On October 2, 2019, TripAdvisor and its subsidiary Viator announced that it would no longer sell tickets to or profit from any tourist destinations that house, breed, or import captive whales and dolphins. This move comes after other major travel companies such as Thomas Cook and Virgin Airlines cut ties with SeaWorld and other marine parks. The company now openly advocates for the transfer of all captive cetaceans to seaside sanctuaries, and will no longer support any institution that houses cetaceans in a zoological setting.
According to TripAdvisor, the decision comes from an “extensive consultation process with a range of experts, including marine biologists, zoologists and conservationists, and considered the scientific evidence and arguments presented from all sides.” However, the fact that the company’s press release contains statements from openly anti-captivity sources, including PETA affiliates, calls into question the extent to which TripAdvisor conducted a fair and impartial search for the truth.
According to TripAdvisor’s President of Experiences and Rentals, “The extensive evidence presented to us by the experts was compelling. Whales and dolphins do not thrive in limited captive environments.” However, multiple peer-reviewed, scientific research studies do not support this statement. Whales and dolphins do thrive in human care, as evidenced by statistically longer lifespans compared to their wild counterparts. A recent study (Jaakkola et al.) examined the survival rates of dolphins over time, both in captivity and in the wild. In addition to demonstrating that bottlenose dolphins in zoological facilities have the same, if not longer lifespans than their wild counterparts, the study also provided evidence that the average survival rates of dolphins in human care continues to increase as husbandry methods improve. An analysis of SeaWorld’s beluga whales corroborates this observation – belugas at SeaWorld live an average of 24 years, while belugas in the wild have an average lifespan of 19.5 years. Another study of orcas in human care (Robeck et al.) concludes that there are no significant differences between the lifespans of orcas in the wild compared to orcas in captivity. Although TripAdvisor and anti-captivity scientists insinuate that cetaceans in human care are not thriving, they are yet to produce quantitative data that supports their position.
Although TripAdvisor believes that distancing itself from accredited marine life parks helps the environment, the effect of their decision actually supports the opposite. Marine parks and aquariums like SeaWorld are vital when it comes to performing research on wild animals. Quantitative metrics like heart rate and hormone levels are almost impossible to measure in wild populations. However, routine veterinary procedures on animals such as blood draws and weight measurements enable scientists to collect data with great ease. Historical records from animal in zoological care give insights into growth rates and the proper hormone levels of cetaceans at different life stages.
Ongoing research conducted on cetaceans in human care directly aids in the conservation of cetaceans in the wild. For example, a study conducted on the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego aimed to determine the effect of boat noise and sonar interference on orca heart rates. The peer-reviewed article (Bickett et al.) concluded that orcas are susceptible to noise pollution produced from boats. Future studies by the same group focus on exactly how noise pollution is affecting orca populations. This is significant because populations such as the Southern Resident Killer Whales seem to be heavily affected by noise pollution, which can disrupt their search for food.
The knowledge gained from cetaceans in human care is paramount when it comes to the rescue of wild cetaceans. Zoological practices like calculating medicine doses and obtaining samples are applicable to the observation and rescue of free-ranging cetaceans. For example, the attempted rescue of the ailing orca J50 was directed by scientists from multiple zoological institutions including SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium. Veterinarians were able to use the information gained in zoological settings to administer the correct doses of antibiotics to the orca, and blowhole samples were sent to SeaWorld San Diego for pathogen testing. Although J50’s rescue was unsuccessful in the end, the knowledge gained will prove useful for future cetacean rehabilitation.
Part of TripAdvisor’s criteria include the complete cessation of “shows or performances for public display,” which directly opposes the work that marine life parks do to teach the public about conservation. Millions of Americans visit zoos and aquariums each year, enabling them to come face-to-face with species that they would never encounter in the wild. Being able to make a physical and emotional connection with a dolphin, beluga whale, or orca inspires people to care about the fate of those animals in the wild. Before orcas were displayed in marine life parks, they were viewed as menacing creatures and often were used as practice targets for Navy weaponry. Now that we know how intelligent and charismatic these creatures are, we feel a sense of responsibility to care about the fate of those animals in the wild. If zoos and aquariums are unable to connect people with the amazing creatures of the ocean, they simply won’t care as much about what happens to endangered populations of cetaceans.
TripAdvisor encourages the complete transition of the world’s captive cetaceans to seaside sanctuaries, but the fact remains that not one permanent seaside sanctuary exists in North America, nor has a feasible location been located for one. Three years ago, the National Aquarium committed to sending its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary and has been in the process of searching for a location ever since. However, they have been unable to find a suitable location. According to the aquarium’s CEO, not one of the 50 sites the aquarium surveyed is suitable for a permanent cetacean sanctuary. Fierce storms, algal blooms, and climate change have made the search virtually impossible. If zoos and aquariums unloaded their animals into sanctuaries without finding a suitable long-term location, the results would be disastrous.
TripAdvisor’s proposed conditions do not allow for the rescue, rehabilitation, and long-term housing of non-releasable cetaceans. According to their definition of a seaside sanctuary, rescue organizations like the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Alaska SeaLife Center, and Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network would be blacklisted due to the fact that they do not house their rescued cetaceans in seaside sanctuaries. Seaside sanctuaries would be inappropriate for most rescue operations because water quality could not be meticulously monitored or controlled. Non-releasable cetaceans would require additional sea sanctuaries to be built, but there is no clear source of funding to build and maintain those sanctuaries. For example, the beluga whale Tyonek was rescued off the coast of Alaska, deemed non-releasable, and is now living with SeaWorld San Antonio’s family of belugas. If there were no facilities to care for Tyonek, he would not have survived.
If zoos and aquariums comply with TripAdvisor’s directive, the fate of the ocean’s biodiversity will be at stake. The ability to conduct research on animals in human care is necessary for the conservation of animals in the wild. Zoos and aquariums bring millions of Americans face-to-face with live cetaceans, enabling them to make an emotional connection. The knowledge gained from marine mammal rescue centers are necessary to protect marine life that is constantly threatened by human activity.
TripAdvisor’s decision is a slap in the face to the thousands of animal caretakers, veterinarians, researchers, and members of the public who believe that zoos and aquariums can make a difference in the world. Hopefully, facilities around the country will be able continue the work they do to care for animals, both in their care and in the wild.