Consider the ocean. Big, blue, deep. One of the world’s greatest marvels, the endless ocean that sustains all life on the planet and has many secrets that will never be discovered by humans. The ocean has long been a sense of wonder for humans, in religion, in folk lore, even in recreation.

In June this year, I went scuba diving in the sea for the very first time. Battling the anxiety of being submerged 10 metres under water, I was very aware of how just how open the sea was. Everywhere I looked I could see the big blue, extending far beyond the reach of the sunlight. Schools of fish, all of different sizes and shapes, were coming and going from who knows where in the world, busy getting on with their fishy lives.Satisfied by the delight of seeing so many fish, I was absolutely blessed to see a cuttlefish who had been hidden in the sand as we swam past. He or she, hovered slightly above the sand, looking straight at me, waving their tentacles to keep afloat. In that moment I felt a mix of emotions; absolute happiness at this chance encounter with a wonderful animal in the wild, but sadness as I thought of the millions of animals who are, right now, being held in tanks a fraction of the size of the ocean world from which they came.
A life in a tank is one of deprivation and misery

The sheer vastness of the ocean is one of it’s characteristics that fascinates us the most. In aquariums around the world, we try to replicate that wonder by placing animals stolen from the wild, into miserably small tanks. And through our investigation work here at Freedom for Animals, we see that the animals suffer for it.

In aquariums around the world, we try to replicate that wonder by placing animals stolen from the wild, into miserably small tanks. And through our investigation work here at Freedom for Animals, we see that the animals suffer for it.

Extensive research has long proven that fish can feel pain but many do not know that fish also have social abilities. They can form bonds with other fish, recognise human faces and they can even ‘talk’ to each other using sounds that we humans cannot hear.

The vast majority of the fish, crabs, sharks, octopuses and other animals you see in aquariums in the UK will have been stolen from the wild, from their natural homes. Many species of fish do not breed in captivity, so as soon as one fish dies, another must be taken from the wild to replace it.

An estimated 79% of animals are taken from the wild to stock aquariums in the UK. Taken from conservation-sensitive areas like the Great Barrier Reef, fish and other animals are packed into plastic bags and boxes and forced to travel thousands of miles. This stressful journey can be too much on their delicate bodies and many die on the way.

Cyanide and other chemicals are sometimes used to stun fish for capture, often resulting in death. This process also damages the reef. The mortality rate of fish has been indicated to be as high as 30% during capture, and during transportation, a further 5-10% of fish are estimated to die. A massive 30% die following importation.

The tanks which hold the animals are sometimes only just bigger than the fish. Many tanks lack proper substrate important for some fish and rays, lack space to leave the water for animals like turtles and alligators, lack environmental enrichment and lack of space to retreat.

A female giant pacific octopus kept captive at Brighton Sea Life, was captured from the ocean when she was around a month old, according to staff. Measuring around six foot in length, she cannot fully stretch out in her aquarium tank. Staff provide food hidden in Lego pieces as ‘enrichment’, and the tank contains only a ceramic pot and a single child’s plastic rocking horse for furnishing.

Such a deprived life can lead to mental health conditions, just as it can in humans. Pacing, circling, spiraling, head bobbing and other abnormal behaviours, which are all indicators of stress, have been observed in animals in 90% of UK aquariums.

This can never compete with the freedom of their wild home

Just like zoos, aquariums justify their existence making bold claims about conservation. In reality, endangered species are not protected by aquariums. Research has shown that the less than 3% of animals in aquariums in the UK are endangered and very few fish species have successfully bred in captivity – showing that the conservation claims of aquariums are weak. Sadly, very few animals bred in captivity ever make it back to the wild so ‘breeding’ programmes serve only to keep the aquarium tanks full.

So please, the next time you are looking to submerge yourself in the wonder of the big blue, consider the ocean, not an aquarium. It may not be as convenient or even possible to take a trip to the ocean to see animals in the wild (I recognise I was incredibly privileged to do so). But there are many more fantastic ways we can engage with nature without keeping it captive. Days out to nature reserves, going wild swimming, nature documentaries, interactive books, Virtual Reality games, supporting ocean protection charities, volunteering on beach cleans… these are all activities that have a positive impact on the seas, the animals and even us as humans.

Read more about our investigation into SEA LIFE (the UK’s largest aquarium branD)