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WDC disappointed by Richard Branson’s decision not to stop selling trips to SeaWorld

WDC has expressed disappointment over today’s statement by Virgin Holidays that the company will continue to work with aquariums, such as SeaWorld, which confine whales and dolphins in small tanks for so-called ‘entertainment’.

The announcement by Virgin has been long-awaited by WDC. Earlier in the year, we launched a major anti-captivity campaign aimed at the travel industry and their continued support for marine parks holding whales and dolphins in captivity. The campaign , which went viral, called on Richard Branson, as a founder of the Virgin brand and a member of the Ocean Elders group, to use his influence and stop Virgin Holidays promoting trips to SeaWorld parks.

Our campaign film was viewed by over 100,000 people in just a few days, and shortly after its launch Branson announced that he was going to review Virgin’s stance on its partnership with marine parks that hold captive whales and dolphins. He then called a meeting in June with a variety of stakeholders, including WDC, and representatives from marine parks with a view to making a final decision on the sale of these trips by the end of September.

However, despite an initial, promising pledge by Richard Branson that Virgin would not partner with organisations that continue to take whales and dolphins from the ocean, WDC feels that the final statement falls a long way short. In it, Virgin states that its partners cannot have acquired dolphins from the wild from February 14, 2014. But, despite the fact that Virgin seems to be stating that taking dolphins from the wild and putting them in tanks is not a good idea, they fail to condemn the general practice of keeping dolphins in confinement for entertainment purposes – a practice that poses serious welfare concerns but also perpetuates the capture and trade in dolphins worldwide.

WDC firmly believes that all captivity is cruel and so is saddened by Virgin’s failure to take the full step towards halting trips to these facilities, and help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captive whales and dolphins that may never be able to return to the wild.

As a passionate marine conservationist, Richard Branson, recently condemned the Taiji drive hunts in Japan where wild whales and dolphins are brutally hunted each year or captured alive for captivity. However, Virgin Holidays promotes SeaWorld Parks which, for example, currently hold five orcas in their tanks – whales who started their lives wild and free in the ocean. More than a quarter of all whales and dolphins currently held in captivity in North America were acquired by capture.

There is no educational benefit in seeing intelligent creatures like orcas performing in circus style shows and very little of SeaWorld’s annual revenue goes towards conservation. Whales and dolphins live shorter lives in captivity compared with those in the wild, they can never hope to travel the 100 miles or so that they do each day in the ocean whilst held in a small tank, and they suffer stress as a result.

Courtney Vail, WDC anti captivity campaigner, said: “WDC has been encouraged by Virgin’s initial moves to look again at the issue of captivity and the influence they may have on the market that sustains this practice, including the selling of trips to facilities such as SeaWorld. We hope we can continue the dialogue with Virgin to bring an end to these trips and address the shortcomings of the current pledge. To truly inhibit the capture of wild whales and dolphins for dolphinariums, it is also imperative that Virgin refuse to do business with any facility that also trades with companies that acquire dolphins from the wild.”

“Virgin’s announcement does not reflect increasing opposition from members of the public, including Virgin’s customers, to the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity and their presentation in circus style shows”, added Cathy Williamson, WDC captivity programme lead. “The recent documentary Blackfish, has been shown around the world and has helped expose the serious health and welfare problems experienced by whales and dolphins in captivity, as well as its impact on the conservation of wild populations. People are turning away from the captivity industry as the truth is exposed.”

“Furthermore, we are not calling for captive cetaceans to be simply released into the wild. We are calling for sanctuaries where they can be built, release programmes where appropriate and an end to breeding so no further individuals are born into suffering and so this cruel industry can be phased out.”

SeaWorld, the company principally featured in the film and an invitee to Virgin’s stakeholder process, has conceded that a significant drop in both attendance figures and revenue has been a direct result of the adverse publicity.

WDC will continue its campaign with Virgin and the four other major UK tour operators (Cosmos, First Choice, Thomas Cook and Thomson) who between them account for 85% of all SeaWorld tickets sold to British holidaymakers. WDC has also recently been invited by British Airways to discuss the campaign and our concerns about promoting this cruel industry to its passengers.