When I was a child, aquariums felt like a theme park.
Nothing was more exhilarating than seeing the huge schools of tropical fish, the menacing hordes of sharks, and the vibrant packs of seals soaring through the water, as I walked beneath them.
My nine- year old self couldn’t think of anything more magical, and not even for a moment did I give a second thought to the beautiful creatures’ captivity.
How could a child, his eyes full of the world he had never seen before, even contemplate that the animals in the tanks were suffering a life of mundane boredom and cruelty, a life that was extrinsically unnatural to the life that they could have lived?
It wasn’t until much older, when I was following a cruelty-free lifestyle that I understood the extreme damage of recreational aquariums and marine parks, and the myriad of happy childhood memories seemed to darken slightly.
It was then when I realized that the main function of these aquariums and marine parks was not to assist these creatures in some profound unseen way, which I had always thought, but for their profit and entertainment.
The Industry of Aquariums
First and foremost aquariums and marine parks exist mainly for their own greed and human entertainment.
A recent investigation by South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that mammals sold for marine parks and aquariums, such as dolphins and whales can be worth millions of dollars.
In their investigation, Sun-Sentinel interviews Brad Andrews, a senior vice president of operations at Busch Entertainment Group, the parent company of SeaWorld.
He states that only two years ago the marine park bought nine dolphins for $130,000 each and to purchase a killer whale today it would cost them up to 5 million dollars. He states, “Everybody wants in, and every year the price goes up.”
So if marine animals are so expensive to purchase, how can corporations such as SeaWorld and Georgia Aquarium in the United States keep up with the cost of purchasing, training and maintaining these beautiful creatures.
The answer is a simple one. You!
In 2013, a whopping 90% of Georgia Aquarium’s incoming revenue was from Program Service Revenue, which refers to admissions at the gate, and facilities that are held at the aquarium such as gift shops and photography services.
Aquariums and marine parks would not be able to make a profit or be able to remain open without the help from people’s pockets.
Just glancing at an aquarium’s marketing and advertising and you begin to understand where the majority of that money comes from – a great example shown below in a SeaWorld TV ad.
The Aquariums peak times, and the period where they hold the most interactive and inclusive activities, and functions are, of course, situated within school holidays.
Kids and families are the main market for aquariums and marine fun parks. They often advertise their parks as “fun family days out” or offer ‘extreme’ and ‘adventurous’ experience for kids. You just have to walk around an aquarium to realize its catered towards a younger audience.
In my hometown of Sydney, Australia, the Sea Life Aquarium is no exception. As you meander through the center, each group of sea creatures has their own fun theme whether its ‘South Coast Shipwreck’ or ‘Dugong Island,’ transporting kids to seemingly different worlds.
And of course, there is always the gift shop at the exit, forcing you to walk through it before you leave. I remember the energy spent harassing my mother when I was a kid, pleading for her to buy me a cute fuzzy seal toy, or small shark figurine that I knew would be forgotten in a week.
Aquariums Are Unnatural and Unethical
The fact is a simple one.
The restrained environment of an aquarium can never permit captive animals to express the full capacity of their natural environments. For mammals such as orcas and dolphins, this is especially so.
In the wild, these creatures live in intricate social groups and travel great distances in the free ocean. The tanks that are made to hold these mammals in an aquarium are equivalent to a bathtub, a bathtub in which they are destined to spend the rest of their lives.
Salvatore Cardoni of Takepart.com states, “in the largest aquariums, captive dolphins have access to less than one ten-thousandth of 1% of the swimming area available to them in the wild.”
Below is a graphic from seaworldfactcheck.com depicting the depth and range of a wild Orcha in comparison to one in captivity.
Furthermore, studies have shown that animals kept in captivity have a life span much shorter than those who are allowed to live their days in their natural habitat.
An average life span for a wild bottlenose dolphin is 40 years, but statistics show that dolphins held in captive dolphin programs have a measly and depressing lifespan of just five years, not even 13% of their natural lifespan. This trend is common among all captive animals.
Sun-Sentinel studied 30 years of US federal documents relating to marine animals in captivity and discovered that over 4,000 dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions have died in captivity, and of the 2,400 with the cause of death included in the analysis, 1 out of 5 deaths were identified as human hazards or avoidable causes.
Tropical and freshwater fish, which are used to vast kilometers of either coral reefs or the vast freedom of lakes and rivers are kept captive to spend the rest of their lives in small artificial tanks. These small fish are often seen as disposable, even when their species are at risk in their natural environment.
Trained for Entertainment
As the ground- breaking documentary ‘Blackfish’ revealed, aquatic animals are forced to perform in marine parks such as Sea World. Animals are made to perform in ways that are not natural to them with the only aim to sate human’s desire for entertainment.
These establishments are known to use harmful and cruel ways to train their animals, one common tactic being food deprivation and control. An important instinct for animals is the ability to hunt and provide their own food. Aquariums and marine parks often teach these creatures that they will only get food if they perform correctly.
As the documentary outlines, forcing aquatic animals to perform can lead to dangers for not only the animal in question but also their trainers.
There have been many recorded deaths and injuries of trainers as the mammals being kept captive experience frustration and emotional distress due to depression and other psychological issues enforced by their imprisonment.
So, Are There Any Benefits of Aquariums and Marine Parks?
The biggest argument that aquariums and marine life parks argue is that they exist for the conservation and awareness of aquatic animals and to provide an environment where humans can grow an appreciation of these amazing animals.
However, as studies show aquariums and marine parks are not always doing what they claim to do. There is no proof that people attending aquariums and marine parks develop a bigger awareness of conservation and a sense of well-being towards aquatic animals.
There are already responsible not for profit organizations that exist for the sole purpose of helping aquatic animals in danger and the conservation of aquatic ecosystems.
In this technological age, there is no reason why interactive, fun and entertaining aquatic-type parks can’t exist that emphasize the concern for aquatic animal welfare and conservation but without the severe act of animal cruelty and captivity. A park that could still spark a child’s imagination and sense of wonder, but without the consequences of animal suffrage.