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Nanuq: The most recent casualty of captivity

SeaWorld has announced  that one of its male beluga whales, on breeding loan to its parks from Vancouver Aquarium since 1997, died on Thursday, February 19th. The cause of death has not been reported for Nanuq, an approximately 32-year-old beluga originally captured from the waters of the Hudson Bay, but the Orlando park reported that it had been treating him for an infection resulting from a jaw injury incurred through the interaction with the other belugas at the exhibit.

Nanuq’s life is representative of other whales and dolphins that have perished in captivity—premature or hastened death through acute injury or infection, or through more chronic, and sometimes subtle, effects of lifetime confinement within a stress-filled environment. Although neither SeaWorld nor media reports will detail what Nanuq died from until a necropsy has been performed, Nanuq’s injuries and reported infection are a direct byproduct of captivity, and his being held in a restricted, concrete environment. Such injuries can be fatal, as evidenced by the long list of cetaceans that have died from ingestion of foreign objects, aggressive interactions with pool mates, midair collisions during performances, or injuries sustained through impacts or interactions with pool walls or other structures in the captive environment 

Despite the other belugas sharing the tank with Nanuq being captive born, Nanuq was originally captured from the wild in Canadian waters. Captures are violent, and may cause distress, physical harm, and even death to not only those animals captured, but for the ones left behind. In addition, the stress of transport may result in injury or death. And finally, removal for captivity represents a different form of death for these animals—a permanent life of sensory, social and physical deprivation in concrete pools.

In addition, the global demand for live whales and dolphins continues to threaten their health and welfare in the wild. Regardless of whether whales or dolphins are taken from the wild or not, the very existence of captive facilities ensures a cruel and unfortunate existence for the ones that find their way into concrete tanks through capture, laundering and trade, or breeding loans. A vicious cycle of supply and demand is sustained by captive facilities and their perpetual trade in whales and dolphins. As long as captive populations are not self-sustaining–which they are not– facilities will continue to look either to the wild, or to other facilities’ faltering captive breeding programs, to feed their demand.

It is not uncommon for belugas and other cetaceans to be transported between SeaWorld facilities, or even abroad to international facilities, such as the four SeaWorld orcas that were shipped to Loro Parque in 2006. The constant movement and relocation between facilities is extremely stressful for whales and dolphins. The stress of transfer to another facility is also compounded by the potential for incompatibility and aggression between and within social groups. The potential for harassment and injury is a real risk of trying to integrate individuals within social groups, and although SeaWorld states that Nanuq was part of a ‘compatible’ social group, he suffered a jaw injury through the interaction with the other belugas at the SeaWorld Orlando facility and was being treated for an infection as a result.

We continue to call for a phase out of whale and dolphin captivity, and a transformation of these facilities into true education and conservation institutions. We call upon all public display facilities to permanently halt future collection or acquisition of whales and dolphins from the wild for any purpose . Some aquariums have already headed in that direction by issuing statements against such activity. And now, the US Government has broken ground in a positive direction towards discouraging this type of behavior from the industry by drawing a firm line in the sand that acquisition from the wild for public display is not only undesirable, it is a threat to the protection and conservation of belugas.  Leadership from within the industry is underway, with Virgin providing a mechanism for facilities to commit (the Pledge) to no longer sourcing whales and dolphins from the wild.

WDC continues its call for an end to this practice. The physical, social and mental needs of whales and dolphins cannot be met in captivity and the public display industry continues to be a threat to populations in the wild that are targeted by live capture operations used to supply captive programs worldwide.