British holidaymakers are being urged to boycott dolphin shows amid growing concerns over the plight of the aquatic mammals in captivity.
Environment campaigners fear that aquariums where dolphins are put on display trap them in areas a tiny fraction of the size they enjoy in the wild. Dolphins are capable of covering distances of up to 150km a day.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society argues that the basic needs of dolphins cannot be met in captivity and that they suffer extreme physical and mental distress, which can result in aggressive behaviour as well as a lower survival rate and higher infant mortality than their wild counterparts.
Campaigners are also concerned that dolphins may become troubled because their main way of seeing the world, a natural sonar called echolocation, becomes redundant.
The boom in people paying to see dolphins and swim with them was largely inspired by the 1960s TV series Flipper, about a dolphin that helped to solve human dilemmas. But now, during a worldwide week of action for captive dolphins, Flipper's former trainer is calling for a boycott of dolphin attractions.
The death of the performing mammal, cradled in his arms, changed Ric O'Barry's life. "She just seemed to give up on life," he said. "At that moment I realised that what I had been doing was wrong and decided to dedicate my life to getting dolphins back to the wild where they belong.
"The captive dolphin business is growing considerably, and people going to these places should know that this abuse is based on supply and demand, so do not buy a ticket to a captive dolphin show. That is the solution to stopping the misery of these animals."
Few animals have the box-office appeal of dolphins, and their price has shot up since the days of Flipper, when they sold for $300 (£162). There has been an explosion in dolphin attractions, particularly in the US and Caribbean, and dolphins now fetch more than $100,000 - not surprising given that a single one can generate $1m a year.
Although it has been more than a decade since dolphins and killer whales were kept on display in this country, Britons continue to be regular customers at dolphinariums overseas.
While swimming with dolphins may be an attractive proposition for many, campaigners warn of the potential dangers of jumping into a confined area with what is a large wild animal. A report by the World Society for the Protection of Animals predicts that the growth of these attractions will be paralleled by an increased risk of human injuries and deaths.
Some of the larger marine parks, such as Sea World in Florida, boast of large pools in which their marine mammals are kept. However, even in the largest facilities, a captive dolphin has access to less than one-10,000th of 1 per cent of its normal habitat size.
"Dolphins are free ranging, intelligent and highly complex marine mammals. The vastness and biological diversity of the open sea cannot be duplicated in captivity," said Mr O'Barry, who now works as a marine mammal specialist with the French animal protection organisation One Voice, "They belong in the oceans, not playing the clown and suffering for our amusement. People who are truly interested in dolphins should go dolphin watching instead."
The world's biggest marine park operator, Sea World in Florida, did not respond to requests for an interview but has previously stated that there is no evidence that dolphins suffer in captivity at its facilities.
There are an estimated 1,000 dolphins in captivity worldwide.
* There are an estimated 1,000 bottlenose dolphins in captivity worldwide.
* Cetaceans have been kept in captivity since the 1860s. The first documented case of keeping bottlenose dolphins in captivity was in 1913. The New York Museum displayed five of these; they had all died within 21 months of captivity.
* Cuba is the biggest exporter of dolphins, selling 82 between 1995 and 2000.
* In the United States more than 2,300 bottlenose dolphins were captured for display purposes between 1972 and 1994.
* During the early 1970s there were 36 dolphinariums and travelling dolphin shows in the UK. The last closed down in 1993.Reuse content