This post in our Ask Chloe series takes a look at a more depressing reality of dolphin life – captivity and deaths caused by us humans.


Alicia H (31yrs from Boston): Which member of congress knows and cares the most about dolphins? Has any member of congress been swimming with a dolphin? Has any member of congress spoken out against keeping dolphins in captivity?

And somewhat relatedly, does the new president of the united states own any dolphins who are kept in captivity in any of his hotels or other businesses?

It is difficult to find information regarding congressional opinions on dolphin captivity. Currently in the U.S., it is legal to import and breed wild marine mammals for educational and entertainment purposes. Democratic congressmen Jared Huffman and Adam Schiff have criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not updating rules addressing the care of captive marine mammals.

However, the most contentious issue over dolphin protection is and has been “dolphin-safe” tuna labels. In the 1950’s, dolphins used a fishing technique called purse-seine, in which they followed dolphins to find schools of tuna, and then cast nets that covered both the tuna school and the dolphins. This practice killed millions of dolphins.

To combat the issue, the U.S. created dolphin safe labels on tuna cans to verify that no dolphins had been killed in the fishing process. This blocked tuna imports from countries such as Mexico, which didn’t meet dolphin-safe tuna standards. In 1995 Congress introduced a bill aimed to reduce the dolphin-safe label requirements, allowing imports from Mexico with the spurious claim that it would create an opportunity for the U.S. to work with other countries to reduce dolphin mortality from fishing worldwide. Opponents of the bill rightly argued that it would undermine the reliability of the tuna-safe label and reverse the progress that had been made in reducing dolphin mortality. Environmental groups were divided in support and opposition of the bill. The bill was ultimately killed by senator Barbara Boxer, a democrat from California. Joseph Biden also opposed the bill, and John Kerry considered proposing an amendment to the bill that would ban tuna catches that caused serious injury to dolphins.

As far as the 45th president of the United States is concerned, I did not find captive dolphins in any of his hotels. However, there are 32 dolphinariums currently in the United States alone. 

“‘Dolphin-Safe’ Tuna Bill Dies at Session’s End.” In CQ Almanac 1996, 52nd ed., 4-25-4-26. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1997.


Christopher P (47 yrs, NYC director of cultural center): Why do dolphins keep returning to the Cove in Japan where so many are slaughtered each year? Is it that none of them escape to tell the others? Or do they seem to have no way to communicate the danger? Or do they forget? Or not see it as necessarily so dangerous?  This question could be generalized to ask what do we know about dolphins’ ability to remember and communicate about dangers of any kind.

Odette L: When dolphins are chased by boats, why don’t they dive deep in the ocean to get away?

Dolphins definitely have shown that they have a phenomenal memory capacity. My previous post mentioned that dolphins have signature whistles which are unique to individuals. Dolphins who have been separated for 20 years have been able to recognize each other’s signature whistles upon being reunited.

The infamous Taiji dolphin drive hunts kill thousands of dolphins each year. One important aspect of the drive hunts is that the dolphins don’t go to the cove of their own accord. They are actively chased into the cove by humans banging metal, causing painful noise underwater and makes it impossible for them to communicate with each other or even ‘see’ each other with echolocation, so they have to stay very close together and they are in a panic. The dolphins to flee in the opposite direction and right into the cove. So why don’t dolphins avoid that area of coastline altogether? It’s hard to tell whether dolphins can remember hunts from years past, but one possible answer is simply that the dolphins return because their food is there. This may be an example of low resilience in dolphin species that are not flexible to change. Dolphins can be very picky eaters. If their only food source is in the waters off Taiji, then that is where they will go to eat.

Dolphins are also surprisingly easy to trap. Remember that dolphins are deeply communal animals. Thomas White cites the research of Ken Norris to explain that an individual dolphin would not make a choice to escape unless the whole pod could escape as a whole–that’s how socially involved dolphin pods are. It may be more difficult than we think for individual dolphins to escape to tell the tragic tale of the Taiji hunt.

Dolphins cannot necessarily evade boats. While dolphins are fantastic freedivers (able to hold their breath for up to 8 or 10 minutes), a 3-minute breath-hold is their average comfort zone. And boats can easily wait out for 10 minutes until dolphins have to inevitably return to the surface to breathe. Boats are also faster than dolphins, and being chased tires dolphins out, reducing their capacity to dive and hold their breath for long periods of time and increasing the frequency at which they need to breathe. Furthermore, the noise of the boats interferes with the dolphin’s communication so they have to swim closer together to keep track of each other, and we already know that dolphins rely on sticking together in dangerous situations such as shark attacks or the Taiji hunt.

As depressing as this may be, it’s important not to lose hope! There are ongoing efforts both in the United States and abroad to put an end to the Taiji hunts. In 2015, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums banned its members from purchasing dolphins that were captured in the Taiji hunts, thanks to pressure from Japanese and international activists. There are various other efforts to get involved in stopping these cruel dolphin hunts.


For Further Thought…

As intelligent as dolphins are, it is easy to expect that they might respond to a dangerous situation in the same ways that we might, or in ways that seem like obvious solutions. However, we must remember that life in the water can present more challenges than we might imagine as land-dwellers. And once again, the social nature of dolphins adds an extra challenge to dangerous encounters that humans don’t always consider in the same way. Imagine that your apartment complex is on fire and you need to escape. Do you wait to leave until only your family has escaped or until you’re sure that everyone else in the building is able to make it out safely also? What if everyone in all the apartments were your close family? For a dolphin, every other pod-mate is like a sibling or a parent or a child: this is what makes for a major difference in how humans and dolphins respond to danger.

And while it is important to understand the vulnerabilities of dolphins, there is a further question that we must ask. We can wonder why dolphins aren’t better at evading our attacks, but we could also wonder why we are attacking them in the first place. My answer to Alicia’s question began to unravel the complexities of human politics as they relate to life in the oceans. Making the best choices for the dolphins can be unclear at times, so it is important to be vigilant about asking ourselves what kind of dangers we are imposing on them, why and what can we do about these human made threats.

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