The NY Aquarium began a disturbing tradition in 1897 as the first facility to display captive beluga whales in the United States. As scientific understanding of these marine mammals grew, many researchers, organizations and individuals began to doubt the educational value of their controversial and what was often viewed as inhumane confinement.
Beluga whales inhabit cold Arctic seawaters and live in family pods where they display the immensely varied vocal ability that has earned them the title Canaries of the Sea. However, in captivity conditions the whales behaviors are altered, vastly different from those found in the wild. Gone are natural behaviors such as daily wide-ranging undersea treks, 1000-meter dives, even annual transcontinental migration in long-traveled passages through frozen Arctic waters. Gone are the essential tasks of calf-rearing and the critical interaction with family members that evokes individuality and strong unity within the pod. Gone is the use of their highly-evolved and refined echo-location skill since sound in captivity tanks bounces off concrete walls in a maddening reverberation that suppresses this most fundamental mode of communication and survival. Even the simple act of foraging for greatly varied food items in Arctic waters is replaced with perversely receiving handouts of dead fish from their human captors, their sole food source. Perhaps most disturbing of all, in captive display tanks and pools, the once incredible singers in the wild, these Canaries of the Sea, are silent. The wild behaviors have been replaced with the only activity that is available to the white whales: swimming in never-ending circles around their concrete enclosures, a sight that evokes pity and even alarm in increasingly-aware spectators of all ages.
In addition to the absence of natural behaviors in captivity, one should not forget that the lives of beluga whales are dramatically shortened in their stressful, chlorinated captivity conditions. While rarely surviving their teens and with an excessively high calf mortality rate in captivity, belugas have been known to reach over 50 years of age in their natural environment.
To anyone who has studied beluga whales in the wild it is broadly deceptive to consider the silent despair of the captive beluga whale educational. In reality, facilities like these are prime locations for studying the de-evolution of beluga whales, to witness evolution in reverse, a repression and ultimate absence in wild-caught or captive born individuals of the highly evolved echolocation, or sonar, skills, and the loss of natural song-making that has so distinguished this whale in the wild. The New York Aquarium presents an opportunity to view the reduction of the environmentally powerful yet vulnerable whales to utter dependence on human captors for food and basic survival in this inappropriate artificial environment.
The New York Aquarium once again can take the lead, but this time in ending the travesty of false education which is keeping beluga whales on display. It is time that New York City takes a stand against this kind of misleading non-education, against the casual acceptance of utter human control over the lives of creatures that belong in their natural environments only, and to make illegal the confinement of beluga whales in captivity. After over 100 years of questionable and unproductive study, what exactly have we learned? Certainly today we can say that we know better than to believe beluga whales kept in drastically restrictive, artificial, chlorinated tanks present any real public educational value. The whales are maintained at great expense to the facility and New York City, yet the whales endured and cruel confinement does little or nothing to enlighten visitors to the nature of these creatures in the wild.
The New York Whale and Dolphin Action League with the organizations and individuals below are calling on the mayor of New York City, the New York City Council and the Wildlife Conservation Society to end the beluga displays in New York City, to divert monies dedicated to sustain these expensive, high-maintenance artificial displays to environmental education programs within the New York City school system and other critical needs of the youth who have been deprived of so much during NYCs never-ending fiscal crises. Environmental awareness and projects that educate the young on the many serious issues facing our natural world will be rewarded with a sense of purpose, increased responsibility, and a funneling of energy into noble efforts for wildlife and conservation.
New York City's new role must be that of leader in the humane acceptance of whales as unique to their environment and unsuitable to captive situations, while taking its place beside the many US cities that have already banned the captivity and display of cetaceans such as the white Arctic beluga whale.
We therefore urge the Mayor of the City of New York, the New York City Council and the Wildlife Conservation Society to close the exhibition of beluga whales at the New York Aquarium, and to ban the captivity and display of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in New York City.