Dead on delivery: the reality of live dolphin transportation

Nov 27, 2014 by afdadmin
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Dolphin family

If dolphins could speak human languages, and one of them kept in an aquarium was interviewed, she might say, “My family lived in the ocean, freely swimming around. One day, all of a sudden, we were chased by fishing boats, threatened by noises from the banging of metal pipes, driven to a shallow inlet and confined there. My father died from suffocation after becoming entangled in fishing nets. My mother was slaughtered with a knife for human consumption. My sister died of shock when she was lifted out of the water and my brother drowned during the capture procedure. Both of them were processed for meat and eaten by humans and their pets. I myself survived, was brought into this aquarium, taught tricks, and am working to entertain you.” – The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, 2006.

Due to an increase in global demand the number of dolphins captured and sold to dolphinariums around the world, in drive hunts such as those in Taiji, has risen dramatically in the last few years. Although captured dolphins are ‘saved’ from slaughter, the life that awaits them is often a fate worse than death. The journey they make from the slaughter grounds to a life of confinement is traumatic. Those that survive the gruelling process spend the rest of their lives in captivity, forced to perform unnatural and repetitive acts for human entertainment.

The process of live capture is incredibly stressful. Even former hunters, such as Jeff Forster, have spoken out against the process. Forster recently shared hours of home video which shed light on the capture and transportation of orcas – the largest member of the dolphin family.

Forster grew up in Seattle, the ‘birthplace’ of the orca hunting industry, and saw the opportunity to capture and train orcas as a “dream come true”. In 1965 his mentors were the first to capture an orca from the wild, which they named Namu. Forster admits to following their example, using archaic methods to capture “a couple dozen” orcas during his career before turning to conservation in 1990.

The footage he captured during his hunting years, which was released by CNN last week, depicts the high level of suffering orcas go through during the capture and transportation process. The video shows a young orca being hoisted out of the water. Immediately, high-pitched squeals of panic can be heard. According to Forster, the “distress calls continue hours later, after the whale has been transported to land and eventually lowered into a shallow pool.”

Later in the video, an orca becomes so disoriented during the transportation process, that when placed inside a holding tank it is too exhausted to swim, and lays listlessly on its side for hours.


Scientific data has found that the stress of transfer and adapting to a new captive environment poses serious risk to the health and welfare of dolphins and small whales. During the process the animals produce hormones in response to stress in a similar way to humans, which can lead to immune problems and susceptibility to disease.

To add to this already traumatising experience, dolphins that survive the horrific capture process in Taiji must also undergo the terrifying ordeal of international transportation.

According to William M. Johnson, conservationist and author of ‘The Rose-Tinted Menagerie’, dolphins “are transported in an aluminium or wooden crate, on a stretcher suspended with belts to give some protection to their vital organs which become all the more vulnerable once the animal is taken out of its natural, weightless environment.”

The stretcher serves as ‘straight-jacket’, and those animals who panic are sedated with Valium – a practice that SeaWorld was recently criticised about in the media.

pilot whale transfer

Source: Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Dr Petra Deimer, a cetacean expert and German delegate to the International Whaling Commission, cites figures surrounding the capture of rare black and white Commerson or Jacobita dolphins in Patagonia as an example of the gross stress, trauma, and negligence dolphins endure while undergoing live transportation. Between 1978 and 1982, 24 dolphins were caught in Argentinean waters for transport to dolphinariums around the world.

Of these 24 dolphins, destined for Germany and Japan, only five were identified as having survived the capture and transport process. Two of these five died within days of arriving at their destinations, while a third dolphin, who could not swim properly, died a few years later due to complications. This means only two dolphins, out of the original 24, survived the process.

Air transportation is proving to be a weak link in the Taiji slaughter chain. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation group, WDC, have launched a campaign urging over 300 airlines to implement policies and procedures that prohibit the live transportation of cetaceans. Over 70,000 signatures have been gathered and 50 airlines have responded positively, vowing they “do not, or no longer will transport dolphins captured from the wild or from drive hunts for the aquarium industry”.

dolphin transfer

Commercial motivations for continuing the lucrative live dolphin trade are obvious, however the mounting pressure of potential brand damage is proving to be equally as persuasive. In 2012, an internal memo was leaked stating that Hong Kong Airlines had earned US$109,000 transporting five live dolphins from Japan to Vietnam. The news sparked international backlash. A subsequent online petition resulted in the airline announcing it will “immediately ban shipments of this kind”.

While the Hong Kong Airline’s response is representative of a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. Last year alone, 274 live cetaceans were transferred or transported all around the world to places like China, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Turkey and the United States.

As consumers place more and more emphasis on social responsibility, corporations have a moral (and economic) obligation to consider the impact of their operations. The weight of public pressure is a powerful instrument for change. It can be used to influence further airlines to adopt policies banning the transportation of live dolphins. When airlines refuse to transfer dolphins, this places considerable logistical burdens on the Taiji drive hunts, in turn making it more difficult for dolphinariums to source dolphins from the wild. After all, dolphins belong in the sea, not in the skies.