A dolphin swims behind glass in an aquarium


Born Free is convinced that the complex needs of cetaceans cannot be met in captivity.

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) suffer physically and mentally from life in captivity. The physical, sensory and social environment in which these animals have evolved to live contrasts dramatically with the restricted and barren tanks found in dolphinaria, where cetaceans are held for viewing or performance to entertain visitors.

Dolphinaria: What are the issues?

Thousands of cetaceans are held in hundreds of zoos, aquaria and dolphinaria across the world. These animals are still being caught from the wild to stock a growing number of captive facilities. Captive cetaceans are usually trained to perform unnatural behaviours or made to interact with people in swim-with or petting activities.
A pod of dolphins swim in the sea

(c) Loren Javier (Flickr creative commons)

Cetaceans live in a variety of habitats from the tropics to the poles, including rivers, estuaries, coastal environments and deep-water habitats. Some are known to travel vast distances.

Bottlenose dolphins have home ranges as large as 300km and have been recorded travelling up to 1,076km in 20 days. Orcas can dive as deep as 60m and travel as far as 160km in a day, spending less than 20% of their time at the water’s surface.

Living in groups (called pods), these animals are highly sociable and intelligent, displaying self-awareness and differing cultures.

Two dolphins swim in an aquarium tank behind glass

Cetaceans are generally kept in unnatural, relatively small tanks that offer little by way of comparison to the environments in which they have evolved to live. Abnormal ‘stereotypic’ behaviour is common and it is reported that drugs are sometimes administered to reduce stress.

Presentations or shows may take place as often as several times a day and are typically  accompanied by loud music, to which the animals perform a repertoire of tricks. Some facilities offer opportunities for the public to ‘swim-with’ dolphins or pose for souvenir photographs in order to generate money.

There are no universally-accepted welfare standards for the management of captive cetaceans – in fact, the overwhelming majority of experts agree that cetaceans fare badly in captivity.

Standards and regulations governing captive cetaceans differ widely around the world, depending on national legislation and its enforcement.

People in masks and snorkels surround a dolphin in the sea, trying to capture it

Wild Capture (c) WDC

While some species of cetacean have bred in captivity, the global population of captive cetaceans is not thought to be sustainable. As a result, cetaceans continue to be captured from the wild in order to maintain the industry.

For example, every year thousands of dolphins and small whales are hunted in the ‘oikomi-ryo’ (dolphin drive) in Japan, where the fittest animals are usually selected for export to international captive facilities.

Russia is also believed to be one of the main sources of wild-caught cetaceans, such as orca, bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales. Methods of capture and transport of cetaceans can be extremely stressful and cruel, and some die of shock and injury in the process.

Two orca jump from the water in a small swimming pool

Cetaceans in captivity are normally trained to perform ‘circus-style’ tricks, whereby the animals receive a reward (usually food) for performing the desired task.

Tricks may include jumps, back-flips and summersaults, tail walks, balancing and playing with objects, and various interactions with the animal trainers such as dorsal pulls (trainer is pulled whist holding the animal’s dorsal fin) and rostrum pushes (trainer is lifted out of water, standing on the animal’s ‘nose’). Other shows may involve cetaceans ‘singing’ tunes or even painting pictures.

Tricks performed in shows are rarely extensions of natural behaviour, as is often claimed by their trainers.

A boy in life vest holds the fins of a dolphin in a pool

For many people it is a lifelong dream to swim with dolphins. However, Born Free is convinced that few people would partake in the practice if they knew that such interactions could be highly stressful and damaging for the animals.

Captive cetaceans are often used in swim-with programmes throughout the day, as well as performing in shows. They may also be used for visitor souvenir photographs, during which the animals may be trained to jump out and ‘beach’ themselves on the edge of the concrete pool.

‘Swim-withs’ and other public interactions are associated with the potential for injury to both humans and dolphins. Dolphins have delicate eyes and skin, which are at risk from human fingernails, jewellery, make-up and suntan lotion.

There are numerous accounts of people incurring bites, bruises, abrasions and even broken bones during close contact with captive cetaceans. There have even been instances where people have been killed during in-water interactions. These animals can also harbour bacterial and fungal diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

How Born Free is helping dolphins and whales in captivity

Born Free campaigns for changes to national and international legislation to bring the exploitation of cetaceans in captivity to an end, whilst calling for higher standards of care and animal welfare in the short term. As a priority, Born Free calls for the end to wild capture and breeding of cetaceans in captivity, and an end to the training of cetaceans to perform unnatural behaviour and interacting with humans in swim-with and petting activities.

In 1987, Born Free and Whale and Dolphin Conservation published a joint report on UK dolphinaria, exposing the poor conditions in which many of Britain’s dolphins were kept. This report gave weight to Born Free’s campaign Into the Blue in 1991, which saw the closure of the last UK dolphinaria and the rescue and release of the country’s last captive dolphins back to the wild. Since then, no dolphinaria have been constructed in the UK and the country has remained captive cetacean free.

In 2011, Born Free and Whale and Dolphin Conservation published the results of investigations into the status and performance of 18 dolphinaria across the EU. It revealed that dolphinaria were generally failing to meet the requirements of EU legislation, which aims to protect whales and dolphins in captivity.

Born Free is a member of the Dolphinaria-Free Europe coalition, established in 2014, representing a global community of NGOs and professionals working together on behalf of cetaceans throughout Europe. Born Free works to raise awareness of poor conditions and encourage an informed public to consider directing their support away from keeping cetaceans in captivity. We are proud to have rescued individual captive cetaceans, rehabilitating them and safely returning them to the wild, and we support the development of high-quality sanctuaries to provide improved lifetime care for cetaceans currently in captivity who cannot be released to the wild.

What you can do to help

Help raise awareness of the plight of cetaceans in captivity by signing our pledge not to take ‘Selfish Selfies’ – photos that use captive wild animals such as dolphins and whales as photo props.


More Information on Dolphinaria

Two dolphins swim in an aquarium tank behind glass

Report It and Speak Out

If you see captive cetaceans including dolphins, whales or porpoises, you can submit a report through our Raise the Red Flag platform.
A dolphin is on a yellow mat wrapped in a wet towel while people surround it it

Dolphin Rescue

Born Free is proud to have rescued several individual dolphins from life in captivity, rehabilitating them and safely returning them to the wild.
A man in a swimming pool cradling a captive dolphin.

Dolphin Encounters & Interaction

Born Free strongly advises people not to participate in swim-with or close contact activities with captive dolphins and other cetaceans.