Aquariums and Dolphinariums

Aquariums and Dolphinariums – good or bad: can you ‘sea’ the difference?

Many species selected for aquariums and dolphinariums have complex biological and social needs that can rarely be met in captivity.

Visiting an aquarium, especially one exhibiting marine mammals, is a hugely popular recreational activity. As the development of these facilities is on the rise, so too are the number of inadequate environments housing dolphins, whales and other marine and freshwater life. It is well understood that many species selected for aquariums have complex biological and social needs that can rarely be met in captivity.

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What is it?

Public aquariums are attractions that display marine and freshwater life in artificial ecosystems, essentially the aquatic counterpart of a zoo. Many aquariums are located close to the ocean for easy access to a steady supply of natural seawater, and will regularly promote a wide range of aquatic flora and fauna in the ever-competitive tourist market. Charismatic marine mammals like orcas and dolphins are often highlighted as the star display. These displays may be in the form of trained performances or interactive programmes that involve direct contact with the animals.

What you should know

  • Globally, the number of facilities exhibiting aquatic life is on the rise. Public aquariums first became popular in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe and they have come to be part of a flourishing tourist industry. Advances in technology have now allowed for complex filtration and heating systems which can support larger and more diverse collections. Touch pools are a popular educational addition and walk-through observational tunnels add to the experience for the visiting public. This comes at a cost however, as although many of the displays are designed for the inhabitants, viewing for the public is primary objective.
  • Aquariums in the UK are regulated by the Zoo Licensing Act (1981), and the Standards of Modern Zoo Practice exist to provide minimum requirements for establishments regarding the Five Freedoms, conservation initiatives and public safety. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the United States has more than doubled its number of individual public aquariums since 1989, and the number of new aquarium chains has proliferated in the UK over the past three years. Considering the recent boom this industry has demonstrated, it is more important than ever to be aware of concerns surrounding the care of aquatic animals.

Source of marine life

  • Captive breeding has provided an alternative to taking marine life from the wild, and has also helped to supplement diminishing wild populations. However many aquariums will still source their organisms from the natural habitat which can have a negative impact on the local ecosystem. The removal of live coral, reef structure and rocks eliminates a potential hiding place for other fish species and microorganisms – think of clownfish and anemones, for example.
  • The trade in live ornamental marine species including coral, other invertebrates and fish, occurs worldwide and is a multi-million pound industry. There are concerns that the trade of some species may not be sustainable considering their biology, distribution, conservation status and ability to cope in captivity.


  • Much controversy surrounds holding whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity. These animals, collectively known as cetaceans, bring in significant revenue for aquariums and at least 19 species are currently held on display across the globe. Many exhibitors maintain industry accreditation standards for care and there is plenty of public pressure to make that happen, but a large number fail to adhere to these extensive checklists.
  • Recreating a typical social grouping for cetaceans is challenging, and these animals are intelligent with complex and dynamic social structures which makes it an important consideration. US regulations require that enclosures are 7.32 metres long and 1.83 metres deep but many organisations do not follow regulations such as these. The effect of confinement can result in many deleterious effects such as behavioural abnormalities or a decreased immune response.
  • All captive cetaceans may experience inadequate housing due to their specialised needs. Evidence suggests that orcas, also known as killer whales, are particularly at risk.
  • The UK banned dolphinariums 20 years ago, and 23 other nations have either banned the catching or trade of wild-caught cetaceans, or keeping them in captivity. The US has several well-known dolphinariums, and the number in certain countries, like Japan, is on the rise.

What you can do

  • If you choose to visit an aquarium or dolphinarium, then first do some research. Only visit an accredited facility that chooses to meet industry standards and that also is subject to inspection by animal welfare experts from the awarding body. One example is the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).
  • Most aquariums and dolphinariums claim to support or participate in conservation initiatives. Get involved and find out more. If you can’t find any information, then chances are it may just be a claim and not the real deal.  Many aquariums have themes covering native and endemic species. Often these species are under threat from competing invasive species so become educated on how you as a visitor can minimise your own environmental impact.
  • Touch pools now form part of the modern aquarium experience but it is best to just look and not touch. If you cannot resist, it is essential to use hand-washing and sanitising facilities provided for the benefit of yourself and the aquatic animals. Zoonotic diseases are diseases which can be transmitted between people and vertebrate animals. In line with the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, animals must be handled and managed only by, or under the supervision of, appropriately qualified or experienced staff, so look out for someone wearing a uniform to be present.
  • An alternative to hands-on interactive programmes is whale watching. A few countries have laws governing this activity that aid in protecting cetaceans in their natural environment. Using a tour operator that respects speed and distance from the animals in the ocean is important e.g. maintaining distance of 100 metres from whales and 50 metres from dolphins, and extending this to 200 metres if other vessels are nearby.  Ask to see a code of practice that actively minimises any negative impacts.  See our whale watching article for more information.
  • Avoid swimming with dolphins in the wild.  Although this allows for dolphins to be there free of choice, many irresponsible tour operators fail to respect clear guidelines that prevent several boats invading the space of a pod of dolphins.  Dolphins can be unpredictable and there is always a risk of injury so it is best to avoid this activity.
  • If you suspect animal cruelty, you can tell your agent or tour operator and consider contacting the tourism department of the country you are in, and the embassy or high commission of that country on your return home, to express your concern.

Where does this occur?

Aquariums are located all over the world, including those that house marine mammals. There are at least 250 marine centres with thousands of captive dolphins. They are particularly popular in developed countries in North America and Europe, as well as Asia.

Links to organisations for further information

  • Born Free Foundation
  • WSPA

Click here to read about other marine issues

This article was contributed by Claire Porteous, Volunteer Scientific Officer for Care for the Wild International