Why Nobody Should Love Marineland

One year, when I was just a little girl, I received a toy orca and a toy bottlenose dolphin for my birthday. That same year, for Christmas, I asked Santa for another orca and another bottlenose dolphin. My parents did not understand why I wanted more of the same toys, and I was forced to explain that the toys were lonely and required separate pods. Blaming the WWF pamphlets they had ordered for me, and the almost idiot-savant levels of obsession they had provoked, they gave in to my seemingly nonsensical request and for Christmas I found two more orcas and two more dolphins in my stocking. From that point on I took advantage of every available holiday, asking only for more whales and porpoises. By the time I was finally sated, I had accumulated three orcas, four dolphins, a beluga (in an effort to appease me when they could no longer find orcas), a grey whale and her calf, and a humpback and her calf. Our bathtub turned into the ocean every time I had a bath. I can vividly recall my mother standing at the sink removing her contact lenses, beseeching me to wash my hair as I flipped my orcas into the air and watched them hit the water with a splash.

“They’re breaching!” I’d shout over the noise. Their joy seemed so much more imperative than clean hair.

I used to have a baby beluga, but it went missing at some point over the course of the past decade. Marineland also lost a baby beluga, but theirs was an actual living, breathing mammal that died as a result of injuries sustained following a two hour attack by two adult male belugas.

When my parents set up an inflatable pool in the backyard, I’d swim around and attempt to breach myself, and insist that they watch me, the way that I had watched humpbacks breaching in the wild when I visited my Grandparent’s summer home in Massachusetts. I’d fill my mouth with water, hold my breath for as long as was humanly possible, and then raise my head and spit it out in a misty puff. If someone didn’t mime taking a photograph I’d helpfully call- “I’m SURFACING!”- and try again.

A trip to Marineland was only inevitable. I was six-years-old when my parents took me to Marineland for the first (and last) time. Here’s what I can remember:

Morosely tossing marshmallows down into what was little more than a cement pit filled with bears.

Sobbing and begging my father to lift me up because I was small and frightened by the hungry deer vying to take the food pellets out of my hand.

A comical image, but a miserable reality for the deer, who do not eat unless someone pays to feed them out of a cone. They live in a corral of dirt and sand. There is nowhere for them to graze freely.

Absolutely nothing regarding orcas, dolphins, or seals.

The only orca I remember is the inflatable one that my parents purchased for me as a souvenir. On the way home I pretended our car was a tank and bumped its nose repeatedly against my window, making clicking sounds at the other cars passing us by on the highway.

The reason I feel compelled to share this now is because even then, as a child, I understood that keeping such incredible mammals in a fish bowl was wrong. Although most Canadian citizens were horrified by what the recent “Toronto Star” exposé unveiled, there have been a few voices raised in defence of Marineland and other “parks” like it.

“There are MILLIONS of people who go to Marineland, Zoo’s and African Lion Safari every year. Children especially love being able to be that close to animals without being at risk. Many develope a love for animals and desire to grow up to be Vet’s. That’s not something looking at a picture in a book, nor Jacques Cousteau documentary can create people!” –Someone on the internet who clearly hasn’t actually seen a Jacques Cousteau documentary.

Most tout the “educational value” of such establishments, while others imply that the animals will lead a better life in captivity than they would in the wild.

Having been to Marineland as a child, I can honestly say that relying on parks like Marineland to educate children on the wonders of these magnificent creatures is tantamount to studying human behaviour by visiting a penitentiary (Jacques Cousteau would concur). It is preposterous to suggest that you will find accurate depictions of either species in either environment. You will only see what we as a society have reduced them to. In the case of Marineland, mere commodities with convenient permanent smiles on their faces.

“A dolphin’s smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy.” – Ric O’Barry

When I asked my mother what she recalled about our visit to the park, she admitted that she felt guilty for having taken me, as I was saddened by the bears, frightened by the deer, and baffled and upset by the orcas. According to her, I kept asking why their dorsal fins had fallen over, and weren’t standing up tall and proud the way they did in my books. I refused to say it was my birthday and raise my hand when one of the trainers asked who wished to be kissed by an orca, as I was too distracted by the lone killer whale off to the side in a holding tank, swimming mindlessly in circles.

Even at six, I understood that orcas lived in pods, the same way we humans live with our families. As an adult, I understand so much more. I understand that orcas weigh up to 2,500 pounds on average, grow to be thirteen to twenty feet in length, and migrate thousands of kilometres every year with their pods containing upwards of fifty members spanning over four generations. They are incredibly social and highly intelligent, capable of passing hunting tips down from one generation to the next.

Anyone that has read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” knows that dolphins have been long regarded as one of the world’s most intelligent species-

Anyone that has seen “The Cove” understands their present plight, and how “amusement parks” like Marineland take part in promoting the slaughter that takes place every year in Taiji, Japan-

I do not feel compelled to go into detail regarding the inevitable physical effects orcas and dolphins suffer as a result of spending decades in what is little more than an above ground pool, as these have been discussed in-depth in the videos and articles released by the “Toronto Star”, but the psychological distress they undoubtedly undergo on a daily basis is equally as abominable. The same can be said for the other creatures Marineland showcases. The sea lions with cataracts, the bears in their cesspool, and the deer, that in hindsight are probably frightened on a daily basis as badly as I was as a child.

I have loved animals my entire life, and I have hated Marineland for nearly as long. I am writing this on behalf of the little girl I was not so long ago. I’m asking the parents out there who are good parents like mine to stop and reconsider their choice when their child expresses an interest in visiting Marineland. There is infinitely more information available to the public now than there was in the early nineties, elucidating all of the many reasons why Marineland (and Sea World and any other likeminded park) should not receive the support of the public. Educate yourselves and your children in turn. Respect their intelligence; they can handle so much more information than you think if it is shared in a comprehendible way. I am not suggesting that you sit them down to watch The Cove (although you should); I’m simply suggesting you explain to them that animals in captivity are not the same as animals in the wild, and if they truly love them, they will simply have to wait. Buy them books, go to a museum, but bypass the amusement park and wait until you can take them somewhere to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats. Despite what parks like Marineland would like you to believe, there is no educational merit to be found in watching a lone orca swim morosely in circles, staring vacantly at the cement bottom of her miniscule tank. The terrible reality is that when you visit parks like Marineland, you are paying hundreds of dollars to watch an animal die.

If you live in North America, you’re literally surrounded by the ocean. In Mexico, from January to March, thousands of grey whales enter the lagoons of Baja, California for breeding and birthing. From February to March, humpbacks can be seen from hotels in Oahu and Maui. In Manitoba you can see belugas and even snorkel in the water in order to hear their magnified vocalizations. In Quebec, from May to October, you can see finbacks, humpbacks and even belugas in Tadoussac. Minke and pilot whales frequent Cape Breton from June to October and yes, wild orcas are easily accessible as well. Three resident pods reside along the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, and can be seen mere feet from boats from May to October.

Trust me, your animal loving child will thank you in the future.

On Sunday, October 7th, I attended the final protest held at Marineland. I was determined to participate, not only because this is an issue I feel passionately about, but because Ric O’Barry, the advocate and man behind The Cove and a personal hero of mine was set to speak. I arrived early with a friend, and participated in the protest, waving at the cars that drove by and honked in support. I was not, however, one of the people to hop the fence and disrupt the on-going “show”. As much as the notion of the final show day being spoiled by protesters pleases me, I do not advocate scaring little children. Though I’m certain the protestors did not intend on spooking any children, I do not believe it was appropriate to rush up into the stands. Instead of turning my attention upon the attendants in the stadium, I focused on the children outside of the park- the children participating in the protest. They were there with their parents too, but not to watch any dolphins performing silly tricks.

Six-year-old Dillen Grant of St. Catharines holds a sign and joins over 300 protesters gathered on Portage Road in front of Niagara Fall’s Marineland Saturday, August 18th, 2012. Tara Walton/Toronto Star

Keeping in mind the topic of this article, I requested permission from their parents to ask them some questions. I told the parents that I was working on an article about my first experience at Marineland, and the views I developed myself as a child. To their children I posed questions like- “How do you feel about Marineland?” and asked them if they would be willing to wait to see their favourite animals if it meant being able to see them in the wild. Here is what they had to say:

According to Sydney, aged 12, Marineland is “horrible” because they are “keeping wild animals who need lots of space in small tanks.” Reese, aged 6, simply said she “hates Marineland” for the same reason. They want to see all of Marineland’s animals released back into the wild.

Brandon, aged 11, “feels bad” because Marineland is “hurting animals that didn’t do anything.” He loves dolphins and wants to see them released. Justin, his twin, says Marineland is “horrible”. He loves sea lions, and both boys said they would be willing to wait and see their favourites out in their natural habitats, rather than pay for a ticket to an aquarium.

Then there was little, red-headed Ayden, aged 7. He has been protesting Marineland for two years, and wants to see it shut down. He says Marineland “tortures” their animals. He wants to see them free (the bears especially). Ayden and I actually had quite a bit in common. He’s anti-fur and loves the Harry Potter series! What a guy!

There is no doubt in my mind that if the parents that had brought their children to Marineland to enjoy the last show of the season read this, they would dismiss the children above by implying that they were simply reiterating their parents’ words. They would suggest that they were operating under their parents’ influence, and that they never would have come to those conclusions on their own.

I suppose they would have a point. After all, the same can be said about their own children, who consider Marineland fun and believe an orca swimming alone is neat instead of horribly, horribly sad. How could they possibly be expected to know better when the people they look up to the most in this world at this present moment in time encourage those feelings?

  • To sign the petition to help save Marineland’s animals, click here.
  • To read and keep up with the “Toronto Star” reports, click here.
  • To keep up-to-date with the efforts to shut down Marineland, bookmark the Marineland Animal Defense website here.
  • Share your own thoughts with me on Twitter here.