Rethink the Dolphin Show—Don't Buy the Ticket

Updated on April 15, 2019
Layne Holmes profile image

Layne worked as a wildlife rehabilitator and medical intern for several years before becoming a registered veterinary technician (RVT).

Does performing tricks really keep them happy?
Does performing tricks really keep them happy? | Source

Live Dolphin Shows and Presentations

I've been there—I love wildlife and dolphins so much, I wanted to see them up close and personal. I want to touch them, swim with them, interact with them . . . it's simply magical, right?

It took me several years of working with domestic animals in captivity (shelters) and wildlife in rehabilitation to really see what kind of effect captivity and these shows have on complex species. I have watched "Blackfish" which investigates Sea World and "The Cove," which are two incredibly revealing documentaries—and not for the faint of heart—and these films reinforced my beliefs but didn't form them. I've mostly formed my opinions from the empathetic interactions I've had with species of all kinds. Being a surfer and someone who enjoys the open ocean, there's nothing more pleasing than being in the presence of a pod of dolphins in the wild . . .

Are Dolphins in Captivity Happy?

There are many myths surrounding captive dolphins. One is that they are always smiling—bearing a toothy grin. Which means they're happy, right? Here's the truth:

  • Dolphins don't smile. This apparent "smile" is merely a display of their natural features, that is, they do not have control over their "smiling" capability. An open beak is simply a display, not a smile. Just as cats will purr when in pain and dogs will wag when nervous.
  • Dolphins are social. Many dolphins are separated from their pods, their family. Dolphin calves or babies, especially, are captured and pulled away from their parents in the wild. These babies are meant to be with mom for 3-6 years.
  • Dolphins need space. Dolphins are only given less than 1% of the space that they typically have available to them in their natural environment. They are given even less stimulation, and swim in chemically treated pools and are given antibiotics and medications for stomach ulcers due to behaviors like tank degradation, ingesting unnatural objects, and captivity-related injuries.
  • Dolphins are sensitive. Dolphins are sensitive, inquisitive species and require stimulation, socialization, space, and a natural space—booming music, chlorinated pools, and deprivation (yes, some shows use deprivation for training in unregulated areas or abroad), are extremely harmful and cruel.

What are dolphins really communicating when they "smile"?
What are dolphins really communicating when they "smile"? | Source

Facts About Dolphins

  • Wild dolphins can swim up to 100 miles a day
  • No laws exist in the U.S. to protect the welfare of dolphins
  • Laws in the U.S. only offer guidelines for capturing and confinement
  • It is still legal to capture wild dolphins
  • Many dolphins are collected via stranding
  • National Marine Fisheries Services permits the capture of dolphins for scientific research, display, conservation, or accidental capture

Even in the largest captive facilities, dolphins have access to less than 1/10,000 of 1% (0.000001%) of the space available to them in their natural environment.


Video: Intelligent Dolphin Manipulates a Bubble Ring

Dolphins Are Self-Aware

Dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors, which is indicative of self-awareness. The only other species that exhibit this ability are humans, great apes, elephants, and magpies.

Do Captive Animals Commit Suicide?

In an interesting article by, titled "What It Means To Say a Dolphin Committed Suicide" we revisit the argument in case of "Peter" the bottlenose dolphin who is said to have committed suicide and "Kathy" (one of several Flipper characters) who is said to have purposefully ceased breathing in the arms of her trainer Ric O'Barry—essentially drowning herself.

These claims are hard to conclude because there is so little we understand about the complexities of other species. We know that many species are social, exhibit symptoms of depression much like humans, self-harming behaviors from boredom, and aggression from frustration—look at domesticated dogs.

How Smart Are Dolphins?

Dolphins are brilliant and have existed for 15 million years (the bottlenose dolphin). According to

  • they understand symbols and syntax
  • they can mimic humans
  • they recognize themselves in mirrors
  • they mourn their dead
  • they exhibit empathy and attachment
  • their brain size to body size is second to humans
  • they pass down their communication generation to generation
  • the develop tools (using sea sponges to cover rostrums when rooting in sharp coral).
  • they recognize their thoughts (termed metacognition)

Victorian scientists were particularly interested in this question, according to historian Edmund Ramsden in a 2010 article. Humane societies were eager to prove that animals experienced humanlike emotions, and animal suicides offered proof. A series of such stories began to appear in periodicals in 1845.

You're way cooler seeing them in the wild.
You're way cooler seeing them in the wild. | Source

Captive Dolphins Are Constantly Bombarded by Noise Pollution

Dolphins communicate via acoustics. Have you ever held your ears under water in a bath tub or in a swimming pool or even the ocean? Every pop, clack, or bang is amplified! Imagine the amount of sensory overload these sensitive species are receiving when surrounded by the visiting public. We know we shouldn't tap on the glass of their enclosures, but can you imagine what the noise of a soundtrack may do to them during a performance? Intense, right?

The Behavior of Dolphins in Captivity

Dolphins in captivity exhibit the following behaviors:

  • swimming in circles
  • inter-tank aggression
  • self-harm
  • anorexia
  • redirection
  • repetitive behaviors
  • isolation and "loneliness"

All of these behaviors are "symptomatic" of the consequences of captivity.

Video: Boredom and Unhealthy Captive Behaviors

How Big Are Dolphin Tanks in the U.S.?

The Animal Welfare Act of 1979 oversees the standards of captive dolphin care which includes vet. care, diet, transportation and habituation, water quality, and space. According to, once dolphins enter into captivity, however, the USDA Animal Plant and Inspection Service is in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.

Dolphin Tank Size Requirements

In the U.S., a dolphin can be kept in a tank size of 24 x 24 feet (6 feet deep).

Swimming and Petting Dolphins: Dolphin Interactions

1998 was the year that interaction guidelines were created by the USDA. Swimming with dolphins, though portrayed as pleasurable for both dolphins and people, is actually quite dangerous. Dolphins in captivity are not domesticated—and all wild animals' behavior can be unpredictable. That means they can drown you.

Demonstrations of Altruism

Dolphins have historically been known to carry injured species to safety and have protected humans from impending shark attacks.

The best dolphin show is a wild dolphin show.
The best dolphin show is a wild dolphin show. | Source

How Many Dolphins Are Killed Each Year?

Facts about dolphin deaths:

  • dolphins take more than 30 minutes to die
  • many hunted species are endangered
  • many dolphins that are corralled are captured for dolphin shows
  • drive hunts kill nearly 20,000 dolphins a year
  • the price of a live dolphin ranges from $32,000 to 250,000
  • dolphin meat is sold for consumption and contains high levels of mercury (but is often unlabeled)

Recent documentaries have revealed the killing of dolphins in Taiji as well as in other areas of the world. Coastal whale hunts have taken place since the 1600s. Taiji sees dolphin meat as a vital food source, and much of this is rooted in tradition. Today, drive hunts are used to corral dolphins into the cove, concentrate them, and slaughter them in number. According to the, "Dolphin slaughter turns sea read as Japan hunting season returns":

"Over the next six months the town's fishermen will catch about 2,300 of Japan's annual quota of 20,000 dolphins. The meat from a single animal fetches up to 50,000 yen (£330), but aquariums are prepared to pay up to £90,000 for certain types."

Who Is at Fault?

We all have to do our part to advocate for the protection of endangered and threatened species. We also have to do our work to understand communities and cultures with different traditions. The most effective way to change a negative behavior is by replacing it with a sustainable positive.

Many communities have shifted their habits to better ways of subsistence by simply working on a solution. Consider watching "Racing Extinction," a film that documents the transformation of a community. The community went from hunting manta rays as part of their tradition and livelihood to ecotourism.

The happiest dolphin (or porpoise) is a wild dolphin.
The happiest dolphin (or porpoise) is a wild dolphin. | Source

Make the Change Today

You can make the change today—every day is a new opportunity. There was a time in my life where I thought nothing of animals in captivity . . . I was young, and the mere idea of interacting with or seeing these beautiful creatures up close was incredible! Since, I have worked with wildlife (rehabilitation) and have learned the importance of preventing habituation and keeping wildlife wild!

It's important to note that not all facilities should be branded as evil—some facilities host veterinary teams and the sort that work exceptionally hard to provide the best life for these creatures and some facilities do their best to operate on an ethical level—this includes protected threatened species. But the argument still stands that wildlife is best kept wild.

The Best Dolphin Show Is a Wild Dolphin Show

Keep in mind that we should observe how we treat ALL species—slaughtering dolphins is no different from slaughtering cattle, chickens, and pigs inhumanely. This doesn't mean you have to stop eating meat—you can—but opt for sustainable and humane sources.



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Layne Holmes

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      • Layne Holmes profile imageAUTHOR

        Layne Holmes 

        6 days ago from Bend, Oregon

        Yes—I think I've been to orca shows as well way back. I've definitely done some reading since and have found a fondness for keeping them wild. The documentaries, of course, were shocking. I try to stay neutral for everyone—I definitely love them in the wild. Thanks for taking a read.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 days ago from UK

        Years ago we took our family to a few dolphin shows, mainly because they were a novelty to us. We don't have them in the UK, so when we found them in Spain and France we went to them. Since that time, we have tended to go on boat trips in search of the dolphins in the sea, which we are more comfortable with.


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