Welcome to a very special blog in the Chats with Conservationists series. Today we meet Media by Mads, a film-maker and photojournalist who dedicates herself to ending Whale and Dolphin captivity…
Hi! I’m Madison the 23-year-old filmmaker and animal photojournalist behind Media by Mads. I live in Somerset and have a very old rescue Shetland pony called Haymish. I graduated last year with a degree in Marine and Natural History Photography from Falmouth University. I am a big animal lover but I have always had a fascination with whales and dolphins.
My parents knew how much I loved whales and dolphins, so whenever we travelled aboard I was often taken to dolphinariums and marine parks. I grew up watching whales and dolphins in the wild as well as in captivity. If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a dolphin trainer.
Discovering the truth about whale and dolphin captivity
It wasn’t until I returned to Florida 4 years later in 2010 that I started to question captivity. On this visit we were only passing through Orlando, so we decided to check out SeaWorld newest park, Aquatica. A water park with you guessed it… dolphins! More specifically, Commerson’s dolphins, I had never heard of this species of dolphin before visiting, so wanted to see them.
I decided to ask a couple of questions about the dolphins and how I could become a dolphin trainer when I was older. I remember asking where the dolphins came from, asking if they were rescued and I remember vividly that the trainers were super cagey and didn’t answer my question. This was the moment I began to think differently about captivity.
The documentary Blackfish was released three years later and that changed everything for me. I was at the age where I was starting to get into photography, I began to realise that the camera could be a powerful tool for change. I was fortunate I had a great photography teacher who allowed me to work on slightly more unique projects in school, one of them being captive animals, that’s when I started to delve into the animal rights world.
Thanks but No Tanks
Attitudes towards whale and dolphin captivity have definitely shifted in the western world. I think Blackfish had a huge impact on this. Many countries in the west have announced a ban on the breeding and importation of whales and dolphins in captivity, meaning the current generation of whales and dolphins in these countries are likely to be the last.
Most recently two beluga whales were rescued from an ocean park in Shanghai and released into a sea sanctuary off the coast of Iceland. This is a great example of how marine mammals could be released into a more natural environment while still receiving human care.
While I am pleased that attitudes are finally changing in the west, it’s bittersweet as the countries in the Eastern world are just getting started. The ocean park industry is rapidly growing in China with 80 ocean parks currently operating and a further 27 under construction, although it is difficult to obtain the information it is thought that Russia is capturing beluga whales and orcas to sell to China. It is big business with a single live orca worth anything from a reported $1 – $7 million US dollars.
Is Whale and Dolphin captivity important for education?
Imagine if aliens came to earth and wanted to learn about the human race, the last place we would take them to is a solitary confinement prison facility because that would be a poor representation of humans. For example, Orcas don’t log (float on the surface) in the wild as they are capable of travelling around 100 miles a day.
If you truly want to be educated about whales and dolphins, then whale and dolphin watching boats usually have a marine biologist or naturalist onboard who provide you with so much information about the species you may encounter on your trip. Natural History museums are also great places to learn about marine mammals as most museums have life-size models of whales and dolphins.
Seeing Whales and Dolphins in the Wild vs Captivity
I mentioned above that I grew up watching whales and dolphins in the wild and captivity but I didn’t see a wild orca until I was 21. In 2018, I travelled to Vancouver Island in Canada where I went whale watching several times.
I will never forget the moment I saw my first wild orca, the sheer size of its 6ft straight dorsal fin breaking the water was breath-taking, I had tears running down my face. That orca happened to be from the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population making that experience even more special.
Just a couple of months after I saw wild orcas I began filming for my first film ‘A Captive Audience’, the first marine park I filmed at was Marineland in France. It had been 12 years since I last saw an orca in a tank and I was full of nerves.
I found it really tough seeing four orcas in a tank together. The biggest male orca at Marineland, Inouk, had a collapsed dorsal fin (very common among captive male orcas). This was a stark reminder of how different Inouk was to the wild male orca I had seen only a few months before.
Since my trip to Marineland in 2018 I have visited 4 more marine parks for filming purposes, I have seen countless bottlenose dolphins, 13 orcas and two beluga whales in captivity and it doesn’t get any easier. I still cry behind sunglasses while trying to look like a happy tourist.
Why are sea sanctuaries important for the future of Whales and Dolphins in Captivity?
Captive marine mammals rely on humans for care. Many captive whales and dolphins were born in captivity and have therefore never seen live fish, let alone tried to catch one for food.
When we talk about releasing these animals it is important to emphasise that no one is going to ‘drop’ them in the ocean and simply wave goodbye. Free Willy will forever be my favourite film. I like to call it the fictional Blackfish because if only freeing the orcas were that simple.
Proposed sanctuaries will offer a large penned off area in a suitable ocean location, usually in a sheltered cove or bay. Whales and dolphins would still need to receive lifetime human care at these sanctuaries but they would be in a more suitable, natural environment. The Beluga Whale Sanctuary is a great example of how sea sanctuaries can operate.
How can we help Whales and Dolphins from home?
Choose a more sustainable lifestyle
To help wild whales and dolphins you can try to avoid using single-use plastic as this is a big threat to wild marine mammals.
If you eat fish try to make sure you are buying Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish, the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide is a useful resource to learn more about sustainable fish.
Learn about Whales and Dolphins without visiting Marine Parks
Support environmental charities
The Covid-19 pandemic has been really tough on charities. I understand that not everyone is in a position to make a donation at this time. You can support sea sanctuaries such as The Beluga Whale Sanctuary, The Whale Sanctuary Project and The Dolphin Sanctuary Project.
However, if you are in a position to buy Christmas presents this year please consider buying from a small business that donates a portion of their profits to charities that help wildlife, such as Pigments by Liv, or ‘adopting’ animals via charities.
‘Til next time!