Travel and Captivity: A Guide to Responsible Travel

Captivity Is No Vacation For Dolphins

Captive marine mammals play a huge role in the travel and tourism industry, serving as main attractions for many island and coastal destinations, in addition to major vacation hubs. Captive entertainment is an international, multi-billion dollar industry, and travelers are often unaware of the realities that can harm dolphins in this setting. Below are guides to help you become a savvy and environmentally-responsible wildlife tourist.

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Misleading Messaging & Profit-Driven Motives

At the heart of captivity is the reality that captive facilities are driven by tourist dollars and the desire to gain profits at the expense of animal well-being. The desire to lure in as many paying customers as possible means slick advertising, clever messaging, and deceiving well-meaning animal lovers into supporting detrimental captive conditions.

Sanctuary, or marine park?

The captive entertainment industry has gone to great lengths to misinform and confuse their customers for decades; we are told that they are protecting wild species, rescuing and rehabilitating injured animals, promoting wild conservation, and giving them a better life than they could have in the wild. Yet the fact is that most of this language is marketing, and when we look deeper, very small portions of efforts and expenditures are devoted to this practice. Clever wording helps keep tourists under the impression that they are supporting animal welfare, rather than participating in an exploitative industry.

Genuine rescue facilities and sanctuaries limit human interaction in order to prioritize the well-being of the animals in their care. Learn more about telling the difference.

Most captive dolphins are NOT rescues

Data from marine mammal inventory reports show that most captive dolphins are actually bred for captivity, and not rescued. Many marine parks and aquariums utilize artificial insemination to breed captive cetaceans in order to keep their tanks full. Parks that are not able to breed their captive dolphins and whales may also resort to purchasing wild-captured dolphins from gruesome dolphin drive hunts.

In reality, the instances of cetacean rescue are very low, and most of their efforts are devoted to their profit-making business.

What about "humane" certifications?

Many captive facilities proudly list their certifications and awards, when in truth many are created by the industry itself. Several are explained here:

  • IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainers Association): Accreditation that captive facilities receive from fellow marine mammal trainers. IMATA claims that they are opposed to the slaughter of cetaceans that occurs in drive fisheries, but their statements do not oppose the wild captures that also take place during those drives.
  • American Humane: Routinely certifies marine parks and zoos, despite documented concerns of animal care (Miami Seaquarium, Dolphin Discovery)
  • AMMPA (Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums): Association of captive facilities that provides accreditation to marine parks.
  • IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions: Membership to an international network of theme parks. It holds no value when it comes to animal welfare.

We encourage you to independently research these certifications to determine their validity.

Dolphins in the Cruise Industry

The cruise industry is the worst offender of swim-with-dolphins (SWD) programs. Captive dolphin facilities in the Caribbean and Mexico have increased significantly in recent years, due in large part to cruise ship traffic. Coyly marketed as “once in a lifetime experiences,” swim-with-the-dolphins programs have become a hallmark feature of the cruise experience and are sold directly by cruise companies to their passengers.

Issues dolphins face in SWD programs

SWD programs place extraordinary amounts of stress on captive dolphins, who may interact with over 50 tourists a day. Dolphins are trained into submission through food deprivation techniques, kept hungry so they will perform on demand. In this industry, it is considered the norm for dolphins to be confined in tiny, chlorinated tanks, subject to relentless sun exposure (often resulting in sunburn), noise pollution, continuous human interaction and water toxins.

Some live in polluted harbor waters, in hastily constructed holding pens, “conveniently” close to cruise ship ports for quick, tourist access. The majority of dolphins who participate in SWD programs clearly show physical indications of overwork such as persistent open wounds and abrasions as a result of the encounters.

Hotels with Captive Dolphins

There are a number of hotels and resorts in popular vacation destination areas that have captive dolphins on property. Similar to the cruise industry, guests of these hotels and resorts are driven to the captive dolphin experiences on property. There is a lot of confusion with such dolphin facilities misleadingly listing themselves as “wildlife sanctuaries” or “rescue” facilities on travel sites. An easy rule of thumb to consider while making your travel plans, is if you are paying to interact with a wild animal, then it probably isn’t a genuine sanctuary or rescue.

Travel Sites Profiting from Captivity

Did you know that many popular travel sites online participate in promoting and selling tickets to facilities that keep dolphins and whales in captivity? But the good news is some, such as Virgin Holidays and Expedia have decided to end ticket sales to such places.

If you’re making travel plans, please take a moment to check if your favorite sites promote dolphin captivity. If so, respectfully request that they cease any partnerships with such attractions.

Empty the Tanks Mexico

Mexico has long had one of the highest concentrations of captive facilities in the world. In the state of Quintana Roo, the main highway is lined with 19 such facilities beckoning tourists daily, with over a dozen scattered throughout the remainder of the country. Empty the Tanks Mexico is a campaign dedicated to educating travelers about these facilities, as well as acting as a watchdog over captive operations throughout the country.


Understanding the intelligence and complexity of these species, as well as how they behave in the wild helps us understand that their natural ranges in the open ocean are where they thrive. It is vital that we continue to spread awareness about dolphins to help end exploitation in captivity, and to help wild dolphin populations stay healthy!

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