To be able to grasp the real issue, it's good to know about the nature of beluga whales, first...
1.Beluga whales or white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) belong to the cetacean family (whales, dolphins, porpoises). Of course, you already knew that as marine mammals, they breathe air through lungs, they give birth to calves, suckling their young, etc. Basic biology – we don't need to touch on that.
But what is distinct with these marine mammals is that they are capable of echolacation which acts like a biological sonar. They make up with their generally poor eye sight with an excellent hearing which they use for hunting and communicating. The echolocating skill in most Odontoceti (toothed whales), a sub-order where beluga whales belong, is so advanced that they can search and identify preys and non-preys, landscapes, shapes, colors, textures, directions, etc. in total darkness and even in long distances (say, a dozen of miles away). In short, their ears are very sensitive to sound.
This ability is nature's gift to them, but in an enclosed facility with a big crowd to watch on them (not to mention all the noises from the warm applauses) that could be torture.
2.I think you have also heard that belugas are called the canaries of the sea. They are called so because of the high-pitched tones that they produce which sounds like chirping / tweeting. Those chirps aid them in echolocating.
In captivity, this highly-evolved and refined echolocation skill will be suppressed since sound in captivity tanks bounces off concrete walls in a maddening reverberation. That's why these canaries of the sea simply “stop singing” while in captivity tanks. It, therefore, suppresses the most fundamental mode of their communication and survival.
3.Their evolution, as well as their ability to echolocate, are highly adapted to the icy seas of the Arctic. While other pods migrate during the winter, others stay under the icepack and still survives, surfacing occasionally to breathe when there's patches of open water in the dense ice. It is said that their ability to find even thin slivers of open water mystifies scientists.
While it is a universally accepted fact that beluga whales cannot thrive in the tropics, some people would insist that the conditions in the Arctic could be simulated in captivity. Where? In Manila Ocean Park? Well, good luck! I just hope that we shall not risk another animal's life just because of human neglect or machine malfunction. Even Ocean Park Hong Kong already aborted this plan because of practical reasons.
4.In terms of their diet, we all know that they feed on live fish, squids, octopus and crustaceans. Have you wondered if they need to drink fresh water like most of living creatures need? No. They get their fresh water from their preys. Live fish offer moisture to hydrate the whales and dolphins in the wild. While in captivity, they are fed dead frozen fish which lacks the moisture they need. They may be hydrated by eating ice or jello; or by a water hose forced into its throat, though.
5.In the Arctic seas, they swim daily in wide-ranging undersea treks, have 1000-meter dives, and even travel annual transcontinental migration. I guess you may have the idea on how boring it is to go round in circles in a tank. Immobility could also physically weaken them. Solitary confinement is another issue since they are social animals.
6. There are scientific studies saying that captive cetaceans like dolphins and whales are capable of having depression, may suffer disorientation and even “lost their sanity” because of this, sometimes resulting to unlikely behaviors like bumping their heads against the wall, aggressiveness, violence, and even suicide.
If you have heard of the famous TV series in the 80's “Flipper,” you might have encountered the story of Kathy, one of the dolphins that portrayed Flipper. She committed a suicide by intentionally closing her blow hole (we recommend you to watch The Cove if you want to know more about this). There are also cases that captive cetaceans attack their trainers resulting to mutilation and even death of the latter.
7.Of course captive cetaceans poop and pee in their tanks... a lot! And since the facility couldn't afford to replace the water everyday, the water is often chemically treated. There are recorded incidents that dolphins and whales suffer chlorine poisoning, skin ulcers, blindness, and skin diseases. Deaths caused by pneumonia, influenza, intestinal disease, shock and bacterial infections are also common. These diseases might also be transferred to humans. To think that that some captive facilities allow visitors to touch, kiss and even swim with them.
8.And since conservation is one of the issues often discussed, let me present some facts and issues on cetacean reproduction. A female beluga usually gives birth to one calf every three years. Their mating season occurs between February and May in the wild and gestation usually lasts a year or more. It is also interesting that they have midwives/ nurses in the pod.
Sex is very important in a cetacean's life, but in captivity, they are forced to undergo a breeding program in the name of “conservation” wherein the mothers are often bred even before they reach sexual maturity.
Captive facilities like Sea World could completely control the animal's reproduction processes through artificial insemination which involves the insertion of an endoscope, a catheter, and the sperm directly into the uterus (sperms came from males that were manually stimulated until ejaculation); “facultative-induced ovulation” using serial urinary hormone monitoring and ovarian ultrasound; and control on the estrous cycles to synchronize them through “oral synthetic progestagen treatment.” They can also force to breed them more often than it occurs in the wild.
Remember that a captive facility would invest so much on this not primarily due to conservation purposes but because this is part of expanding the business. The results of this kind of motivation are many deaths in birth of the offspring and even death to the mothers.
9. Still in conservation, there is no disagreement that beluga whales are in danger, too, in the wild as there are poachers, pollution, climate change, predators, etc. Some of you might think that captivity is the ultimate solution to save these animals; that putting them in a controlled environment would at least keep them alive and far from those threats. While the first premise is, indeed, true; we couldn't agree with the second assumption because, on the contrary, the captivity industry fuels poaching that further leads to the decline of the species, destruction of their habitat, and irreversible impacts to the ecosystem.
We must need to understand that beluga whales just don't feed to survive in the seas. They, as all creatures, have special ecological roles in maintaining the balance. Even whale poop can help temper the damage that humans have done to the environment! Marine mammal excrements contain very important nutrients, such as nitrogen, that contribute to the growth of phytoplankton that many species of fish depend on for food. Aside from being a base of the marine food chain, phytoplankton plays an important part in terrestrial ecology as well because it is responsible for half of the world's oxygen supply. Through photosynthesis, it absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- about 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere is taken each year by planktons. That's a lot better than any mitigation measure done by climate change authorities!
While there are many conservation efforts by different environmental organizations to save not only these species in the Arctic, let's say hypothetically that there are no other solutions but to mitigate and keep them in a controlled environment, do you honestly think that Manila Ocean Park could offer a good place for them? It's more logical to place them in a reputable rescue facility where they can be truly rehabilitated, rather than an entertainment-in-the-guise-of- a ”research” facility.
A TRUE RESCUE & CONSERVATION FACILITY would never take belugas too far away from their home, especially the tropics. At least it must be a sea pen near their habitat where the food, temperature, water quality, and their other needs would be easily maintained. And if RESCUING & REHABILITATING marine animals is really the mission of that facility, those animals should be released in the wild after rehabilitation to perform their ecological role in the ecosystem. One problem is, there are "Rescue & Conservation" facilities that intend to keep these creatures perpetually to exploit them for profit. In the guise of conservation and education, they use the animals in entertainment shows.
10. For wild animals be able to perform in entertainment shows, there are certain training processes to condition them to the new stuff in captivity. One is starving them to gain control over them and use food as their motivation to perform in front of the crowd.
I would not go further to the issue of CRUELTY in training cetaceans because it's another issue that is based on emotions and generally-accepted principles of animal welfare. But one question is this: Is there's really a need for them to be used in entertainment just to be “safe” in the enclosure's premises and to "educate" children?
Teaching them artificial behaviors such as those circus tricks you may have probably seen in dolphin shows would not rehabilitate them to thrive in the wild, but on the contrary, would make them dependent to human – begging food in exchange of performance, rather than hunting food using their innate skills to survive. That's why “rescued” cetaceans used in entertainment shows can hardly be released back in the wild.
11. With regards to the educational value, what could we possibly get in captive cetaceans? Their physical features, check! But their behavior, role in the ecosystem, and others? -? What you may see is a beluga whale with artificial behaviors in an artificial habitat. A beluga whale deprived of it's essence to be himself. What could you learn with things without essence?
If we are already contended with watching their physical features, might as well see them in pictures, instead. But if we want to learn more about them and how they really live, there are many literatures in the library, in the internet, or in documentaries in certain TV channels.
If Manila Ocean Park really wants to spread environmental awareness in the Philippines, it is best to focus on what we really need in our own context to save Philippine seas and aquatic resources.
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