Free by Nature

The case against Bottlenose dolphins in captivity.

By Don Stark, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund

“There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.” – Jacques Cousteau

Two dolphinaria have been proposed for construction in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Although the proposed developer makes no claims of the facilities being focused on research or even public education — they are clearly commercial ventures aimed at maximizing profits for the developers — the keeping of captive dolphins should be considered counter to both the marketing of the Turks & Caicos Islands as “Beautiful by Nature” and in direct conflict with the Environmental Charter signed into effect in 2001, in which the TCI government committed to “study and celebrate our environmental heritage as a treasure to share with our children.” In this article, we explain why keeping captive dolphins go against both of these principles.

JoJo is a wild dolphin that has been cruising the waters of Grace Bay for more than 25 years . . . FREE!

Dolphins are relatively long lived, with wild male dolphins often living into their 40s and females into their 50s. Like human juveniles, they have a long period of development and nurturing with their mothers. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7–9 years for females and 10–12 years for males. Calves tend to stay with their mother and her group of dolphins for many years. During this time the juveniles learn behavioral and social skills necessary to function within the society of their world.

In the wild, dolphins are wide ranging, fast swimming, deep diving animals. They often travel as much as 150 kilometers in a day (about 100 miles) and can swim at speeds reaching 50 kilometers per hour (about 30 miles per hour). They can dive to hundreds of meters of depth in the ocean (maximum recorded is 492+ meters or over 1,600 feet). They are natural foragers and the foraging methods vary by the specific environment in which they live. Their diet consists primarily of fish but they also eat cephalopods (squid and octopus), crustaceans (shrimp and lobster), small rays and small sharks. An adult dolphin usually consumes about 5% of its body weight (7–11 kg. or 15–25 lbs. of food) daily and the average dolphin in the western Atlantic Ocean weighs in at several hundred pounds (maximum recorded is 626 pounds (284 kg.).

It has been argued frequently (primarily by advocates of keeping captive dolphins) that a dolphin’s ability to be trained to learn tricks is solely based on conditioning, much as training your dog to respond to the command to “sit” is based on conditioning. Research on both wild and captive dolphins over many decades have clearly demonstrated that bottlenose dolphins are different from your dog. They are highly intelligent animals that exhibit complex behavioral, cognitive and social traits that differentiate them from nearly all other mammals, terrestrial or marine.

The brains of dolphins are highly developed. The surface area of the cerebral cortex in dolphins (the so-called “gray matter” which plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness) is larger than that found in humans. In absolute terms, the dolphin brain is larger than the human brain, but when adjusted for body size and mass, the relative size of the dolphin brain is slightly smaller than the human brain, but much larger than that of non-human primates, such as the great apes.

Intelligence is a difficult concept to define, let alone demonstrate in a species with which communication is indirect. Intelligence is comprised of various behavioral, social and cognitive attributes. Dolphins have clearly demonstrated the ability to understand how different things function, how to differentiate between different objects, and how to understand combinations of complex instructions. Dolphins have demonstrated self-awareness by recognition of self in a mirror (an ability humans don’t develop until about the age of two), including recognizing when something has changed on their body (e.g., a mark added). Dolphins have also demonstrated an ability to differentiate the number of objects present at one time (few or many) and whether two objects are the same or different, clearly demonstrating their ability to comprehend abstract concepts.

As early as 1987, TCI visitors enjoyed interacting with JoJo.

Communication skills are highly developed within the dolphin world. They have an extensive array of clicks, whistles and other sounds that form their own unique language. Recent research has also clearly demonstrated that dolphins have unique names for themselves that they respond to when their name (signature whistle) is called by another dolphin or even by a recorded copy. They can also learn other languages, as demonstrated by their ability to learn a symbolic language (similar in concept to a human learning sign language or reading words on a page) as well as a computer generated sound language. They have demonstrated the ability to construct and understand word order — both understanding and creating short sentences.

Dolphins also experience emotions much like humans. They experience stress when a juvenile is separated from its mother and when one member of a social group is removed from the group. They appear to experience grief, as demonstrated by the fact that dolphins have been found attending to and supporting dead companions, often for several days.

It is postulated by scientists that there are eight factors potentially possessed by animals and that the more of these factors a species possesses, the more equivalent that species is morally and ethically to humans. Dolphins possess seven of these attributes: they feel pain; they have consciousness; they can grasp concepts; they can reason; they use language and they exhibit emotions, such as grief. The only factor that has not been demonstrated yet is the ability to understand and follow moral rules — but it is likely that it is only a matter of time that this attribute will also be found to exist in dolphins. In fact, dolphins are more like humans than any of the non-human primates such as chimpanzees and great apes.

Public opinion has begun to shift toward a negative perspective on the keeping of captive dolphins. A survey of 1,000 US citizens conducted by Yale University in 1999 found that 80% of the respondents did not believe dolphins should be kept in captivity unless there are major educational or scientific benefits. A 2007 survey found that only 30% of US citizens surveyed believed there was a scientific benefit to keeping dolphins in captivity. Canadian citizens expressed similar concerns in a 2003 survey in which only 14% of the respondents felt that viewing dolphins in captivity was educational and 74% thought that the best way to learn about these animals was to view them in their natural habitat.

Travelife, an organization established by the International Tourism Services and the European Union, now recommends that excursions to dolphinaria only be offered where there is no opportunity to substitute an excursion to view these animals in the wild. There is a trend toward more and more countries recognizing that dolphinaria are not appropriate facilities in their countries and are banning them outright, with India being the most recent country to join this fraternity (the UK doesn’t ban them, but the regulations governing them are so onerous that it is not economically feasible to establish one there.)

What happens to these highly intelligent, social animals when they are kept in captivity? Many of their natural skills and attributes begin to change, and generally not for the better.

First off, dolphins when captured suffer tremendous trauma and stress. There is a six-fold increase in the mortality rate of dolphins captured from the wild in the first five days after capture. In fact, this increase in stress mortality happens each time a dolphin is transported, probably because the transport process generally involves capturing the dolphin and placing it in a sling to be hoisted into some sort of confined container for transport. Stress continues to be an issue throughout long-term captivity, which results in many potential problems such as a compromised immune system and ulcers. These potential maladies generally result in captive dolphins being regularly dosed with medicines for the prevention or treatment of infections and ulcers.

Given the confined space of all captive habitats in which dolphins are held, physical activity is greatly reduced. Captive dolphins, who are not scavengers, must be taught to eat dead fish since foraging opportunities for live food are essentially eliminated. Since frozen fish is nutritionally inferior to live fish, captive dolphins are routinely given vitamin and other nutritional supplements.

Social structures within dolphin communities are generally quite dynamic in the wild, but in captivity they are forced into social structures in which dominance determines the hierarchy. Smaller enclosures with multiple dolphins result in a substantial increase in aggressive behavior between the dolphins. This can be reduced, but not eliminated, with larger enclosures.

Dolphin communication skills change, or don’t develop as they would in the wild. Vocalizations decrease in diversity and new vocalizations are learned, often imitating noises that are common to their new confined environment.

Dolphinaria operators cite the fact that longevity in captive facilities is comparable to that found in wild dolphins. But they often exclude the five day period immediately after capture and/or transport, since this is when the highest incidence of mortality occurs. The other fallacy in this claim is that for most captive animals, longevity increases as a result of reduced predation, abundance of food and good medical care. There is no increase in longevity for captive dolphins and, in fact, there is continuing debate about whether longevity in captivity is actually less than in wild dolphins.

Sea pens (fenced off portions of open seawater or lagoons) are thought to be better for keeping captive dolphins, but even the largest sea pens greatly reduce the space available for the dolphins to swim. They also generally don’t provide protection for the animals from natural hazards such as storm surge from hurricanes. Nor do they isolate the animals from human impacts and in most cases increase their exposure to potential pollutants (especially if the sea pen is located near an area with a marina or a great deal of marine traffic), run-off from parking areas, fertilizer run-off and potential exposure to human waste.

The health of dolphins in captivity is also a challenge to monitor. The lack of mobile facial expressions (yes, the “smile” on their face is a fixed, unchanging expression, unlike the smile of humans) makes it difficult to identify animals in physical distress. Most often the first sign of a problem is a lack of eating, with dolphins often dying within a day or two of this observation, well before a diagnosis can be made by a veterinarian and treatment started.

Captive dolphin programs require dolphins, which means they have to be sourced from somewhere. Even if the dolphins used to start a new facility are transferred from an existing facility, captive breeding programs do not generate enough dolphins to feed the demand from new and existing dolphinaria. This means more dolphins must be captured from the wild. Given that most dolphin populations are virtually unstudied and the capture of wild dolphins in areas where it occurs is essentially unregulated, the impact of these capture efforts on local populations is unknown. But what is known is that the methods used to capture dolphins for these facilities are traumatic and lead to many dolphin deaths and destroyed social structures.

“Swim with Dolphins” programs provide no educational benefits — they merely exploit the animals while exposing them to additional risks. These risks include: increased stress related to too much exposure to humans without adequate time or space to seek refuge from forced contact; increased exposure to health hazards from diseases transmitted by humans to dolphins (such as respiratory illnesses) and health risks from inadvertent or intentional touching of sensitive areas such as the blowhole and eyes. Humans also are at risk during these programs from aggressive behavior from the animals (butting and biting) and potential disease transmission from them. Many of the human injuries that occur during such programs are not reported anywhere, so there are no reliable statistics on how often they happen.

As Captain Cousteau was quoted at the beginning of this article, dolphinaria provide no scientific or educational benefit to humans, nor do they provide any benefits to the animals confined in them. They are not an attraction that is compatible with the “Beautiful by Nature” Turks & Caicos Islands and only harm the TCI’s eco-friendly image.

Note: The term “dolphin” used here references the Common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, the most common dolphin found in temperate and tropical oceans, including the waters around the Turks & Caicos Islands.



AMMPA Standardized Information: Bottlenose Dolphin, Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, 2011.

Rose NA, Parsons ECM, Farinato R; The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, The Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, 2009.

Herman, LM; Intelligence and Rational Behavior in the Bottlenosed Dolphin, Chapter 20 in Rational Animals (Hurley, S and Nudds M, eds), Oxford Scholarship, 2006.

EU Zoo Inquiry: Dolphinaria; Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society for the European coalition ENDCAP in association with the Born Free Foundation, 2011.

King, SL and Janik VM; Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 22, 2013.

Frere CH, Krutzen M, et al; Social and genetic interactions drive fitness variation in a free-living dolphin population, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 16, 2010.

Reiss D, Marino, L; Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 8, 2001.

Curry BE; Stress in Mammals: The Potential Influence of Fishery-Induced Stress on Dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, NOAA Technical Memorandum (NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-260), April 1999.

Animal Attractions Handbook, Tavelife, International Tourism Services, Ltd, October 2008.



Are you compelled to do something to stop the proposed dolpinariums in the Turks & Caicos Islands? Go to the website below to add your name to the nearly 60,000 signatures (at press time) already there. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/366/664/485/stop-new-dolphinarium-in-the-turks-and-caicos-islands/

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund could also use more donations for fighting this battle, as over $30,000 in legal fees have already been collectively expended over $30,000 for the judicial review. Donations can be made by going to the website page below and clicking the donation button near the top of the page or by filling out the form at the bottom and indicating that the purpose is for the dolphin defense fund.


1 Comment

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Tracey Le Feuvre
May 29, 2014 8:05

Hi Don, I first got to hear about this Dolphinaria last week on a BB4 Programme Costing the Earth, it was a depressing programme. Next day I was due to go on holiday but I e-mailed the Born Free Foundation first to make them aware of this issue. I was fortunate enough to have spent one month a year on Grand Turk from around 1996 to 2000 so to learn about the destruction of the Islands habitats and the proposed dolphinaria was very upsetting. I whole heartedly agree with everything you have said in your article and I shall be signing the petition and I will log onto the donations site too (I will also try and get friends here in Jersey, Channel Islands involved too). Dolphins belong in the wild. On Monday I returned to Jesey with my husband and on our sail back to the Islands from France (just 14 miles away) we were lucky enough to have a pod of dolphins enjoying the wake of our bow for about 20 minutes, this is always such a humbling experience and I cannot understand the mentatiliy of anyone who would want to confine these beautiful creatures purely for profit, nor can I understand how anyone would want to visit a dolphinaria. Anyhow I must step off my soap box! Good Luck and I hope that the powers that be start to listen and this dolphinaria will not come to fruition.

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