Tourism with aquatic animals: the tide is changing

Tourism with aquatic animals: the tide is changing

By João Almeida

Watch dolphin shows, swim with pink dolphins in the rivers of the Amazon region, touch these animals and take selfies with them. It all sounds harmless, but tourist attractions such as these – which are very popular around the world – hide enormous cruelty against the animals.

Due to misleading information and a lack of commitment from the tourism industry itself, theme parks and other places that exploit wild animals for entertainment give the false impression that the animals live a happy life and are in optimal conditions in terms of welfare and conservation. Who has never heard that the dolphins “smile” and play during their interactions with tourists?

However, the truth is that many of these behaviours are demonstrations of aggression and mental disorder. The negative impact of captivity and of public displays on the lives of the wild animals is not something that is new. For years now, we have been investigating and exposing the problems of these activities, including among others injuries and competitions between aquatic animals and modifications in their natural behaviour.

In March this year, we launched the fifth edition of our report on the situation of marine mammals in the entertainment industry (available here), in partnership with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). The figures are alarming: cruel conditions range from inadequate facilities to physical and psychological abuse.

In aquariums and theme parks, we find that thousands of killer whales, dolphins and other cetaceans suffer from living in conditions that are the total opposite of the natural ones:

  • Even in the largest tanks, whales and dolphins have just one millionth (0.0001%) of the space they would have in their natural habitat; in the wild, these animals swim between 50 and 225 km per day and dive to depths of hundreds of meters;
  • Bottlenose dolphins are 6 times more likely to die immediately after being caught in the wild and transported between facilities;
  • Captive sea animals suffer from various health problems, including extreme stress and abnormal levels of aggression.

And what is the tourism industry’s excuse for maintaining these types of attractions?

In general it is said that keeping animals in captivity performs a valuable educational function. However, our report shows that less than 10% of zoos and aquariums are involved in meaningful conservation programs.

Fortunately, with regard to this subject we are seeing a shift in the perception of governments and corporations, which are increasingly concerned to offer responsible forms of entertainment with animals. In Canada, in 2019, World Animal Protection achieved an important victory with the country’s government, which banned attractions with dolphins throughout the entire country. Another victory for animal welfare came from the non-governmental organization PETA. This NGO has influenced United Airlines not to encourage its passengers to visit dolphinariums (aquariums aimed at exhibiting dolphins) at destinations in which the airline operates. Another airline that recently assumed the same type of commitment was British Airways, by means of a partnership developed with the NGO Born Free Foundation.

In Brazil, keeping cetaceans in captivity for public viewing and entertainment has been banned since 2000, but many other forms of wildlife exploitation can still be easily found. This is the case, for example, with attractions that allow swimming and interacting directly with the pink dolphins in the Amazon region, an experience that is still very accessible and widespread in the city of Manaus, in the State of Amazonas.

We are working continuously to change this reality. And this is possible by means of sustainable tourism alternatives, such as the observation of aquatic animals in the wild, whether in rivers or in the seas.

For example, the Humpback Whale Project, has been doing responsible animal preservation work for 30 years. During this period, the project has helped the whale population to recover – from a figure of about 1,000 individuals in 1998 to one of 20,000 in 2018. One reason for this growth is the institute’s efforts to prioritize sighting practices over diving and swimming with whales. Along the same lines in terms of awareness and action, the Friends of Humpback Whale Project has been offering tourists in the state of Espírito Santo the opportunity to observe these giants.

Another good example of animal welfare protection comes from the Instituto Boto-Cinza (Guiana Dolphin Institute) in the municipality of Mangaratiba, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. This organization acts in the preservation of the dolphins and encourages observation tourism. There are no direct interactions with the animals on the tours and the tourists are transported in vessels which are licensed for this activity, identified with the seal “Friendly Guiana Dolphin Conductor”. These sort of responsible observations of this species can also be made even closer to the city of Rio de Janeiro, in Guanabara Bay.

It doesn’t end there. In the State of Santa Catarina Right Whales can be spotted without any need to be on a boat, for example on the mainland from high points, while in the State of Amazonas it is already possible to go on boat trips to see the pink river dolphins exhibiting their natural behaviour, in line with the best animal welfare and conservation practices, without involving direct contact, swimming or animals in conditions of semi-captivity.

These are just a few good examples, in other states of Brazil it is also possible to have ethical tourist experiences of watching wild animals in the wild, whether they are terrestrial or aquatic. This is a fast growing market that is being given a boost by the fact that conscious consumption and corporate social and environmental responsibility have become the norm.

If you represent a business in the tourism market, make an effort to find out more about the ethical experiences that can already be found in the areas in which you operate, or even take the lead in developing new responsible products with wild animals and become a market leader by offering your customers unique experiences.

 Never offer the cruel attractions that keep wild animals in captivity, such as is the case with dolphinariums and theme parks where dolphins live in tiny tanks – for a lifetime! – to be exhibited in shows. If there is a desire or strategy to promote Florida as a tourist destination, make a point of choosing to include and sell boat tours for spotting dolphins in the ocean. The cities of Orlando and Miami already offer a whole range of products and opportunities to observe these amazing animals in the wild.

World Animal Protection works in partnership with the tourism industry, providing support for associations, agencies and operators to change their wildlife tourism practices. Talk to us and find out how your association or company can be part of this global movement for sustainable tourism.

*João Almeida
Wildlife Campaign Manager
World Animal Protection

The opinions expressed in this text are the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the position of WTM Latin America.

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