The Georgia Aquarium and The Art of War

The Georgia Aquarium has announced that it will not appeal the decision of Judge Amy Totenberg in Georgia Aquarium v Pritzker.  Resounding huzzahs were heard in all camps of those opposing captivity.  Feelings nearing jubilation and celebration of victory were shared across social media.

The Georgia Aquarium fights to import wild beluga whales.

The Georgia Aquarium stands down on this phase to import wild beluga whales.

The Georgia Aquarium’s decision not to appeal, however, came as no surprise, and signals little more than that the management at the aquarium was listening to legal counsel.  Its chances of overturning Judge Totenberg’s decision were miniscule, if that.  And so the Georgia Aquarium merely decided that standing down on this permit appeal was the right decision in this war over marine mammal captivity.  The Georgia Aquarium claimed that the appeal would have been costly; this much is true.  It does not say that the appeal would have been futile, but that, too, is most likely true as well.

When the Georgia Aquarium acknowledges that continuing the appeal “would not be in the best interest of the animals in Russia,” it likely means something different than what marine mammal advocates consider “best interest.” Does the Georgia Aquarium intend to step away from its stated goal of creating “a sustainable population of belugas at accredited zoological facilities in North America?”  Notably, its statement did not go that far.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

We are waging a war against captivity. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

So, to the celebrants I say, as we claim a tactical victory, study the art of war.  Consider where and how this announcement plays in the overall war.  Know that this victory came as a result of little more than the Georgia Aquarium’s arrogance and feeling of entitlement at stealing wild animals from the ocean and importing them into the United States and of the system of laws working.  Appreciate the possibility that the Georgia Aquarium learned something valuable to itself in this war and how to play in the next battle, a battle that may not invoke a “taking”, a battle that may not involve a “Near Threatened” species.

Prepare yourself for the next battle.

Because it will come.

Beluga Cousteau quote

SeaWorld’s cluelessness about anything “natural”

As SeaWorld describes on its own page, SeaWorld Cares, its President and CEO Joel Manby announced, “the company has initiated production on a new orca presentation for its San Diego park.”  The new presentation will showcase “more of the species’ natural behaviors.”

The new experience will engage and inform guests by highlighting more of the species’ natural behaviors.

SeaWorld has provided little to no detail on what is meant by this, but the following image from its website may provide some clues.

What does this picture tell the public about what SeaWorld has in mind for its new show format?

What does this picture tell the public about what SeaWorld has in mind for its new show format?  Image from SeaWorld Cares.

I guess that SeaWorld is attempting to make the point that because, in the wild, orcas breach, when SeaWorld trains the orcas in its collection (by using food deprivation) to jump out of the water, this is a natural behavior.

But if it isn’t exactly clear that this is what SeaWorld means, one can read further in its blog for tells.  Describing the following image, SeaWorld states that “[i]t’s going to be focused more on the natural setting, natural environment and also the natural behaviors of the whales.”

SeaWorld's next example of "natural behaviors." Image from SeaWorld Cares.

SeaWorld’s next example of “natural behaviors.”  Image from SeaWorld Cares.

So, yet another image of orcas leaping out of the water is provided, with the implication, again, that because orcas leap out of the water in the ocean, when they do so upon command in a concrete tank, this makes it a “natural behavior.”  Never mind that the wild orcas are not rewarded with frozen, dead fish or signaled “trick successfully completed” by the toot of the trainer’s whistle, or “bridge”.  SeaWorld is apparently telling us that this is natural behavior.

The concept of “natural behaviors” seems to be the focus, because nothing in SeaWorld’s presentation to stockholders on October 9 or on its SeaWorld Cares site would indicate that “natural setting” or “natural environment” is truly in the offing for its collection of orcas.  Quite to the contrary, SeaWorld has steadfastly refused to signal any support for the creation of actual natural settings or environments, like a marine sanctuary.  In fact Mr. Manby has reportedly stated that “doing so would only lead to the orcas to get sick, and likely die.”

But what might SeaWorld have in mind to make the tanks a more “natural setting” or “natural environment?”  Less blaring music as during the theatrical performances?  Some concrete formed to look like, um, the ocean bottom?  Since it has abandoned the Blue World project, it has apparently rejected the notion of an additional 14 feet in depth to make the tanks more “natural”.  But of course, this additional 14 feet would have done nothing, as in nothing, to make a tank a more natural setting.

The natural setting and natural environment of an orca. Image by Candace Calloway Whiting

The natural setting and natural environment of an orca. Image by Candace Calloway Whiting

While we wait to hear what SeaWorld has in mind for its mission of “naturalness”, it is clear that just as whatever trick SeaWorld entices the orcas to perform, or whatever it may add or subtract from its system of tanks, there is nothing natural about it.

Too bad that the entity responsible for 24 orcas in the United States is apparently clueless about this.

The parallels between this graphic that I made for fun and SeaWorld's own are striking. And disturbing.

The parallels between this graphic that I made for fun and SeaWorld’s own are striking. And disturbing.

Google indoctrinates Title I students about marine mammal captivity

While I have come to expect that the Georgia Aquarium and other marine parks will come after our children in many ways, from discounted to free tickets, I was surprised to see that Google – an innovator and pioneer in searching on the internet – would participate in propping up the outdated concept of  marine mammal captivity.

The Georgia Aquarium gets them early with Toddler Time. Photo: Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium gets them early with Toddler Time. Photo: Georgia Aquarium

From free admission for a toddler with a heavily discounted adult fare during “Toddler Time” to free admission on your birthday, the Georgia Aquarium finds many ways to attract children and their parents.  Now they, along with Google, are exploiting, not only marine mammals, but also those children who are, the theory goes, less likely to be exposed to the natural world.  The solution of Google and the Georgia Aquarium?  Take them to see captive animals on a “one of a kind field trip.”

Google sponsors a "one of a kind field trip" to the Georgia Aquarium

Google sponsors a “one of a kind field trip” to the Georgia Aquarium. Image from the Georgia Aquarium blog.

They may be right about that.  A “one of kind field trip.”  But what is that “kind”?  First and foremost, they are taking children to an unnatural experience but teaching them that it is natural.

No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.  – Jacques Cousteau

Marine captivity is not naturalWhat the Georgia Aquarium, and now google and educators, turn a blind eye to is the observation of one of the world’s foremost marine environment educators, Jacques Cousteau.  Cousteau knew, by virtue of experiencing the marine environment first-hand, that keeping marine mammals in captivity was not natural.

That the Georgia Aquarium continues to entice educators (because who doesn’t love a field trip) into thinking that they are witnessing the natural world when they see a beluga or dolphin or whale shark in a tank, it’s, well, it’s worse than a damn shame.  It is a lie.

One of the educators who, in good faith no doubt, brought her students to the Georgia Aquarium said,

One of the things that I’ve seen, and I’ve taught for 28 years, the biggest part I’ve seen is I can teach them all day and tell them about it, but actually experiencing it, seeing it and doing it, brings it to life. . . You catch ’em with a book, but you hook ’em with an experience.

And that is precisely the point.  The children have now been hooked into thinking – without realizing that their thinking has been hooked – that marine mammal captivity is natural, that it is acceptable – and this is the one view that all who support marine mammal captivity have in common.  Some may like the beluga whales more, some the dolphins; but they all accept tanks as part of the deal.

The human-nonhuman bond.  One has only to watch the Georgia Aquarium’s video of the #googleweek event to see the glee on the part of the students.  It was a field tip.  It was a field trip to see animals.  The connection, the bond, between human and non-human animals is vast and deep.  Humans are nearly always moved by an experience of or interaction with a nonhuman animal.  And now, the hearts of those students were “set” by that moving experience, and that experience taught them, at least most of them, that captivity is a wondrous thing.  While that “setness” is not irreversible, as many are coming to learn, so long as the aquarium industry has its way, it certainly will be.

The impact?  So, now that you know, watch the promotion of the event by the Georgia Aquarium and Google, and witness, firsthand, your own “field trip” to indoctrination into thinking that marine mammal captivity is natural, is acceptable, is good.

No education exists within the mind of man than can justify the enslavement of dolphins.

No education exists within the mind of man than can justify the enslavement of dolphins.

What is the alternativeCatch the inspiration in the children in the video below.  No exploitation involved. Google, in particular, should be able to appreciate that a technology that inspires without exploitation makes a better future for our children.

And hold onto your Inspire Hat for this one:

A field trip to your local wildlife rehabilitation center where they learn a true respect for wildlife is certainly a better, and ethical, alternative.

There is no circumstance in which one can take his or her children to see dolphins, whales or other large migratory marine animals in aquariums, marine parks or swim-withs without letting in the silent specter of “captivity is good.”

What you can do: Contact Google wherever you live and tell them that captivity for marine mammals is not okay and that it is unacceptable to exploit marine mammals under the guise of a field trip of exploitation masquerading as an interaction with nature.

A few Google locations:

  • Headquarters, Mountain View, CA: 1 650-253-0000
  • Ann Arbor, MI: 1 734-332-6500
  • Atlanta, GA: 1 404-487-9000
  • Austin, TX: 1 512-343-5283
  • Cambridge, MA: 1 617-575-1300
  • Chicago, IL: 1 312-840-4100
  • Detroit, MI: 1 248-593-4000
  • Irvine, CA: 1 949-794-1600
  • Kirkland, WA: 1 425-739-5600
  • Los Angeles, CA: 1 310-310-6000
  • New York, NY: 1 212-565-0000
  • San Francisco, CA: 1 415-736-0000
  • Seattle, WA: 1 206-876-1800
  • Washington, DC: 1 202-346-1100
  • Beijing: +86-10-62503000
  • Belo Horizonte: +55-31-2128-6800
  • Dubai: +971 4 4509500
  • Hong Kong: +852-3923-5400
  • London: +44 (0)20-7031-3000
  • Madrid: +34 91-748-6400
  • Mexico: +52 55-5342-8400
  • Moscow: +7-495-644-1400
  • Paris: +33 (0)1 42 68 53 00
  • Sydney: +61 2 9374 4000
  • Tokyo: +81-3-6384-9000

Light up Google switchboards and tell them to stop supporting this antiquated and exploitative partnership with the Georgia Aquarium.

Maris died after being an experiment in life and death

The death of beluga whale Maris came as a shock to us all, including the Georgia Aquarium.  But the Georgia Aquarium knows what it rarely shouts from its tank-covering rooftops:  the beluga whale captivity industry is dying, just as surely as are “its” beluga whales.

Dying it is.  But becoming “extinct”?  Whether calculated to mislead the American public or not, the Georgia Aquarium has used the word “extinction”, generally known to characterize wild populations only, to describe the beluga whales in captivity.  It is obvious that this is a misuse of the term, but it is, however, true that the captive beluga whale industry is declining and dying, along with the 35 or so beluga whales now held in U.S. aquaria, and the only saving grace for this industry is, apparently, the influx of wild blood.

One need look no further for evidence of this industry’s death than the Georgia Aquarium’s own statement.

Because of the extraordinary, long-term care beluga whales receive at accredited zoological organizations like Georgia Aquarium, this birth is significant as it is the first viable calf to be born from parents who were born in human care. Maris was born at the New York Aquarium in 1994, and the father, Beethoven, was born at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1992.

Here the Georgia Aquarium revealed that there has not yet been a beluga calf successfully born in captivity who was born to parents who were both born in captivity.  I hope you got that.  Not one.  Not a single successful birth to a captive-born couple.

We’ll tell you the truth now. Even though the Georgia Aquarium was elated to announce that Maris’ second calf was considered “viable” – a significant milestone in the ongoing “experiment” to figure out how to breed captive beluga whale calves – the calf died after only 26 days in the tank at the Georgia Aquarium.  In the run-up to both of Maris’ calves’ births, the Georgia Aquarium spent far more time pointing out the high mortality rate, even among wild beluga whales, for first-born calves, and, as far as I can tell, told the public this significant factoid (that not once had a calf born of two captive-born beluga whales survived) only after they thought they had one who would survive.  So, why the consistent omission of this significant fact?  Notably, they did not mention it when the calf died, demurring to the “statistical probability of survival.”  Is this just another example of the “smoke and mirrors” that Judge Totenberg observed on the part of the Georgia Aquarium (Georgia Aquarium v Pritzker, at page 98)?

Maris giving birth on May 10, 2015, to her second female calf, considered viable. Neither are alive today.

Maris giving birth on May 10, 2015, at the Georgia Aquarium to her second female calf, who was considered viable. Neither are alive today.

Nowhere in the recent statements to the press does the Georgia Aquarium acknowledge this significant fact.

So, what to do? Capture! Import! It is little wonder, then, that the Georgia Aquarium took the unprecedented initiative to spearhead an effort to import 18 wild-caught belugas into the United States to add to the U.S. broodstock.  Eighteen: more than all the  wild-caught beluga whales currently-held in the United States.  To allow more successful breeding.  To maintain an industry.  To continue to feed the public the notion that it has a “right” to see them in tanks.  To “love” them so much that visitors will once again grace the turnstiles of the aquarium, season pass or no.

But right?  Entitlement?  As correctly and succinctly summarized by Judge Amy Totenberg in her Order in the case of Georgia Aquarium v Pritzker, at page 76:

In addition, Georgia Aquarium’s arguments presume that — contrary to the express purpose of the MMPA — the limited exceptions for public display and scientific research permits in section 1374 opened the floodgates for unfettered importation of marine mammals.  Nowhere does the MMPA “allow[] for the
continuing import of marine mammals for public display in the United States” or the unfettered right to such importation.  (Doc. 55-1 at 49) (emphasis in original).

The Georgia Aquarium knows that the beluga whale captive industry is dying in the United States, just as surely as have all the calves born to two captive born parents.  And now, the Georgia Aquarium has been schooled that it has no “unfettered right” to grab wild beluga whales to prop up the display industrym and it should stop sending any such signals to the public.

The future of the captive beluga whale industry is dying because United States aquariums hold only a handful of wild-caught beluga whales, and of these, only three are males.

  • Ferdinand, M, SeaWorld San Diego, caught 1975
  • Naluark, M. Mystic Aquarium, caught 1992
  • Imaq, M, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1990
  • Natasha, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1984
  • Mauyak, F, John G. Shedd Aquarium, caught 1984
  • Martha, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1988
  • Crissy, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1988
  • Allua, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1985
  • Kela, F, Mystic Aquarium, caught 1985
  • Naya, F, John G. Shedd Aquarium, caught 1992

This is certainly not the stable of studs and broodmares that the aquarium industry needs to build a genetically diverse, and therefore, robust, population of captive beluga whales, and the industry knows this.  For this reason, and perhaps others that only it knows, the Georgia Aquarium tried to import those 18 wild-caught beluga whales.  But its effort has failed, in failing to demonstrate that its import would not negatively impact the wild populations from which it may have hoped to extract fresh genes and better odds at reproduction.

It is impossible to speak about a dying industry without also coming to terms with the fates of 35 or so captive beluga whales in the United States.  As those in support of the Georgia Aquarium often say, “whales die.”  You just won’t hear me say, as they have done, “that’s life; get over it.”  I grieve for both the living and the dying captives.  But in particular, I grieve for the mothers who are used as part of a failing experiment to successfully breed a captive beluga whale born of captive-born parents.

So, how many more times must female captive-born beluga whales experience the death of a calf, being used as part of the aquarium industry’s Experiment in Breeding, before the public says, “enough is enough?”  Will the death of Maris and her two calves be enough?

I do not know if it will, but it should.

Rest in peace, Maris.

Rest in peace, Maris.

Rest in peace, Maris.

SeaWorld’s view of drive hunts: from “not illegal” to a “horror”

SeaWorld changes its position from being merely "not illegal" to a "horror"

SeaWorld changes its position from being merely “not illegal” to a “horror”

SeaWorld’s Chief Zoological Officer, Brad Andrews, has clarified – on its SeaWorld Cares page – its new position on dolphin drive hunts: they are a horror.  In the past, SeaWorld defended its obtaining false killer whales from a similar drive “fishery” in Iki Island, Japan.  Rather than being considered a “horror”, SeaWorld (either Mr. Andrews or its Director of Veterinary Service, Mr. Jim McBain) characterized SeaWorld’s import of these false killer whales as a “rescue”, “saving” or, alternatively, as being conducted under legal permits.  It also stated that while killing dolphins in a drive hunt was inhumane, taking the ones not killed (i.e., saving them) was humane.  In logic that would seem reasonable in a vacuum, when one has witnessed the drive hunt as have the Sea Shepherd Cove Guardians, every day during the drive hunt season since 2010 (and one would think that Mr. Andrews has availed himself of the archived footage of the drive hunts), he or she knows without a doubt that the killing is not the only inhumane aspect of the drive hunt process.

The drive hunt is a horror, in the truest sense of the word, because it is fear, it is panic and horror, that makes the process work.  The entire process is a horror: from the first sighting of migrating dolphins by the twelve “banger boats” to the miles of driving the dolphins by inflicting the cacophony of coordinated noise that is effected by repeated banging on the long metal poles, to the dolphins arrival at what is for most their final destination, the killing cove.   SeaWorld is right, now.  It is a horror.  And any institution that would pay, as SeaWorld has, to underwrite the horror is as well.  So, while Mr. Andrews’ new statement about the drive hunt is perhaps refreshing, it doesn’t go far enough.  The world deserves an apology for the years of blurring, distancing and denying.  The world deserves a statement that the images in the following video of the capturing of marine mammals in Russia reveal a horror.

So, thought I would write Mr. Andrews a short note:

Dear Brad Andrews:

This is what you need to know about the Taiji dolphin drive hunt: the world followed your very profitable business model, a business model that is built on exploiting marine mammals. But the rest of the world found out that how SeaWorld and other aquariums filled their tanks, up until passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (I love your interview in A Whale of a Business, by the way, Mr. Andrews) was still easily available to them, as it had been to you before Congress and the State of Washington said, “Not so much, Brad.”

So now you pride yourself on not importing drive hunt dolphins when it is, let’s be realistic, impossible in the U.S. (and hey, good move on saying that you wouldn’t take the beluga whales that the Georgia Aquarium is/was fighting to import when it looked like a doomed venture).

I understand that the public doesn’t understand the MMPA as well as you and I. But please stop taking credit for not doing something that would never be allowed in the first place.

And, by the way, we are waiting for an apology – not merely a change of heart – for SeaWorld’s having underwritten the horror, as you now call it.


Mo Brock

Perhaps SeaWorld’s change of “heart” about drive hunts from being “legal” or a “rescue” to being a “horror” explains why SeaWorld refused to accept the beluga whales captured in Russia for the Georgia Aquarium.  Perhaps SeaWorld recognizes that the methods for capturing belugas and orcas and other marine mammals in Russian waters are like a distinction without a difference, instead of, as I suggest to Brad in my note to him, being merely a good move.  Perhaps we can soon expect statements from not only SeaWorld, but also the Georgia Aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium and the Mystic Aquarium that they no longer support the capturing of any wild marine mammal for inclusion in their displays or shows.  Even better, perhaps we will see statements from these and similar institutions that they intend to end the “display” model and to retire the marine mammals currently in captivity to ocean sanctuaries created specifically for that purpose.  Because the fact remains, marine mammal advocates from around the world will not stop demanding it until we have those statements, and until the law is revised to reflect that new, unequivocally humane, policy.

When SeaWorld does that, then we will have greater confidence that SeaWorld does, in fact, care.

Because this, going on right now, is a horror.

Dolphin trapped under the net during dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan. Photo from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Cove Guardians

Dolphin trapped under the net during dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan. Photo from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Cove Guardians

What you can do:

  • Write a letter to the California Coastal Commission objecting to SeaWorld’s tank expansion project and supporting passage of the Orca Welfare and Safety Act.  This one is time-sensitive.  Write by Monday, October 5.
  • Sign the petition to the California Coastal Commission opposing SeaWorld’s tank expansion project.
  • Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers and newspapers in aquarium locations demanding an end to the capturing of wild marine mammals for any purpose.
  • Write letters to your Congressmen demanding that the Marine Mammal Protection be updated to eliminate the exception for permits for capture or import of captured marine mammals or their progeny.
  • And never, ever (even to a wine tasting or corporate party) go to an aquarium with a cetacean, and better yet, any marine mammal, exhibit
  • Write to your local aquarium demanding that it end its marine mammal displays and that it embrace the creation of marine mammal sanctuaries for the retiring of those already in captivity
  • Support the efforts of marine mammal advocacy groups by making donations to support their efforts, both legal and policy-directed, to end the horror of marine mammal captivity.
  • Write to your relevant department of state to demand that the Taiji dolphin drive hunt be identified as inhumane and unsustainable.

For more information about SeaWorld’s role in the drive hunts, please read Op-Ed: SeaWorld’s Convoluted Logic on Taiji’s Dolphin Slaughter or SeaWorld’s Collaboration in the Wild Caught Industry, leading right back to Taiji.

Aqua Vino is wine with a cause: marine mammal captivity

The Georgia Aquarium fights to import wild beluga whales.The Georgia Aquarium is promoting its 10th annual fundraiser, Aqua Vino Nights.  According to the Georgia Aquarium, the event offers an opportunity to “witness the remarkable behavior of social animals and socialites” for the ticket price of $150 to $325 (Georgia Aquarium members pay less), for a cause.  The Georgia Aquarium says that the cause is its important southern sea otter research conservation initiatives.  But what other cause does the event support?

Aqua Vino Nights: exploiting some marine mammals to "conserve" others

Aqua Vino Nights: exploiting some marine mammals to “conserve” others

If one traces the money trail for the Georgia Aquarium’s various “initiatives”, he may find a direct trail supporting the aquarium’s claims.  But what of the less direct (or, rather, less obvious) trail?  What does one find?  In the Georgia Aquarium’s own words, one will find “remarkable . . . social animals” held for a lifetime of captivity, doing tricks for a paying public.

Beluga whales captured and held in tanks in Russia awaiting their "disposition." Photo credit M. Lanovoy

Beluga whales captured and held in tanks in Russia awaiting their “disposition.” Photo credit M. Lanovoy

Beluga WhalesOne will find the beluga whales and dolphins housed in concrete tanks, including the window in the Georgia Aquarium ballroom which allows guests to party down while watching the beluga whales.  These whales, who in the wild swim in family and community groups of tens to hundreds and traverse hundreds of miles in regular migration in Arctic waters, are relegated to a morbidly small tank. In its short operation time, four beluga whales have died (the link does not include the death in 2015 of Maris’ latest calf) in the Georgia Aquarium’s tank, and one, Nico, died in 2009 about three weeks after being transported to SeaWorld of Texas.

Despite its morbidity record, or perhaps because of it, the Georgia Aquarium is seeking to import 18 wild-caught Russian beluga whales.  The aquarium awaits the decision of Federal District Judge Amy Totenberg, following an August 14, 2015, hearing in which NOAA, the Georgia Aquarium and intervenors Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Institute International and others presented their arguments for summary judgment.

Georgia Aquarium would steal these lives

Beluga whales in Russian waters. The scale may difficult to grasp, but not so difficult that life in a tank is revealed to be a horrid life sentence.  Image from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Anyone who has seen the beluga whales up close at the Georgia Aquarium will undoubtedly come away with a sense of wonder.  “Wonder” is exactly what its customers should be doing.  They should wonder why aquariums and marine parks exploit certain species while claiming that captivity and exploitation of “remarkable . . . social animals” are necessary to conserve?

The beluga tank serves as a backdrop to the Georgia Aquarium's ballroom.

The beluga tank serves as a backdrop to the Georgia Aquarium’s ballroom. Photo from the Georgia Aquarium flickr photos.

DolphinsAnd then there are the dolphins, another of the “remarkable . . . social animals” whom the Georgia Aquarium keeps captive.  The Georgia Aquarium currently holds 13 dolphins in its tank system, including five who were shipped from SeaWorld San Diego on May 13, 2014, but excluding

Shaka, wild-caught, shipped from the Georgia Aquarium to Marineland Florida on December 9, 2013.

Shaka, wild-caught, shipped from the Georgia Aquarium to Marineland Florida on December 9, 2013.  Photo from Dolphin Quest.

Shaka and Lily, who were part of the original eleven dolphins at the Georgia Aquarium, subsequently shipped to its Marineland location on December 9, 2013.

These 15 currently-alive dolphins tell only a thinly-veiled version of the story.  Behind that thin veil are the thousands of dolphins who have been captured (or bred from those captured) by the aquarium and marine park industry.  Marineland Florida, now owned by the Georgia Aquarium, was one of the first of such attractions in the United States.  Its 14 currently-living dolphins, including two who were captured in the early 1970s, mask a record of death that will shock anyone except the callous.  A 2004 report by the Sun-Sentinel noted that “Seaquarium has lost 64 of 89 dolphins since 1972.  Of those whose age could be determined, more than half died at 10 or younger, including 16 in their first year.”  And that was 2004.  (Because the required record-keeping (16 U.S.C. §1374(c)(10)) is unattached to any meaningful enforcement, one wonders whether it is reasonable to have confidence in the accuracy and timeliness of the records, which are accessible via the Freedom of Information Act.)

Capturing for the aquarium and marine park industry.  While the Georgia Aquarium fights to be able to import wild-caught marine mammals, other parts of the world do not have to wage the same fight to capture them.  Even killing them en masse, intentionally, during the capture process is permitted.  In Taiji, Japan, they do not capture beluga whales because Taiji is not located in the Arctic; they capture, and kill, the marine mammals that migrate in its waters.

On September 18, 2015, a community of 75 to 80 bottlenose dolphins were herded in a “drive hunt” into a small cove.  For two days, family members were ripped from one another, with the ones prettiest and deemed most suitable for displays taken for the aquarium and marine park industry.  Fifty, or approximately two-thirds of the community, was captured in a process that is neither humane nor sustainable.

Dolphins thrash in panic as the Taiji dolphin hunters attempt to separate dolphins into "takes" and "not takes." Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Dolphins thrash in panic as the Taiji dolphin hunters attempt to separate dolphins into “takes” and “not takes.” Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

This photo and others taken by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reveal some of the terror that the capturing process causes in the dolphins.  While we do not know what dolphins “feel”, we do know that members of the closely-knit dolphin communities will fight to stay together, even at their own risk, during this process.  Yesterday’s image of the dolphin mother and calf being separated so that the mother could be taken into captivity is horrific to an ethical human.  The calf, not taken with his mother, is now condemned to whatever “life” can reasonably be expected, without the relationship with his mother that would have taught him survival skills.

Dolphins are trapped under a net in the process of capturing, subduing and separating dolphins for the aquarium industry. Photo credit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Dolphins are trapped under a net in the process of capturing, subduing and separating dolphins for the aquarium industry. Photo credit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Taiji Dolphin Drive Hunt quota. Image and data compilation from Cetabase on Facebook.

Taiji Dolphin Drive Hunt quota. Image and data compilation from Cetabase on Facebook.

But to an aquarium industry and its supporters (ticket-purchasers) this mother-calf separation is invisible.  The predictable death of the calf will not be noted in a statistic anywhere, certainly not in the quota allowed by the Japanese Fisheries Ministry.  His death and the fate of the pod decimated by the Taiji dolphin hunters will fade into oblivion.  It will certainly not be reported by the industry that will be profitable only so long as facts such as these remain hidden from view.

The entire aquarium and marine park industry is culpable.  The U.S. aquarium and marine park industry likes to proclaim, while it neglects to mention or even abandons the current effort of the Georgia Aquarium, that it no longer captures marine mammals from the wild.  Further, it attempts to distance itself from the Taiji hunt.  It does not want the paying public to connect the dots, but it is without question that the world aquarium and marine park industry has fashioned itself on the U.S. model of shows to attract the public to its turnstiles. The boom of U.S. aquariums that started in the 1950s and 1960s is only beginning in the rest of the world.  China, Japan, the Middle East, islands of the Caribbean and elsewhere are busy playing catch-up to the mature U.S. industry.

But what has been revealed in the 50-plus years since the U.S. boom is that dolphins and whales are not suited to captivity.  The statistics alone tell the tale.  But these statistics and the stories behind them have been distilled into films and books that make the institution of marine mammal captivity anything but the benign image portrayed by the display industry.  Films like Blackfish, A Fall from Freedom, Saving Flipper, A Whale of a Business, Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered, the to-be-released Born to be Free, and the Oscar-winning The Cove present the truth about an exploitative industry that should have been retired long before 2015.  Books like Orca: The Whale Called Killer, Death at SeaWorld, Beneath the Surface and Of Orcas and Men fill in more details than can be captured in films.  All of them reveal that the fascination with whales and dolphins in captivity is a morbid one

The aquarium and marine park industry is, however, profitable.  Highly so.  And as long as the public continues to pass through the cha-ching of the turnstile, the industry will continue to exploit dolphins and other marine mammals.  The world aquarium and marine park industry, modeled after the U.S., uses dolphins and other marine mammals as replaceable, fungible attractions, much as the U.S. industry did in its early years, in a cycle of unending capture.  In the U.S., aquariums and marine parks are beginning to feel the tide of history turning, thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organizations, authors and film-makers.  The National Aquarium, for instance, ended its dolphin shows in 2014, but rumors of its ending dolphin captivity have not come to fruition.  Yet.

Conservation is the new favorite word. In its efforts to “stay current” and face down the growing awareness of the horror of captivity for marine mammals, the U.S. aquarium and marine park industry is attempting to associate, in the public’s mind, captivity with conservation.  “We do good works” is the new mantra.  “Come to the aquarium and take part in conservation.” But the fact remains, and it is a fact, that it is the dolphin or beluga attraction that keeps the money flowing.  The advertisement for the Aqua Vino event at the top of this post makes this perfectly clear.  It is another fact, also born out by this event, that the conservation efforts of the aquarium industry are mainly focused on other species, not the main attractions.  The new message to the public is that we must exploit to do good.  But we are better and smarter than that.  We know that there need be no link between the two.  And we also know that if they are linked, the money for conservation is tainted with the morbid lives of sacrificed individuals.

Aqua Vino may be an event for a cause.  But that cause is marine mammal captivity.

Beluga Cousteau quote

Trailer for Born to be Free:

Georgia Aquarium accuses NMFS of “bobbing and weaving” while “cooking the books”

The tone of yesterday’s hearing on the question of whether the federal government erred in its decision to deny a permit to the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales was “educated”.   As counsel for both parties, the Georgia Aquarium and the Department of Justice on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and intervenors Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Cetacean Society International, made their cases in 45-minute arguments, Federal District Court Judge Amy Totenberg, after congratulating all participants on the quality of the briefs, demonstrated that she had identified what she considered lingering questions, as she honed aspects of the arguments that would be important in her determination.

The Georgia Aquarium fights to import wild beluga whales.

The Georgia Aquarium fights to import wild beluga whales.

The Georgia Aquarium opened its strongly-worded argument by claiming that NMFS’ decision, in denying the permit, was arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with law by, in a “feast of failures,” having invented new standards in makings its determination, having manipulated data, which it suggested amounted to “cooking the books,” and having “changed its mind” without explanation about the issuance of the permit. The Georgia Aquarium added the claim that NMFS, in its decision, was amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) by “extraterritorial application” of another country’s laws.

In a nutshell, the Georgia Aquarium sounded as “whiny” as a child on a school playground, claiming that it wasn’t picked for the winning team.

Much of each Party’s time was spent responding to Judge Totenberg’s questions about data and how it was used by NMFS in its determination. The Georgia Aquarium argued that NMFS had erred by not considering the Potential Biological Removal (PBR) Level, which is defined as the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population. It wondered aloud that if NMFS did not use PBR as its “standard” in making its determination, then what standard it did use and welcomed being “thrown into a briar patch” discussion of standards. Judge Totenberg observed that this “if not this, what” approach was a Draconian framing of the question and recognized that the PBR does not have the status of the “sole litmus test” that the Georgia Aquarium seemed to be “edging toward.”  Judge Totenberg observed that the PBR is one of several tools used by the Agency and noted that, in contrast to the Georgia Aquarium’s assertion, NMFS had, in fact, considered PBR.

Beluga whales captured and held in tanks in Russia awaiting their "disposition."  Photo credit M. Lanovoy

Beluga whales captured and held in tanks in Russia awaiting their “disposition.” Photo credit M. Lanovoy

NMFS responded by recounting data that showed that the PBR had, in fact, been exceeded, but urged the Judge not to make her determination upon this one finding, because there was other evidence that supported its decision to deny the permit. NMFS had found, for instance, evidence of human-caused beluga mortalities due to subsistence hunting in the Sakhalin and Shantar Bays, bycatch during fishing operations, and the live capture process itself that were not properly taken into account by the Georgia Aquarium’s application. It also pointed to significant uncertainty in the data that constrained the ability to develop a meaningful trend over the twenty year time period that it evaluated. Further, NMFS stated that the PBR is not something that NMFS normally uses in reviewing permit applications but is, instead, a quantity that the Agency is directed to prepare for evaluation of United States stocks of marine mammals.

As to whether the Agency had changed its mind, Justice recounted that there were many different levels within the Agency involved in reviewing the permit applications and the significant comments that were provided by the public during the comment period, and that the Georgia Aquarium is in error in suggesting that there was a “mind” to have been “changed” until the final permit decision.

As to making its decision based upon other nation’s laws and whether this amounted to amending the MMPA, Justice answered easily that it was the act of “import” that was under consideration in light of standards that must be applied under U.S. law, but reiterated that the actions of other entities, in this case a Russian beluga-capturing operation, and whether those actions would place beluga populations at risk, were issues being asked and answered.

The technical nature of the data is beyond the scope of this writing because, frankly, I do not understand it all. But I will rest easily knowing that the decision will be made by a judge who will not fall for assertions of “book-cooking” and “bobbing and weaving,” but will make her decision on the basis of the record that she noted was argued well and long by both sides.

Or at least one.

Judge Totenberg could render her decision in as little as two months.

Rehabilitation and release for marine mammals – a stacked deck

Imagine that you’ve experienced a significant trauma, like a car accident.

A traumatic injury begins a journey of rehabilitation for marine mammals

A traumatic injury begins a journey of rehabilitation

You are taken to a hospital, where the hospital finds that you require emergency care and a prolonged rehabilitation with physical and occupational therapy.

After two and a half years, you can finally walk again, and you are able to resume your normal life.

But imagine that the hospital staff, instead of discharging you, claims that you must stay in the hospital indefinitely because the decision about your future was made at the two-year mark and that there is nothing mandating that your condition be re-evaluated.

Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape o the spoon.  - E. M. Forster

Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. – E. M. Forster

Imagine that during those two years of rehabilitation, the hospital staff, instead of teaching you how to feed yourself, insisted on spoon-feeding you your every meal.  Imagine that the food they fed you wasn’t anything you’d ever eaten, but was merely what the hospital insisted on providing.  And, to add insult to injury, imagine that you could have fed yourself, but that the decision to spoon-feed you was based on nothing to do with you as an individual, but was based purely on hospital policy and practice, a practice that was a function of cost, convenience to and, perhaps, an ulterior motive of the institution, rather than a decision based upon your well-being.

That is the life of many stranded marine mammals, especially cetaceans.

So, there are several questions:

  • Who makes the recommendations and determinations regarding the releasability of stranded marine mammals?
  • What are the criteria of releasability and are these criteria being followed?
  • When is this decision made?
  • Once made, can the decision be changed (or is the deck stacked against release)?

Who? For marine mammals who have the (mis)fortune of becoming stranded and rescued in the United States, it is up to NOAA to determine whether they can be released to the wild.  The criteria for “releasability” are not well-defined in regulation and, like many federal programs, are better-defined in guidance issued by the agency.  NOAA’s guidance on releasability provides more detail, where it states that it is not NOAA that actually performs the evaluation or makes the recommendation, but rather,

The attending veterinarian and their Assessment Team (i.e., veterinarians, lead animal care supervisor, and/or consulting biologist with knowledge of species behavior and life history) representing the Stranding Network Participant, Designee, or 109(h) Stranding Participant will assess the animal and make a written recommendation for release or non-release.

Part if not much of the team performing the evaluation and making the recommendation to NOAA is often occupied by SeaWorld staff.   NOAA reviews the written recommendation and uses it to make its determination.  Contrast that with the trainer message in the SeaWorld video below, where the trainer seems to go to great lengths to suggest to its paying audience that NOAA, without assistance from SeaWorld or others in the network, makes the recommendation to keep marine mammals at SeaWorld.

What?  The evaluation criteria in the guidance states that “[b]ehavioral clearance also should include confirmation that the cetacean is able to recognize, capture, and consume live prey when such tests are practical” and that “[b]asic behavioral conditioning of wild cetaceans for husbandry and medical procedures may be necessary during rehabilitation as long as every effort is made to limit reinforced contact with humans.”  In contrast with the guidance, the predominance of husbandry and maintaining human contact are evidenced in the SeaWorld video below, where the trainer states to the audience, “So, we teach [Fredi] lots of behaviors.  A lot of the behaviors we first started teaching her are called “husbandry” behaviors.”

When?  Further, releasability is a determination that is conducted no later than six months after a stranding, continued, theoretically, during the remainder of the first two years after the event, and effectively terminated after two years.  In your case, as with marine mammals, if the “hospital” has you at two years, they likely have you for life.  Especially if they never teach you how to feed yourself.

Meet Fredi, Ace, Ava, and Piper.  They stranded in separate events.  Fredi stranded in 2011 and Ace, Ava and Piper stranded in 2012.  They were all deemed unreleasable by NOAA on recommendation by, you guessed it.

This is a video of the event in which Ace, Ava and Piper and members of their pod stranded on a beach in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Ave, Ace and Piper, as Fredi before them, were turned over to SeaWorld.

See how they were doing in 2013.  And how SeaWorld wants to “invite you all back over the next days, weeks, months, and years, to come back to see how these guys are growing, and learned over time, because hopefully, one day you’ll see these four pilot whales do their own segment in the Blue Horizons show.”

I think I can hear you, thinking, along with many others who are becoming aware of the many secrets of the aquarium industry, that it is less than clear that SeaWorld, as part of its rehabilitation program, made any effort to teach Fredi, Ava, Ace and Piper to catch their own fish.  And doesn’t it suggest that SeaWorld did not follow NOAA guidance in its program?

It’s hard to know.  Obtaining documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (whining here) isn’t always successful, especially if your fact-finding is constrained by being able to afford the cost of the request.

A change is clearly needed that will end the deck-stacking in favor of “unreleasability.”  And that change will likely come only if we insist that the deck should not be stacked, it should be neutral, and cetaceans should be taught to hunt, with husbandry used only to administer procedures beneficial to the once-free, now captive marine mammals.

But if the deck should be stacked at all, shouldn’t it stacked in favor of freedom?  Just as with your car wreck, cetaceans no more than you should have to worry about becoming victims of a system that spoon-feeds, and then blames the one injured for it.

Shouldn't the deck be stacked in favor of release?

Shouldn’t the deck be stacked in favor of release? Image by Emmanuel Jose

What you can do:

Contact and call upon your legislators to update the regulations that implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Some suggested updates:

  • Specify that if the institution who will be receiving the marine mammal is part of the display industry, it is not a member of the review and recommendation team (or a more straightforward but also more dramatic change – and one I like better – would be to remove all members of the display industry from being part of the review teams).
  • Specify the behaviors that must be taught, if practicable, including a requirement that natural feeding behaviors be taught during rehabilitation, with a directive to remove the animal if there is no effort to teach natural behaviors, like feeding and hunting.
  • Require that the two-year “rebuttable presumption” be removed in favor of a neutral evaluation of the animal at each independent time period.
  • Require that reports of the rehabilitation agencies be made publicly available on NOAA’s website (rather than enduring the – ugh – FOIA process).

Freedom from tyranny and the dolphin captivity industry

Fox New’s John Stossel will be airing a show (I’ve never used the word “mockumentary”, and I’m still safe; but gosh, was it tempting) from his Green Tyranny platform.

Whether you watch Fox News or not, but especially if you are a consistent purveyor of its broadcasts, and you watch the show, I would ask you to think from the tagline of this publication: “A Free Press For A Free People Since 1997” and realize that freedom is what is at the core of this issue.  Freedom for humans, and freedom for dolphins and whales.

Freedom for humans. Humans have been fed a line of nonsense about dolphins and whales since aquariums opened, but especially since the mid-1960s, when the aquarium boom started.

Our ability to distinguish the truth about whales and dolphins from the fiction about their captivity is minimal, since most of us are not marine biologists with a focus on studying the wild ones (instead of marine biologists who think that tanks facilitate their next research grant).  That inability to distinguish was complicated by the fact that in the 1960s, no one understood dolphins and whales very well.  Not marine biologists, not aquariums, and certainly not laypeople.

In the ensuing years, we have learned more about dolphins and whales.  We’ve learned about them by studying them in the wild.  What we’ve learned from those in captivity is that they are not suited to it.

So, freedom for a free people?  What’s the tyranny here?  Trying to spread information that corporations want hidden?  Or using a news platform as a shill for the aquarium industry to pass off more aquarium hype as fact?

Freedom for dolphins and whales.  This point is rather too obvious to make, but it would be missing to ignore.  What the “Freedom” tagline underscores is the arrogance of humans to think that we deserve it, but no other species does.  We deserve self-determination, but no other species does.  We deserve happiness (or whatever is our closest approximation), but no other species does.

The irony of that is that we don’t realize that we’ll never find ours, if we don’t encourage their finding theirs (or at least not do anything to prevent it).

Jiyu at Dolphin Base in Taiji, Japan

Jiyu, a dolphin captured for the aquarium industry in Taiji, Japan. Her emaciated appearance should be a bellweather for anyone who thinks that starvation isn’t a human value. Uncredited photo from

Dolphin and whale rights activists have been encouraged by the public’s reception of the film Blackfish, and have promoted its message it via social media.  This film opened the eyes of many, mainly via its broadcast on CNN and its availability on Netflix.  Some have taken this new awareness and have read Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby and former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove’s personal account as a trainer, Beneath the Surface.  Others have watched the PBS Frontline special, A Whale of a Business and A Fall from Freedom.

These are all good resources to learn about the morbid existence that whales and dolphins face by being exploited inside the captivity industry.  So if you watch Stossel’s show or if you don’t, I highly suggest watching these videos and reading these and other materials, so that we can avoid tyranny and embrace freedom for all.

Are two calf deaths enough, Georgia Aquarium?

Another captive-born baby beluga has died at the Georgia Aquarium, and the Georgia Aquarium welcomes your “positive thoughts and support.”

Georgia Aquarium beluga calf died

Follow the bouncing focus: on the Georgia Aquarium.  The baby’s death is a loss “for the entire Aquarium.”

While I do not doubt that the Georgia Aquarium staff and other “experts” worked around-the-clock at trying to save this baby, pardon me if I am less than likely to send my condolences and kind words to an institution that bred two beluga whales for the sole purpose of building its stable of slaves.

But lest Maris’ loss be confused with human couples who continue to attempt to have a child, even in the face of miscarriage, let me say to you, do not go there.

I repeat, do not go there.

Maris shares nothing, as in, zippo, zilch, nada, with a human couple who chooses to attempt to bring a child into the world, and who has the full suite of choices in giving that child the best life possible.  Maris and Beethoven, who the Georgia Aquarium reports conceived naturally, had no such choices.

Maris didn’t have a choice in the 25 to 40 minutes per day that the baby nursed.  She didn’t have a choice when staff stood between her and her baby.

Georgia Aquarium Maris beluga calf dies

Unnamed baby girl at the Georgia Aquarium. Photo from AJC.

She didn’t have a choice in the formula that the Georgia Aquarium fed her baby, the one that “mimicked” beluga milk.

Maris didn’t have a choice in anything at all, and neither would the baby girl, had she survived.

Make no mistake, Georgia Aquarium.  Those who are opposed to captivity are grieving for Maris’ loss, but we do not grieve for yours.

What you can do:

Stand with us at Empty the Tanks to call for an end to the institution of marine mammal captivity.

  • When: Saturday, June 6, 2015; noon to 3pm
  • Where: Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St., Atlanta, GA