Why It's So Hard to Successfully Keep Baby Marine Mammals in Captivity

Beluga Whale Calf
A baby beluga whale named Nunavik swims at the Shedd Aquarium.

Last month a 2-day-old beluga whale found stranded off the coast of Bristol Bay in Alaska died just weeks after the animal was rescued — despite marine experts’ best efforts to save the orphaned baby.

In May the first beluga whale born at the Georgia Aquarium lived less than a week.

And last year a pair of 2-month-old bottlenose dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore died within days of each other.

These tragic stories are sadly not uncommon, begging the question: Does living or being born into a captive environment make it harder for infant marine mammals to survive?

Surprising Statistics

“Marine mammals, in general, have very high infant mortality rates, whether they’re in wild or captive environments,” says Dr. Sam Dover, DVM, chief veterinarian and president of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit rescue organization. “For example, 50 percent of first-time bottlenose dolphin moms lose their babies in the wild.”

But the survival rate in captivity is much better, adds Dr. Michael Walsh, DVM, assistant director for aquatic animal health services at the University of Florida. “In the wild, no one can step in when things go wrong,” he says. “In managed environments, we can intervene when needed to help increase survival rates.”

But this hasn’t always been the case.

“Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, very few facilities had marine mammals in managed environments, “ says Dr. Walsh. “Therefore, the education level and experience of the experts dealing with the baby animals was extremely low, and many assumptions were made. As a result, the survival rates were also low.”

Over the past four decades, as the population of marine wildlife under human care has increased, there’s been a massive learning curve in the field.

“Today, we know enough to predict when things are going wrong,” says Dr. Walsh. “We have timetables for every step of the process, from when they start labor to how fast the calves should be moving. And we know when and how to step in to prevent or solve a potential problem.”

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