A sad and lonely looking dolphin in captivity at performance arena looking towards camera

Understanding the issues: marine parks and aquariums.

His true home is the boundless blue ocean. But he'll live out his life confined to a small pool as 'entertainment' — a fate shared by captive marine animals around the world.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated December 7, 2021

Sea creatures are fascinating, and their world so alien to us, that it’s understandable many people want to get up close to them.

Commercial marine parks and aquariums capitalise on this curiosity to the tune of millions of dollars globally each year. But what does this mean for the animals themselves?

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Spectators seeing penguins in a sea life park
Image credit: We Animals Media

An unnatural environment

One uncomfortable fact underpins much of the plight of animals in marine parks and aquariums: these restricted environments can never allow captive animals to express the full range of their natural behaviours.

Animals like king penguins, who regularly dive to a depth of 100 metres in the wild — and have been recorded at over 300 metres deep — are often kept in enclosures only a fraction of that size.

On the sub-tropical Gold Coast, Sea World Australia displays several captive polar bears — animals who are naturally adapted for freezing Arctic conditions. These majestic bears can range enormous distances in their natural habitat, with scientists reporting in 2005 that they had tracked a tagged polar bear swimming at least 74km — and possibly up to 99km — in only 24 hours.

Facilities like Sea World Australia often attempt to use ‘environmental enrichment’ to prevent boredom and the potential negative psychological effects of captivity on polar bears, however experts note that this can never be sufficient for their needs. According to veterinarian Samantha Lindley, “….there is nothing which can substitute for the ranging-hunting-waiting-surviving lifestyle which a polar bear has in the wild.”

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A family pointing at an Orca confined inside an aquarium tank.
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Forced to perform

The groundbreaking documentary ‘Blackfish‘ has caused waves internationally by highlighting the experience of captive orcas at marine parks including SeaWorld (USA), especially those taken from their families in the wild and forced to perform for the ‘entertainment’ of crowds.

This moving and eye-opening film focuses on the experience of Tilikum, who was captured as a baby in the waters off the coast of Iceland — and has been implicated in the tragic deaths of several human ‘trainers’ in the three decades since.

While there are no captive orcas in Australia, facilities around the country display many other intelligent marine mammals including dolphins and seals. Like Tilikum, these animals are confined to restricted artificial spaces and often required to perform unnatural tricks for large and noisy crowds in exchange for food.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A black and white photo of spectators looking at a sealion in a marine / sea life park
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur

Trapped, stressed and unhealthy

Animals in marine parks and aquariums cannot forage for food as they would normally do in the wild, they may be separated from their family and be unable to create social bonds of their choosing. Ultimately, they are prevented from exerting any degree of control over their surroundings.

A UK study found that at least nine out of ten of the aquariums surveyed had animals displaying ‘abnormal’ behaviours, which can include circling, head-bobbing, spiralling swimming patterns and repeatedly touching glass barriers. Sharks and rays in particular were observed performing ‘surface breaking behaviours’, which are not known to be part of the normal range of natural or wild behaviour of these species.

“The percentage of marine animals in UK public aquaria estimated to be wild-born is 89% … Many wild-caught individuals are donated free to aquaria because they are by-catches of the fishing industry … During this study no evidence of in situ conservation activities (such as habitat protection) … was found. Despite this, 61% of the UK public aquaria use the ‘conservation’ term in their publicity and/or displays…” — The Captive Animals’ Protection Society

Health problems discovered in UK public aquariums during this study also included lacerations, wounds, scars, eye disease, deformity, infection, abnormal growths and even death.

How you can help

Animals kept captive in these facilities don’t have a choice. But you do! If you think families shouldn’t be torn apart, vast horizons shouldn’t be reduced to solid walls, and that animals shouldn’t be induced by hunger to perform tricks in front of a crowd, you can take action to help stop these practices.

  • Pledge to never attend a marine park or aquarium
  • Share this page with family and friends!
  • Support the team at Action for Dolphins, who are working tirelessly to end the cruelty of dolphin captivity


Bicudo JEPW, Buttemer WA, Chappell MA, Pearson JT & Bech C 2010, Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Birds, Oxford University Press
Charrassin J-B, Bost CA, Putz K, Lage J, Dahier T, Zorn T & Le Maho Y 1998, Foraging strategies of incubating and brooding king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus, Oecologia (1998) 114:194-201
Laidlaw R 2005, A case against polar bears in captivity, Zoocheck Canada
The Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) 2004, Suffering deep down: an investigation into public aquaria in the UK

All images: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals