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A Report on Captivity
by Dr. John Hall Ph.D


John Hall began his marine biology career in 1967 when, after finishing his master's degree at Humboldt State University, he began working for the U.S. Navy as a civilian marine biologist. At the Navy's Pt. Mugu and San Diego marine laboratories he participated in the Man-In-The-Sea program (Sea Lab III) by training Pacific white-sided dolphins to work with divers at depths up to 700 feet; conducted research on the hearing and sonar abilities of dolphins and killer whales; and participated in the development of harbour security systems using dolphins in Vietnam.

In 1972, Hall returned to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His doctoral dissertation work involved the distribution and natural history of the cetaceans of Prince William Sound, Alaska. After graduate school, Hall worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the senior marine mammal biologist in Alaska where he studied the impacts of offshore energy development on stocks of whales and dolphins.

In 1986 Dr. Hall joined Sea World in San Diego as senior research scientist. During his tenure with Sea World and the Sea World Research Institute, he directed the development of a remote camp and research facilities for conducting studies on narwhals in the eastern Canadian Arctic. He developed a computerized dolphin behavior recording system to record the behavior of newborn dolphins and their mothers. He also developed a computerized tone code generating system using parts of wild killer whale calls to use in training killer whales at the Sea World parks.

From 1990 until the present Dr. Hall has directed the development of underwater acoustic monitoring techniques in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea as part of the effort to understand the environmental impact of Arctic offshore oil exploration operations and the sounds associated with offshore exploration on marine organisms.

In addition, Dr. Hall was scientific director on two dolphin rehabilitation and reintroduction projects in Florida and Colombia. These projects involved rehabilitating and reintroducing captive bottlenose and tucuxi dolphins into their native habitats.


"In my opinion, based on something over thirty years of working with cetaceans in captivity and the wild, there should be no place for a discussion of the "value" of keeping small cetaceans in captivity. To a very great degree it is done only for the profits displaying cetaceans for entertainment produces.

As a result, a discussion of captive environments and how captive environments meet the needs of these highly complex social mammals is oxymoronic. Clearly the ocean (and in a few cases, flowing rivers) are the natural habitats of these organisms and anything less, especially for animals adapted to being on the go almost constantly, is unsatisfactory. This does not mean that we cannot build concrete tanks where these animals can be housed, and in some cases even reproduce. But the point here is that some people (another group of highly complex social mammals) live in highly confined habitats for many years, and sometimes reproduce while in those habitats (we call them prisons), but I can't imagine anyone who would suggest that people in prison live anything like a normal life.

In the case of killer whales, especially considering all we have learned in the last 20 years about how complex, structured and well defined their social organization is, I find it impossible to believe that housing a male and female captured from separate pods in the Atlantic Ocean with a female from the Pacific Ocean could be thought to have taken any of the known social structure into account. Those actions are simply warehousing the animals wherever convenient. So it should be no surprise when we read of aggression and injuries, even death, occurring when animals from different pods or oceans are housed together in small, noisy concrete habitats. We know quite clearly that most killer whales in the wild stay with their natal pod for essentially their entire life. This means that calves are born into a family group (a subpod) and spend, at the least, many, many years, if not their entire lives in that pod. Yet in captivity it has become a normal procedure to remove a calf from its mother when the calf is only a couple of years old. In some cases calves have been removed from their mothers when they were only 6 months old. That some of these calves might physically survive the separation is not the point.

The point is that in the wild, and we need to remember that these are wild organisms, not in any way domesticated animals, these animals live to be 30 to 50 years old, on average, and have developed a remarkably complex social structure. When we separate calves from their mothers we are ensuring that the normal social structure will never be developed. In my opinion, meeting the basic physiological needs of complex social mammals such as killer whales does not meet our responsibilities to these animals. If we are unable, or unwilling, to meet both the physiological and well documented social needs of these animals we should not hold them in captivity. To do so substantially shortens the life expectancy of the animal in captivity as compared with the same species in the wild.

Many aquaria have put forth the argument that by keeping cetaceans in captivity, and breeding them there, the aquaria are meeting some sort of perceived need to provide a gene pool for the future. Yet in the case of all the cetaceans commonly held in captivity there is not one species in a single aquaria that is considered threatened or endangered. There are, to my knowledge, no Species Survival Plans for captive cetacea and no recognized studbooks being kept by aquaria in order to avoid inbreeding. As a matter of fact, by the late 1980s all the bottlenose dolphin calves born at one aquaria in southern California had apparently been fathered by only two males.

So the only reason for continuing to breed cetaceans in captivity, since none are endangered or threatened, is to produce the next generation for entertainment purposes. Since killer whales are reported to be responsible for at least 70% of all the revenue generated by large aquaria, it seems clear that breeding killer whales in captivity is being done only for continued profits and has nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining populations suitable for reintroduction. This is especially true because the large aquaria have made it clear that reintroduction of killer whales into the wild is a program they are opposed to. There are three species of highly endangered small cetaceans (vaquita, beiji and Ganges susu) whose populations are in terrible condition, yet I have not read of a single plan by any aquaria to work with any of these rapidly disappearing species in order to attempt to develop sufficient knowledge and provide an adequate gene pool so that the species might be maintained until such time as habitat again becomes available to support their populations in the wild.

Perhaps it is because all three species are small, cryptic and not very enduring or visually distinct, and would probably not draw large crowds eager to pay to see endangered cetaceans in a well designed recovery program. In the meantime the aquaria continue to crank out endearing bottlenose dolphins with their perpetual "smile" and killer whales with their fearsome teeth and reputations while the truly endangered species of small cetaceans slide ever closer to the pit of extinction."


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