The Virgin Pledge on Sea Mammals in 2014 was a positive, multi-stakeholder experience that led to significant steps forward in terms of the future for captive whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans). When we convened stakeholders around this commitment, we also said we’d explore a long term vision for captive cetaceans in tourism.
Our vision is for a future in which tourism embraces the complex social and physical needs of cetaceans and their habitats.
We want to encourage change. Taking all cetacean attractions off sale might be an easier option but this doesn’t address the needs of the animals currently in captivity. There is currently a lack of alternative facilities and we want to ensure that any changes are handled sensitively, humanely and at the right pace. It would also take us out of the debate and we’d lose the ability to influence the direction of travel. We recognise that there are still many complexities, not least being able to continue to work with our existing partners to encourage positive change. With that in mind:
1. We will not sign up any new attractions that features captive whales and dolphins for theatrical shows, contact sessions (such as ‘swim-with’ programmes) or other entertainment purposes;
2. We will work closely with existing partners to encourage evolution of their product offering to reflect changing consumer tastes, and ensure compliance with the Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism – developed by our trade association, ABTA, together with The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, The International Zoo Veterinary Group and respected NGOs;
3. We will support the creation of coastal sanctuaries for whales and dolphins and promote conservation in their natural habitats through an annual donation supporting Virgin Holiday’s long term vision for captive cetaceans in tourism
4. We will offer customers more choice in the regions in which we operate, such as promoting responsible wild whale and dolphin watching and sanctuary-based experiences (when these become available);
5. We will support international co-operation to end the capture of wild cetaceans, and discourage the building of new attractions, where cetaceans will be used for theatrical, contact or other entertainment purposes.
We recognise that animal welfare doesn’t end here: many other species are implicated. There’s lots to do and we are keen to start with cetaceans, but over time we will work to extend our principles to other animals.
Groundbreaking New Partnerships Announced
Virgin Holidays is investing US$300,000 with the non-profit, US National Aquarium in Baltimore to support the creation of North America’s first dolphin sanctuary and the move of its seven captive dolphins (Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley, Chesapeake, Foster and Beau) from their indoor dolphinarium to a more natural outdoors environment. The exact location of the sanctuary is yet to be determined but site selection is focused on Florida. The sanctuary will provide the dolphins with a much bigger living space and be located near the coast. It will give the animals the chance to experience a far more natural habitat with exposure to ocean tides, temperature variations, and other ocean life such as fish, crabs and seaweed. We have spent the previous year assessing the various sanctuary projects in development around the world, and after consultation with experts decided on the National Aquarium’s ground-breaking initiative.
One of the major dilemmas for the tourism industry is the argument over whether those whales and dolphins currently in captivity can thrive in more natural settings – and Virgin Holidays and the National Aquarium hope this new project will show that more natural alternatives are viable. Virgin Holidays is the number one British tour operator to Florida, and is hopeful that this sanctuary and the others in development will lead to a significant industry shift in the way tourists interact with these complex animals.
The Aquarium has now embarked on a three-year acclimatisation programme to teach their dolphins new behaviours and prepare them for the eventual move. This includes encouraging them to drink water so their system can be flushed if they eat the wrong thing, raising the temperature in the tank to 26 degrees Celsius and allowing algae to grow, and teaching them to swim onto stretchers so the eventual transportation to their new home is successful. To find out more visit: www.aqua.org/sanctuary
The National Aquarium Dolphin Sanctuary is complemented by a separate initiative that encourages the development of responsible wild whale and dolphin watching. Virgin Holidays has committed to a two-year partnership with the World Cetacean Alliance that will see the Responsible Whale Watching Guidelines agreed at the World Whale Conference in South Africa in 2017, rolled out to all relevant Virgin Holidays Whale watching suppliers.
These suppliers will be encouraged to enhance the experience for customers by educating them about the marine environment while keeping a respectful distance from the animals. They will also be given the opportunity to get involved in research projects to track the health and distribution of cetacean populations. For more information on the World Cetacean Alliance: http://worldcetaceanalliance.org/sustainable-cetacean-tourism/