Sanctuary, or Marine Park?

Captive bottlenose dolphin at Duisburg Zoo

Based on inquiries we have received, it appears there is some amount of confusion about facilities that list themselves as “sanctuaries” yet keep dolphins for display and interactive programs. We’ve compiled some tips here to help potential customers research before they support a captive dolphin facility.

Red Flags

Signs that the facility may not be a legitimate sanctuary or rehab facility

Photo ops

Selfie or photo opportunities, or any form of guaranteed petting/kisses/etc. In order for a visitor to be guaranteed that they get to touch a dolphin, that dolphin has been trained and is actively receiving reinforcement to perform.

Facility descriptions can be misleading

Names and labels can be misleading. Just because a facility calls itself a “Wildlife Sanctuary” does not make it so– do your research before visiting any park with wildlife. Also beware that some facilities use their charitable status or scientific labels to mislead.

Captive dolphin in Florida sea pen

Captive dolphin in Florida sea pen

Many marine parks claim their dolphins can “leave any time”. This may be technically true, but most dolphins will not jump a barrier or swim out of a pen because they cannot tell what is on the other side. Captive dolphin facilities would never take the risk of losing their investments. They know very well that their dolphins would not venture into the open sea, even if given the chance: Many captive dolphins have spent so much time in captivity, they have become dependent on people for food and other basic needs. Many of them were born into this unnatural existence, and they cannot simply “go home,” as they have no family pod to connect with.

A natural sea pen may also be a captive environment. It does not equate with being free in the wild.

Water quality in captive sea pen

Captive sea pen in the Caribbean


Wild dolphins can be exploited for profit too! If booking a swim with wild dolphins tour or whale watching tour, pursuit should never be allowed. A boat should never chase a pod of dolphins to get closer to them, or guarantee that you will see dolphins or be able to swim with them. Responsible tours do not permit touching wild dolphins or whales! A responsible tour operator will always abide by and endorse local dolphin/whale watching laws.

Activities and programs

Paid interactions or scheduled activities such as shows, exhibits, or demonstrations should be a warning– it means that the dolphins are expected to be in place and remain for a certain period of time, or perform, which are indications of active training.

Breeding or Calf Births

Breeding or the birth of calves: Staff may make it seem that dolphins are bred in captivity to help wild populations. In reality, these dolphins will not be contributing to wild populations as they will never be released. Dolphins are bred in captivity for the sole purpose of having more captive dolphins to profit from. Facilities that promote or celebrate calf births should be treated with caution.

Where did the animals come from?

If a facility buys, trades, or breeds dolphins, they are likely not a sanctuary. Real sanctuaries prefer to have as few animals as possible to ensure the most amount of space, attention and freedom. Businesses want more dolphins so they can sell more interactions. Sanctuaries have release as their top priority, rather than trying to keep as many rescues as they can.

Munjawa takes one last look at our team, seconds before she was successfully released back in her home range.

Munjawa was released to her home range by Dolphin Project’s Indonesian team after assessment.

After Rehabilitation

Many captive dolphin facilities also serve as rehabilitation centers. While it is true that some rescued dolphins cannot safely return to the wild, they should not be forced to perform and entertain in order to earn their keep. Sanctuaries would not require participation of rescued dolphins in shows or force human interactions, which can cause stress.

Captive bottlenose with basketball

Captive bottlenose with basketball

Real Sanctuaries

What to look for

Real sanctuaries limit visitor access so that animals can have as much peace and freedom as possible. They are not actively promoting their space for tourism.

Facilities strive to offer as much space, natural environment, and mental stimulation/enrichment as possible to the animals in their care, in order to simulate living in the wild as closely as possible.

They will likely offer an orientation and have clear rules in place about appropriate behavior (loud noises, foreign objects) or anything that could harm or disturb the animals.

A genuine sanctuary does not encourage (or allow) interaction with animals and the emphasis is on observing the animals from a distance so the dolphins do not feel forced to interact with humans.  (Some animals, such as dolphins, may be naturally curious and approach visitors, but should be permitted to leave the interaction at any time.)

Image Credits

Skyphoenix6 [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DolphinJahsa.jpg

VI Dolphin Voices

Photo: Protected Resouces Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California. swfsc.nmfs.noaa.gov/PRD/ Jessica Redfern (according to photo caption)

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