A dolphinarium is an aquarium for dolphins. The dolphins are usually kept in a large pool, though occasionally they may be kept in pens in the open sea, either for research or for public performances. Some dolphinariums consist of one pool where dolphins perform for the public, others have expanded into much larger parks, keeping other marine animals and having other attractions. These larger parks are often not considered to be dolphinariums themselves, but marine mammal parks or theme parks that include a dolphinarium. A dolphinarium can also be part of a zoo.
Though cetaceans have been held in captivity in both North America and Europe since the 1860s, the first being a pair of Beluga Whales in the New York museum, dolphins were first kept for paid entertainment in the Marine Studios dolphinarium founded in 1938 in St. Augustine, Florida. It was here that it was discovered that dolphins could be trained to perform tricks. Recognizing the success of Marine Studios, more dolphinariums keeping dolphins for entertainment followed. In the 1960s, keeping dolphins in zoos and aquariums for entertainment purposes became increased in popularity after the 1963 Flipper movie and subsequent Flipper television series. In 1966 , the first dolphin was exported to Europe. In these early days, dolphinariums could grow quickly due to a lack of legislation and lack of concern for animal welfare. New legislation, most notably the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States, combined with a more critical view on animal welfare forced many dolphinariums around the world to close. As an example, during the early 1970s there were at least 36 dolphinariums and travelling dolphin shows in the United Kingdom, none of which still exist today, the last dolphinarium in the UK having closed its doors in 1993.
A common dolphinarium design for public performances consists of stands for the public around a semi-circular pool, sometimes with glass walls which allow underwater viewing, and a platform in the middle from which the trainers direct and present the show.
The water in the pools has to be constantly filtered to keep it clean for the spectators and the dolphins, and the temperature and composition of the water has to be controlled to match the conditions dolphins experience in the wild. To give an indication of pool sizes, the European Association for Aquatic Mammals recommends that a pool for five dolphins should have a surface area of 275 m² (2960 ft²) plus an additional 75 m² (810 ft²) for every additional animal, have a depth of 3.5 m (11.5 ft) for at least the minimum surface area and have a water volume of at least 1000 m³ (35300 ft³) with an additional 200 m³ (7060 ft³) for every additional animal. If two of these three conditions are met and the third is not more than 10% below standard, the EAAM considers the pool size to be acceptable.
In the early days, many bottlenose dolphins were wild caught off the coast of Florida where they are common. Though the Marine Mammal Protection Act, established in 1972, allows an exception for the collection of dolphins for public display and research purposes providing a permit is obtained, Bottlenose dolphins have not been captured in American waters since 1989. In most Western countries, breeding programmes have been set up to provide the dolphinariums with new animals. To achieve a sufficient birth rate and to prevent inbreeding, artificial insemination (AI) is occasionally used. The use of AI also allows dolphinariums to increase the genetic diversity of their population without having to bring in any dolphins from other facilities.
Live dolphins are still traded however. A live Bottlenose Dolphin is estimated to cost between a few thousand and several tens of thousands of US dollars, depending on age, condition and prior training. The trade of dolphins is regulated by CITES. Cuba has also been an exporter of dolphins in recent years, this being organised by the Acuario Nacional de Cuba. In recent years, the Solomon Islands have also allowed the collection and export of dolphins for public display facilities. A 2005 law banned the export of dolphins, however this ban has been seemingly overturned when in 2007 some 28 dolphins were shipped to Dubai, a further three animals having been found dead on shore. Some, mainly Japanese, dolphinariums obtain their dolphins from local drive hunts, though several other countries in Asia also import dolphins from Japan. Several American dolphinariums have also done so in the past, however not since 1993 when the US National Marine Fisheries Service refused a permit for Marine World Africa USA to import four False Killer Whales caught in a Japanese drive hunt. Members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, a US-based organization whose members include many of the captive dolphin facilities in the US as well as facilities around the world, now officially oppose the acquisition of animals from the Japanese drive fisheries.
Though animal welfare has improved significantly over the last few decades, many animal rights and welfare groups such as the WSPA still consider keeping dolphins at dolphinariums a form of animal abuse. The main arguments are that dolphins do not have enough freedom of movement in pools, regardless of pool size, and do not get enough stimulation. Dolphins often show repetitive behavior in captivity and sometimes become aggressive towards other animals or people: there have been a number of animal and human fatalities recorded, including that of at least one trainer. In some cases, the behavior of dolphins in captivity also results in their own death.
The lifespan of dolphins in captivity is another subject of debate. Research has shown that Orcas indeed have a much lower survival rate in captivity; however, there is no significant difference between wild and captive survival rates for Bottlenose dolphins. This does not, however, reflect a global state of affairs: for example, Bottlenose dolphins in captive facilities in Jamaica suffer from extremely high mortality rates.
In response to criticism, dolphinariums stress that every effort is being made to ensure the well-being of the animals, who are being cared for with state-of-the-art medical technology (including some adapted from that used for humans). Many dolphinariums are also involved in research and education programs, assist in cases of beachings, and provide aid to sick or injured wild animals.
Captive dolphins are an increasingly popular choice of animal-assisted therapy for humans with psychological problems and developmental disabilities. For example, a 2005 study of 30 participants found that dolphin-assisted therapy was an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression. However, this study was criticized on several grounds: for example, it is not known whether dolphins are more effective than common pets. Reviews of this and other published dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) studies have found important methodological flaws, leading reviewers to conclude that there is no compelling scientific evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy, or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in human mood.