”

From that day on, Ric O Barry turned from dolphin trainer to dolphin campaigner.

He truly believed that Kathy had taken her own life. She was one of the several dolphins that played Flipper, but towards the end of her career as an entertainer, she lived in an isolated chamber. Dolphins are highly social beings, so life in solitary confinement is understandably devastating.

The Paradox of the Dolphin's Smile: How the Captivity Industry Capitalizes on Dolphin's Misery

How Captivity Impacts Dolphins

Dolphins are intelligent, self-aware animals – like human beings. When they are placed in a tank and forced to perform tricks every day, behavioral abnormalities begin to surface. They can become aggressive, towards both humans and members of their own species.

We have now learned that when in captivity, dolphins are not able to express their natural behaviors which causes them to experience extreme stress.

When in the wild, dolphins can swim anywhere from 40 to 100 miles with their pods a day, considering the fact that the average dolphin tank can be only 24 feet wide, it’s easy to see why they become frustrated in captivity. Captive dolphins are also separated from their families and pods and some, like Kathy, are forced to live a solitary existence which slowly causes their mental and physical health to degrade.

In addition to this, dolphins are used to living in saltwater environments. In captivity, they are conventionally kept in chlorine tanks. Chlorine and the other chemicals used to keep water “clean,” can cause irritation to their eyes and skin. In one instance, the dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium began to lose their skin and could not open their eyes due to high levels of chlorine.

Despite marine parks’ attempts to kill bacteria with chlorine, dolphins who interact directly with guests at attractions are exposed dolphins to diseases they would not contract in the wild and many captive dolphins die prematurely. In the wild, dolphins usually live to be 50 years old, although some have been reached 90 years old. In captivity, 80 percent of dolphins will die before they reach 20 years old. Dolphins who are kept in marine parks, like SeaWorld, rarely survive for more than 10 years.

The Paradox of the Dolphin's Smile: How the Captivity Industry Capitalizes on Dolphin's MiserySimon_sees/Flickr

What Can You Do?

There are currently over 800 bottlenose dolphins are in captivity all over the world that need our help! You can make a real difference to a lot of dolphins around the world, stuck in tiny, chlorinated tanks by standing up against marine parks and other captive animal attractions. Here’s how:

  • Don’t visit captive dolphin facilities or any zoos that have captive marine mammals.
  • Share what you’ve learned with others and encourage them to boycott these facilities as well.
  • Support the work of anti-captivity organizations like Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Dolphin Project and Oceanic Preservation Society.
  • Remember, dolphin captivity isn’t unique to the U.S. it happens everywhere. To help international dolphins, sign this petition to challenge the European dolphinaria industry and this petition to stop the dolphin slaughter in Taiji.


Image source: Karen/Flickr