The heart-tugging Sea of Shadows documentary details the compassionate effort to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal: vaquita porpoises. Found only in Mexican waters, the population of this tiny animal is dwindling sharply as they die in illegal gillnets. People volunteered their time and donated funds to the project because they care.
Historically considered voracious and merciless predators, the shooting of killer whales was once accepted and even encouraged by governments. No one cared then. But they care now.
The public’s love and will to protect marine mammals would not be what it is today if not for the contributions and shared goals of marine parks. Yet, some groups are attempting to take advantage of that love to compel parks and aquariums to give up the whales and dolphins in their facilities, most of which were born there and would not survive in the wild.
They argue that animals in parks and aquariums don’t live as long as those in the wild. Wrong. Check the research. They argue that habitats are too noisy. Wrong. Check the research. They allege that dolphins in interactive programs are forced to participate. Wrong. They argue that the animals in these programs are stressed. Wrong. Check the research. After these programs end, the dolphins’ play behaviors increase and they voluntarily continue to interact with visitors. Check the research.
For many species, the “wild” has become an increasingly life-threatening place. Scientists frequently underscore how devastating changes to our oceans are happening faster and with greater severity. Whales and dolphins are suffering from deadly pollution, fishing gear entanglement, underwater noise, boat strikes, oil spills, rising ocean temperatures, ingesting plastic debris, and lack of food. These animals need our help, evidenced by the growing number of species and populations that are now endangered or threatened.
The more people learn about these animals, the more they care about them and the need to conserve them in the wild. The more they care about the environment. Without these animals in parks and aquariums, gone will be numbers of educators who present programs daily that illustrate how human activities impact the health of whales, dolphins, and their ocean habitats and inspire life-changing attitudes and values in those they teach.
Gone will be the veterinarians and caregivers with exhaustive knowledge of the animals’ physiology, cognition, behavior, and reproduction; knowledge important to understanding and overcoming the challenges facing whales and dolphins in the wild.
Conservation research critical to ensuring the health of wild marine mammal populations and informing government policies will be greatly impeded. Gone will be partnerships with universities and research organizations whose studies rely on whales and dolphins in parks and aquariums. These studies include testing and calibrating techniques and equipment aimed at saving wild populations. Scientists use indispensable, baseline parameters and knowledge gained from these animals when evaluating the health of marine mammal populations in the wild. Decades of marine mammal research, which has led to scientific advances and the adoption of life-saving human medical technologies, will come to an end.
Gone will be facilities that respond to marine mammals stranded on our beaches, nurse them back to health and return them to our oceans, or provide a welcoming home to those unable to survive in the wild. Gone will be the veterinarians and caregivers who save those animals’ lives. A survey by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums indicates that, over a five-year period, its member facilities responded to almost 6,000 marine mammal strandings, 5,000 sea turtle strandings, and over 6,000 bird strandings. Alliance members contributed over $16.6 million to these humane efforts, which involved more than 260,000 volunteer hours.
Don’t be misled by your love for these animals. Don’t let your love wrongly jeopardize the whales and dolphins in human care that helped motivate that love.
Yes, we all love whales and dolphins. None more than the caregivers in parks and aquariums who strive daily to ensure and improve their health and welfare. Nothing can replace the impact of seeing these magnificent animals up close. We learn to love them by watching, hearing, and learning about them, and that love promotes a greater appreciation for wildlife conservation efforts so essential to protecting them in our oceans.
Never before have the threats to marine life in our oceans been so staggering. Now is the time to work together to ensure that whales, dolphins, and their habitats survive. Together, we can make a significant difference.
Executive Director, Retired
Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums