The Future of Aquariums

June 7, 2016

It has been a very critical time with SeaWorld finally committing to end its captive breeding program for their twenty-eight orcas in their three main marine parks.


It has been a very critical time with SeaWorld finally committing to end its captive breeding program for their twenty-eight orcas in their three main marine parks. I have waited a long time for the largest marine mammal entertainment park in the country to close its doors to breeding its orcas locked up in captivity.

While I applaud SeaWorld’s decision to stop captive breeding and phase out its theatrical shows, I cannot in good conscience allow the distortions in their new advertising campaign to go unanswered and unchallenged. SeaWorld’s current ad campaign blatantly misrepresents the effort to move orcas to sanctuaries and equates it with release into the wild. They incorrectly call the Keiko project a failure, even though the effort allowed Keiko, the orca of “Free Willy” fame, who had significant health issues resulting from his time in a cramped, artificially salinated tank in Mexico City, to regain his strength, catch live fish and learn to hold his breath again. Keiko’s life in a seaside sanctuary allowed him to regain his natural born abilities that were taken away from him after he was captured off the coast of Iceland and pulled away from his mother at a young age, and then held captive for the majority of his life. Keiko’s rehabilitation included moving him to a larger tank with natural seawater in Oregon and then returning him to his native habitat in Iceland and Norway, where he thrived for over five years in ocean waters.

The lesson most prominently learned from my experience with Keiko is that orcas never belonged in captivity to begin with. While Keiko was not able to re-connect with wild orcas on any permanent basis, his rehabilitation effort allowed him to interact with his own kind in his natural birth environment in ways that an artificial environment in captivity could never provide. For those already in the confines of captivity, we must do our best to return them as safely and humanely as possible to the environmental conditions that they deserve: seaside sanctuaries in their ocean home, with continued care for the rest of their lies. During this transition, we can connect audiences to the journey of the orcas rehabilitation in their seaside sanctuary, and communicate with the public through digital technology by explaining the stories of these animals, their return to their natural environment, and their significance as top ocean predators helping to keep the oceans healthy into the future.

As we congratulate SeaWorld for announcing this monumental step in ending the captive breeding program; I urge them reconsider their statement about Keiko and I ask them to understand that the quality of Keiko’s remaining years were significantly enhanced by having an opportunity to live in an ocean sea pen with many weeks of forays in the open ocean. The orcas in SeaWorld are living in bare and boring enclosures. The overwhelming evidence of orca distress in captivity is far too great to ignore. It is a fair request for the marine mammal industry to continue to listen to the public. Not only has the public been asking for years to end the capture and breeding of captive orcas but the public is now asking to finally close the chapter of captive orca history by retiring the remaining captive orcas and, at a minimum, allowing them the opportunity to swim wild under close supervision of human care in ocean enclosures.

We have reached a point in our human evolution where we have come to realize that orcas are far too intelligent, sophisticated, and socially and behaviorally complex to be kept in concrete prisons. In captivity, they suffer from mental distress, physical illness and shorter lifespan than they would live in their natural ocean homes. We have learned all we can from orcas in captivity, now it time we return them to their ocean home. We can continue to study and conduct research on their incredible adaptations for life in the sea as they were meant to live, where we can learn about their true behavior.

As for the future of aquariums, I believe the technology available today can provide people with new interactive and engaging opportunities, allowing them to become actors and decision-makers during their visits opposed to simply spectators watching animals perform tricks. With interactive digital technology, people can learn through experience, learning how marine mammals communicate, hunt, socialize, and deal with conflicts and environmental threats around them. By allowing people the opportunity to make choices, in this way, the public learns through action. I believe this is the future, with an end to the captivity of cetaceans and other large animals.

This exciting change for aquariums has already begun. Aquariums, zoos, and museums around the world have already started incorporating interactive exhibits and digital technology into their educational agendas as they’ve come to realize its value. Such new technology can enable people to go on virtual experiences – not simply as viewers, but as actors involved in the outcome. Advancements in technologies are opening the doors for aquarium visitors to take more control of their learning opportunities through the interaction of asking questions and growing from experience from games and play, just as people have always learned since childhood.

As humans, we learn through experience. As we understand more about the complexity of orcas and other large marine mammals, we realize that concrete enclosures do not give these animals the space or enrichment they deserve. No level of human care can substitute the complex family structures and close-knit cultural societies developed by orcas in the wild. We no longer need to keep beautiful, intelligent animals behind glass enclosures to appreciate or understand them. We can become inspired to love and protect these animals by understanding their struggles in their ocean home: pollution, plastics, overfishing, and boat noise are only some of the major threats marine mammals face in the ocean. To protect orcas – and all ocean life – we must understand how our behavior affects the ocean and then change it, so that we may continue to enjoy the majesty of orcas and all life in the open ocean long into the future.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske