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Marike Lauwrens
Sea for yourself the ethics of aquariums

Original photo: “Coral” by ekamelev is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

An aquarium: a tank filled with water in which marine creatures and plants are kept. But the question is, how ethical are aquariums?

Some people see no problem with aquariums, or zoos for that matter, and will rush to the nearest one to take a peek at our scaled friends from close by. 



But this ethical debate is as deep as the ocean itself. So let’s take a closer look at aquariums. 

Ethical extremes

If we take a group of people from different walks of life, put them in a room, and pose a question about the ethics of aquariums, it will probably cause a heated discussion. 

In all likelihood, your perspective on aquariums will have been shaped by various media. 


A trip to the aquarium is beautiful and splendorous, but it is our duty to check what condition the animals we are seeing are living under.

Original photo: by Jordy Meow is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


This might include titles like Dolphin Take, Fish Tank Kings, Tanked, Blackfish, and Free Willy 1–4.

Diving dilemma

A visit to the aquarium is a fond childhood memory for many. You might remember the dolphins gracefully jumping out of the water, and you being left with soaking clothes and a bag of smiles. 

Many aquariums showcase dolphins, penguins or seals to visitors. But how ethical is it to have animals on display for entertainment?


Your perspective on aquariums may have been shaped by various media.

Original photo: “Right Up 0676” by mliu92 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


This question formed the basis of the 2013 documentary film, Blackfish. “Using animals for entertainment is the bottom of the ethical totem pole,” argues Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the film.

Petting prohibited

Many acclaimed marine biologists admit that their love of the ocean started many years ago, when they first visited an aquarium. 

Aquariums can be a place of wonder and discovery, and many people advocate its purpose as a source of marine research, rehabilitation, and education. 


especially larger fish have traditionally been kept in captivity to be viewed, and often in unethical and cruel environments.

Original photo: by Paul Brennan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


But there are aquariums that allow for activities such as animal petting. While animal petting is very popular, it’s not an ethical practice. 

As a sustainable development organisation working to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 14: Life Below Water, and UN SDG 15: Life on Land, we promote conservation and animal welfare best practice.

We don’t endorse animal handling (except for necessary conservation activities). In addition to the possible dangers of getting close to wild animals, interacting with animals in this way interrupts their natural behaviour.

Sea for yourself

While dolphin petting is very popular within the tourist industry, it is not an ethical practice.

Original photo: by Alexas_Fotos / 20709 images is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Each aquarium is different, and its level of ethicality should be considered individually. 

Before visiting an aquarium, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it provide entertainment for visitors in the form of dolphin, orca, seal or penguin shows?
  • Does the aquarium keep large mammals in tanks? 
  • Does it support animal petting?

If you could answer “yes” to any one of the above questions, you should reconsider your visit to this aquarium. The well-being of marine creatures and ecosystems should be our first priority. 


Each aquarium is different, and its level of ethicality should be considered individually


Ask if the aquarium provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the ethics of aquariums, or the conservation activities it supports. If the answer is “yes”, that’s a great sign!

And you could add to the ethical care of animals by contributing towards vital marine conservation projects around the globe.

Find out more about GVI’s award-winning marine conservation volunteering programs, internships abroad, virtual internships, and online courses, and make an impact in marine conservation today.