Insights from WhaleFest 2015

Natural World Safaris

19 Mar 2015

what we learned at whalefest

what we learned at whalefest

I attended the fantastic event that is WhaleFest with our Sales Manager, Arabella the weekend of 14/15 March 2015, and some of the sales team also went along on Sunday.

WhaleFest is the biggest event of its kind in the world designed to give whales and dolphins a more powerful voice. Its vision is for everyone to only experience whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) in the wild – roaming free as nature intended and for there to be an end to these animals in any kind of captivity, or tanks. Following our interview with WhaleFest co-founder, Ian Rowlands, I was excited about attending. 

The event saw 10,000 people through the doors over the weekend and was already buzzing when I arrived around around 10.30am on Saturday morning. Alongside a full schedule of fascinating talks, some from high profile whale and natural world specialists, there were exhibitors, including marine experience providers, conservation organisations, educational projects and campaign initiatives, a Shark Zone, a virtual reality whale watching experience, a kid’s area, a chill out zone and much more. It was a well thought out and planned event with something for everyone – just as well as the attendees spanned a diverse demographic. Some people had obviously travelled from far and wide to attend the event and they were not disappointed. 

Some of the highlights included meeting wildlife documentary maker, Gordon Buchanan and Monty Halls, whose talents include: broadcaster, speaker, naturalist, formal Royal Marine, marine biologist, travel writer and leadership specialist! We also loved spending time with the BBC Wildlife magazine guys and meeting lots of other great people who are working with and passionate about cetaceans and the marine world. 

One of the talks I managed to watch featured John Hargrove. He was one of the key SeaWorld trainers featured in the documentary Blackfish – a highly emotive account about orcas at SeaWorld and the tragic story behind their lives in ‘dolphinaria’ a collective term used to describe these places of captivity. John now campaigns to have the captive killer whales released and he was presenting his ‘story’. 

It’s obviously a controversial topic for good reason. The story of the misery of these animals in the tanks of SeaWorld and the behaviours they exhibited including sadness, frustration and grief, is pretty heartbreaking. But what does the future hold for these places that are generally run by profit making organisations that don’t understand (or seemingly care) about the animals they retain and train to perform for the public?

This was a recurring theme and one discussed in detail during ‘The Future of Dolphinaria’ debate on Sunday. Arabella attended and this is her review.

Will Travers OBE, President of Born Free Foundation, facilitated the debate and the following individuals were on the panel: 

  • Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer & Founder & Director of The Dolphin Project and star of ‘The Cove’  
  • John Hargrove, former Sea World trainer 
  • Simon Pickup, Sustainability Manager, ABTA
  • Adrienne Wandel, former marine park manager
  • Keith Taylor, MEP
  • Daniel Turner, Born Free Foundation

This session was a lively debate to discuss the future of dolphinaria. The focus was on the next 20 years and posed some big questions:

How can we stop cetaceans being taken from the wild, held in captivity and used for entertainment purposes?

Who is responsible?

What do we do with the existing captive cetaceans?

Panelists Keith Taylor and Daniel Turner argued that it should be a three pronged approach: The consumer, the provider, the Government.

Adrienne argued that is it all about getting cetaceans out of the aquariums and into protected sea pens. This, she said, would solve the problem. But this then raised another question as to who would fund this? Whilst possible, moving wildlife is expensive. Ric, was quick to point out that it is the responsibility of the provider. Whilst Simon argued that it should all be about educating the consumers. So we need consumer education, better governance, accountability and responsibility to be taken by the aquariums. We need a way for the next generation to be able to see these magnificent creatures in the wild in a responsible (yet affordable way). Is this achievable in the next 20 years? Is 20 years too late? Ric argues to take the cetaceans out of captivity and the rest will follow, but is it that easy?

The problem is that dolphinaria is a lucrative business. SeaWorld has over 20 million visitors per year and they are clearly not going to stop their business quickly. Consumer demand is high. Research shows that one in four UK tourists abroad visit some sort of facility abroad that hold captive animals and demand from the ever growing Far East market is rife. Is the tourism industry doing enough? Last year, Virgin Holidays pledged that they would not work with any organisation that takes cetaceans from the sea, another 50 tour operators signed a pledge saying that using cetaceans for entertainment is morally wrong. However it was argued that Virgin Holidays have broken their promises and that they are only pledging do not work with any aquariums that have taken wild cetaceans since February 2013. This, as you can imagine, didn’t go down well with the audience, a few of whom were serious activists. So Virgin’s pledge, according to Born Free ‘disappoints’. They are, apparently, still working with SeaWorld.

Another worrying issue that was raised is the rise of tourism from nations such as China and Vietnam, where environmental education is much less on the agenda than in Europe. It was mentioned that every city in China wants to have a dolphinarium. Europe and the USA made their mistakes at the expense of the cetaceans, but it is our responsibility to ensure that these mistakes are not made time and time again. These cetaceans at SeaWorld are worth a small fortune. They are not going to hand them over easily and there must be places in the Far East that will happily purchase them. How can we stop that? Not easily, it was argued. We’re having enough problems in Europe and the USA.

The debate was heated, relevant and illustrated the need for urgent action to be taken. Adrienne even went on to say that we shouldn’t need discussions in the future about this. It should just not happen. As Ric pointed out, 20 years ago, smoking in aeroplanes was the norm and now it’s globally illegal. So in 20 years’ time (or hopefully less), keeping cetaceans in captivity will globally illegal too and will not happen. Let’s hope so.

Watch ‘Blackfish’: get hold of a copy, get your tissues out and prepare to be saddened and shocked. Tell your neighbours, family and friends to watch it. The more people who watch this, the better. Knowledge is power. We cannot continue to be ignorant. Spread the word!

Pledge to avoid visiting captive dolphin facilities on Born Free’s Website

Support the World Cetecean Alliance in raising awareness about this issue. Support the alliance partners and projects. #wildandfree

Do not visit dolphinaria!

Enjoy seeing whales and dolphins responsibly, where they belong - in the wild.

Read more about whales and where you can see them here


Hannah S

5/5/2015 4:30 PM

Great idea


5/5/2015 4:30 PM



5/5/2015 4:30 PM

I really like this blog

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