By Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor
This week’s Common Hour presentation was given by Dr. Lori Marino, President of The Whale Sanctuary Project. Her talk, titled “Captive Whales and Dolphins: Life Beyond Concrete Tanks,” focused on the lives of captive whales and dolphins and how captivity is not conducive to a thriving life for these animals.
She discussed marine sanctuaries as a healthy alternative to the issues at hand. Marino was featured in the film Blackfish (2013), as she is internationally recognized for her research and extensive knowledge on the evolution and behavior of dolphins and whales.
Before getting involved in The Whale Sanctuary Project, she was a professor of biopsychology for 18 years at Emory University and founded the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.
At Common Hour, Marino first introduced the evolutionary history of dolphins and whales. Interestingly, the evolutionary ancestors of dolphins had hooves, living on both the land and sea, which suggest that they are related to other hooved animals. Dolphins then transitioned to solely aquatic animals, adopting this lifestyle 55 million years ago. However, the dolphins that resemble the ones we see today have been around for about 15 million years.
In her presentation, Marino described the different traits of dolphins and whales. The first characteristic was that they are smart. She demonstrated this by showing a picture of an orca brain next to a human brain. While the orca brain was slightly larger than a human’s, it is actually 2.3 times larger than expected for its body size.
Dolphin’s brains are the closest to humans in terms of relative brain to body size ratio. Whale brains also have an expanded neocortex, which is evolutionarily the newest part of the brain. This demonstrates that whales have complex, intricate brains. In fact, the adult orca brain is the “most convoluted brain on Earth.”
Marino noted that humans tend to pride ourselves with the size and amount of wrinkles in our brains, signifying how smart we are. If that is the criteria for intelligence, she suggests we must also apply this to orcas.
With the evidence she showed as to size and complexity of the orca brain, orcas could be even smarter than humans. Of course, as Marino pointed out, one cannot compare species in this way, as each have their own adaptations.
Marino also noted that whales and dolphins love to travel and dive, going long distances at a time. She additionally commented on the social lives of these animals. Orcas, for example, live in strongly bonded social networks shaped by learned cultural traditions. Their cultural traditions, such as greeting ceremonies requiring communication, reflect complex social connections and cooperation.
Beluga whales are “master imitators of sounds and behaviors.” In one case, a beluga even imitated human speech. Marino played a video clip that demonstrated sounds made by orcas in British Columbia. Belugas can also manipulate objects, such as creating bubble rings, and take care of each others’ calves in the community.
According to her, there has never been a single encounter where humans have been deliberately attacked and killed by an orca in the wild – something that happens with orcas in captivity.
Marino proposed a question to the audience: Can beings like this thrive in concrete tanks? Today, there are around 3,000 whales and dolphins in captivity. The film Blackfish captured the public’s attention in 2013, which called out Seaworld’s practices in keeping orcas in small concrete tanks.
At Seaworld, Marino demonstrated that the orca would have to swim a circumference of their pool 1,400 times to match the distance reached in the wild. Orcas may also be alone for years at a time, and lack any stimulation or challenges that they would normally encounter in the wild. In captivity, there are failed efforts to form artificial social groups, while they separate families or leave animals in complete solitude.
The impacts are grave. As Marino stated, captivity in concrete tanks is a “disaster for these animals.” The effects include chronic stress; psychological issues; diseases such as pneumonia, yeast infections, and cancer (diseases they would not get in the wild); and behavioral stereotypies, such as pointless circling or self mutilation. They display emotional distress, depression, and poor parenting. They demonstrate hyper aggression, which has contributed to many deaths of trainers.
Besides death, there are more human impacts. Seeing these creatures in concrete tanks reduces people’s concerns about animals, which is suggested by current research on the subject. Children seeing these creatures behind the glass circling around also affects what we are “telling them about our relationship with other animals.”
Instead of placing these animals back out into the wild, where they do not have the necessary tools to survive, Marino proposes sanctuaries as a better alternative. There are permanent sanctuaries for all kinds of animals, except for cetaceans. She revealed the concept for the whale sanctuary, saying she wanted the whales to not only exist, but thrive.
The Whale Sanctuary Project looked at different sites with 65 to 70 acres or more, significantly larger than the largest tank at Seaworld. She stressed that the sanctuaries, although primarily concerned with the well-being of the whales, will also help create a better relationship between our children and these animals.
The sanctuary will differ from captivity in concrete tanks due to the promotion of choice and autonomy for the whales and lack of breeding practices. They have currently narrowed their search down to three sites: one in British Columbia, one in Washington State, and one in Nova Scotia.
The Whale Sanctuary Project plans on picking a place by next year and gaining their first residents by 2019 or 2020. For more information, visit whalesanctuaryproject.org.
Junior Christa Rodriguez is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.