Sea Life slammed over ‘dungeon-like’ living conditions of penguins

  • Post last modified:May 15, 2024
  • Reading time:10 mins read

Global entertainment giant, Merlin Entertainment is keeping Gentoo Penguins captive underground, with no natural light or fresh air. This is in its Sea Life centres. Animal rights activists have labelled the conditions as “dungeon-like”.

Freedom for Animals are calling for Sea Life to relocate all their Penguins to suitable sanctuary spaces. 

Penguins in captivity

In the UK alone, there are 43 different locations where Penguins are held in captivity. Sea Life own five of these: Birmingham, Great Yarmouth, London Aquarium, Scarborough, and Weymouth. 

Both Birmingham and London hold Gentoo Penguins – the world’s third largest. At around 76cm tall, and with bright red-orange beaks, Gentoo Penguins are native to the Antarctic Peninsula and several sub-Antarctic islands. They prefer ice-free areas, including sheltered valleys, cliffs and coastal plains.

They regularly dive up to 600 feet deep in their hunt for food, and can swim up to 22 miles an hour – faster than any other Penguin. Obviously, any Penguin held in captivity – at least in Sea Life facilities does not have the space to do either of those things. 

Importantly, the IUCN currently list Gentoo Penguins as of ‘least concern’ on their red list. This means they are currently doing well in the wild and their population levels are not in danger, thanks to steady population increases. 

Whilst Freedom for Animals current work is around freeing the Gentoo Penguins in London, they are calling for Sea Life to relocate all their Penguins to suitable sanctuary spaces. 

Sea Life profits before conservation

In 2023, Merlin Entertainment, who is the parent company of Sea Life –  made £2.1bn in revenue. Of this, £662m was profit, before tax. 

Notably, they fail to mention conservation in any of their publicly available financial accounts. Likewise for Sea Life or the Sea Life trust – its charitable arm. 

Both organisations undertake important work rescuing injured seals, which are native to the UK. They then release them back into the wild. 

Its website states: 

Our penguin breeding programmes are some of the most successful in the world with over 20 penguin chicks being born every year!

However, Penguins bred in captivity can not be released into the wild. Scientists agree that releasing captive-bred penguins to mix with wild colonies would put both groups in danger due to the infection risk. In a blog by Freedom for Animals, it states:

Zoos and aquariums know this, so in reality they have no intention of releasing their penguins into the wild, and their breeding programmes are designed to keep a consistent population in captive “collections”.

Additional research by Freedom for Animals showed that just 2.5% of the species held captive at Sea Life aquariums are endangered. Very few of the animals ever return to the wild and most of them the company breeds to restock tanks and exhibitions. 

Never seeing the light of day

Sea Life currently keep Gentoo Penguins at both London and Birmingham in captivity in enclosures with zero natural light and no fresh air. As a result of this, it is putting the Penguins health and wellbeing at risk. 

As part of its campaign, Freedom for Animals has set up a petition to call on Sea Life to free the Gentoos in its London Aquarium. Notably, the petition states that the company’s  

London Aquarium currently has a colony of 15 gentoo penguins who are housed in a basement. Many of these animals have been there for their entire lives and, without compassionate intervention to secure their release, they may never see the light of day.

Gentoo penguins are the strongest swimmers and the deepest divers of all birds, yet their enclosure offers just 6-7 feet of depth in which to dive – a pitiful fraction of the 600ft they can dive to in the wild. They are a small colony, in a tiny enclosure, that does not meet their physical and social needs and does not allow them to enjoy their natural behaviours.

Added to this, the constant public observation and noise has the capacity to cause serious stress and adverse health effects.

The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 states that zoos should implement the following:

accommodating their animals under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements of the species to which they belong, including—

(i)providing each animal with an environment well adapted to meet the physical, psychological and social needs of the species to which it belongs.

Moreover, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Penguin care manual clearly states:

Seasonal variation in light cycle, intensity and spectrum are essential for proper breeding and molting cycles.

Back in 2014, one Gentoo Penguin at Sea Life Birmingham died after swimming into an underwater viewing panel. Members of staff at Birmingham have also reported the Penguins showing signs of stereotypic behaviour – which according to Penguins International, usually indicates significant stress.

It is also well known that stress can lower Penguin’s immune systems, contributing to other illnesses. 

Sea Life’s response

The Canary contacted Sea Life for comment. A spokesperson for them said:

The welfare of all the animals in our care is of paramount importance to us… and we deliver the highest levels of care through our team of welfare experts.

Our Gentoo penguin habitats were designed with help and advice from specialist vets and provide an excellent balance of water and land for the penguins which enables them to express their normal behaviours, and there is space for them to ensure they have sufficient privacy.

Our colonies of penguins are regularly inspected by independent vets, third-party experts and local and national authority officials, all of whom are pleased with how we look after all the animals in our care and so issue our Zoo Licences to operate. 

As part of its overall mission, SEA LIFE has an opportunity and responsibility in sharing the wonders of the natural world in an accessible manner and with the opportunity to influence our guests who visit from all around the globe each year to care for the world’s oceans and the marine life within it, we believe this is a hugely positive thing.

Sea Life’s evasiveness to our specific questions is clear. We quizzed them on the amount they put into conservation each year – to which they didn’t directly respond. They claimed conservation was the “bedrock’’ of the company however they were unable to give any concrete examples of figures. 

Freedom for Animals told the Canary

Breeding penguins in captivity and labelling it conservation is simply false: captive-bred penguins will never be released to the wild and will therefore make no impact on wild population numbers.

Many penguins bred in captivity are not even threatened in the wild at all, such as the gentoo penguins Freedom for Animals are campaigning on behalf of, 15 of whom Sea Life keeps in a small, windowless basement under London’s South Bank.

By creating the false impression that buying an aquarium ticket will help endangered penguins, Sea Life, and zoos and aquariums like it, actually damage real conservation by creating the false impression to customers that they are funding real, effective conservation work.

Penguin breeding programmes, such as those seen at Sea Life are based on false pretences. 

It claims to have one of the most successful Penguin breeding programmes in the world. However, they are only breeding them for captivity. This is not conservation – but exploitation for entertainment, and therefore profit. It is clear that Sea Life is merely a money making scheme spearheaded by Merlin. 

As Freedom for Animals notes on their website:

Breeding animals for captivity and exhibition is a cruel and exploitative practice that has no place in a modern society.

You can sign Freedom for Animals Petition to move the Gentoo Penguins from Sea Life London, here.

Featured image via CJ Attractions Guide/Youtube, cropped and resized to 1200 by 900, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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