Dolphin Bubbles at SeaWorld – cool or sad?

I’m not usually a zoo person. In fact, if it wasn’t for the kids I would never set foot in a zoo again. I’ve talked about this before but the short version is: my mother ruined zoos for me.

Zoos and Indian Pow Wows. Scarred for life. Thanks, Mom.

ANYway, considering my aversion to standing around looking at animals in cages and tanks, it’s no surprise that SeaWorld was the very last of the Orlando theme parks that I visited after we moved here. Friends invited us and I said I had to wash my hair or shave my legs or end world hunger. Something believable.

It wasn’t until another Orlando blogger told me about a chance to go to SeaWorld for free that I finally sucked it up and took my kids. It was awesome. And way better than your average zoo. The kids loved it, the animals didn’t look depressed, and I was surprisingly entertained.

That trip took place about two months ago and was made possible by IZEA. It was then I decided that IZEA was not, in fact, the devil and that SeaWorld was, in fact, probably my favorite amusement park here in Orlando. (But don’t tell anyone, because one of the best parts was the fact that there were no crowds and no standing in line and did I mention no crowds? So let’s just keep this between you and me. If word gets out and I have to deal with theme park people, I’m blaming you. And I can hold a grudge, too. Ask my mom.)

Blah blah blah, yada yada yada, I tell you all that to explain why someone from IZEA would email me a video of Dolphin Bubbles at SeaWorld and ask me what I thought of it. Because God forbid you thought this was out of the blue and random.

(Actually, FIRST they emailed me and asked me how feeding the dolphins was and I had to remind them that I was not invited to that oh so much cooler party and have yet to feed a dolphin. But thanks!)

Here’s the video that played on ABC Wednesday night:

SeaWorld Dolphin Bubbles on YouTube

For those of you who can’t, didn’t or won’t watch the video (I do the same thing, I know) – the dolphins at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove have started displaying new behavior. They blow bubble rings – like hula hoops made out of bubbles – with their blow holes, and then play with them underwater. They’re inventing their own toys, basically.

Initial thought?

Holy crap that is cool!

Next thought about .02 seconds later?

Animals displaying new behavior in captivity? Makes me sad.

It reminded me of the Shamu show when the whales came out with their fins flipped down. (You’ve seen Free Willy , right? That’s what happens to whales in captivity.) SeaWorld might be paying me a lot of money to talk about this, but they can’t pay me what to say or how to feel.

So, I decided to do some digging on my own.

The Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society suggests that blowing bubbles might be a sign of distress among dolphins.

From their rules and guidelines for watching dolphins:

“If dolphins are “watched” for a prolonged period, they may begin to show signs of distress such as slapping the tail, blowing bubbles or taking longer diving times. That’s is why it is critical for operators to ensure dolphin-watching activity is a safe and educational activity for all. In order to minimize the disturbance to the dolphins during dolphin watching activities, AFCD has set a code of conduct for these activities, hoping all dolphin watching tour operators and dolphin watchers can obey these rules.”

I adjusted my google search a little to look specifically for examples of dolphin bubble rings in the wild.

I found a few people who said “don’t worry, dolphins have been known to blow bubble rings in the wild”, but that did little to reassure me. I can tell you, “don’t worry, lions have been known to walk on two legs in the wild”, but that doesn’t make it so.

I stumbled on a research paper that quotes another research paper (which I couldn’t find), that says:

“Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are gregarious mammals that show a strong propensity for play behavior with physical objects and with conspecifics. There have been previous reports that both captive and wild dolphins produce their own objects of play, termed bubble rings (Marten, Shariff, Psarakos, & White, 1996; Reiss, 1988, 1998; Tayler & Saayman, 1973). During these events, dolphins expel air from their blowhole, and the expelled air rises to the surface in a torus or ringlike form.”

And that was about all I could find – over and over again.

Now, I have a lot of respect for SeaWorld. I’ve seen the results of their work and research with marine animals when they rehabilitated and released manitees into a spring near my house. I honestly believe that the people who work with the animals at SeaWorld have their best interests in mind and that there is a lot of valuable information that can be learned from animals in captivity – information that can benefit humans and the animals being studied.

But it still makes me uneasy. I wish there was another way. As much as I enjoyed SeaWorld and will definitely be going back, I wonder if the bubble rings are something I can just shut up and marvel at – or if they’re a sign of highly intelligent animals bored out of their minds in a tank?

What do you think?

UPDATE TO CLARIFY: a couple of the comments made me think I might not have been clear here. I only found ONE article that said that blowing bubbles could be a sign of distress for the dolphins. Most of what I read said the bubble rings, specifically, occur in the wild and in captivity. I just had a hard time finding that from a quotable source beyond “oh, yeah, it happens in the wild, too.”

 

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