Setting The Story Straight About Sea Pen Feasibility


Setting The Story Straight About Sea Pen Feasibility

By Tiga Cross – Managing Director, Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary

As the discussion surrounding the establishment of a sea sanctuary for dolphins continues, I, in conjunction with the Sanctuary animal welfare team aim to provide clarity on this contentious and often emotionally driven issue. 

At Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary, our foremost commitment is to the well-being of our dolphins. It’s a question we hear often: “Why can’t the dolphins be released back to the wild?” Today, I want to address this question directly and present the facts. 

Releasing dolphins, born under human care, into the wild, presents significant challenges. Numerous studies demonstrate that dolphins born under or housed under human care for long periods of time are largely unsuccessful when trying to re-integrate them into the wild.  

Author Jason N. Bruck provided a comprehensive review of all previous attempts to re-integrate cetaceans to the wild in his research paper ‘A Sea of Unknowns’ (2024). Some challenges Bruck highlighted include, but are not limited to, adapting to catching prey and the risk of health problems due to exposure to infectious diseases in the wild to which they have not been previously exposed.  

At CCWS, we are dedicated to the welfare of our dolphins. The three dolphins in our care – Jet, Bella, and Zippy – are the progeny of rescued dolphins that were deemed unfit for release. CCWS does not breed dolphins, and any decisions to do so prior to the Sanctuary ownership in 2023 were made by the previous stewards, and ceased in 2016. With the introduction of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, it is now a sanctuary for these dolphins to live comfortably and well-enriched while aiding in education and conservation efforts.   

Our role as caretakers of these three dolphins is to provide them with their enrichment and welfare needs. This commitment will continue for their lifespan, as will our ongoing efforts towards the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals from our local region. Our facility has been a non-profit sanctuary since 2023, but one thing has not changed since the facility was founded in 1970: and that is our concern for the rescue and rehabilitation, education, and conservation of wildlife. 

CCWS is licensed by the Department of Primary Industries and Environment (DPIE) and is compliant with all relevant regulations including the Standard for Exhibiting Bottle-nosed Dolphins under the Exhibited Animals Protection Act 1995 and the General Standards for Exhibiting Animals in NSW under the Exhibited Animals Protection Regulation 2010. NSW DPI standards are known to be one of the most robust sets of standards on the global scale. 

Furthermore, CCWS is accredited by the Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) for achieving high standards in animal welfare using the Five Domains Model, a science-based model to assess animal welfare: 

We have also engaged the services of Dr. Isabella Clegg, a marine biologist and welfare scientist, and the founder of Animal Welfare Expertise, who conducted research on indicators of dolphin welfare. Dr Clegg’s research has established objective measures of positive welfare for cetaceans in managed care facilities (Clegg, Borger-Turner, Eskelinen 2015) including engagements with caretakers (Clegg et al. 2018) and other dolphins.  

What about a Sea Pen?

The possibility of a sea pen has been debated for years. A sea pen is where a dolphin can swim in ocean waters, within a fenced enclosure, but remain close with the caretakers who can help provide food and medical care.  

The Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary and its previous stewards have been working with World Animal Protection and Action for Dolphins welfare groups since 2018 on feasibility studies to establish a local sea pen for Zippy, Bella and Jet. Tests to date have included analysis on how the dolphins housed in the Coffs Harbour Jetty would be affected by tides and water quality. 

If, ultimately, the sea pen was deemed viable and, in the animals’ best interests, CCWS would consider the option of relocation, but only if it would mean a significant improvement to animal welfare.  

While activist groups have been vocal about the development of a sea pen in Coffs Harbour Jetty, studies to date have not deemed this location as a viable option for the dolphins who reside at the Sanctuary. Furthermore, the dolphins were established to be in good to excellent welfare, at their Sanctuary home, in a welfare-assessment completed by Dr. Clegg in 2021 and are continuously assessed by ZAA during their rigorous re-accreditation process. 

Exploring the feasibility of alternative sea pen locations may indeed be a lengthy process, especially when considering all the necessary stakeholder approvals. If a feasible location was established, the construction of a sea pen would be very costly. Lastly, the relocation of the dolphins may indeed be a risky endeavour and may or may not actually provide desired welfare benefits.  

The future of Zippy, Bella and Jet

At a meeting in 2024 where representatives from World Animal Protection, Action for Dolphins, and Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary were present, it was determined that, without government financial support, it is no longer feasible to continue to develop the idea of a sea pen for CCWS’s dolphins. 

While Zippy, Bella and Jet remain at the Sanctuary, they will continue to be ambassadors for their species through vital marine education and live out their lives with the highest standards of animal care.


Bruck, J.N. The Cetacean Sanctuary: A Sea of Unknowns. Animals 202414, 335.  

Clegg, Isabella LK, Jill L. Borger-Turner, and Holli C. Eskelinen. “C-Well: The development of a welfare assessment index for captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus).” Animal Welfare 24.3 (2015): 267-282. 

Clegg, Isabella LK, et al. “Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: Dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 202 (2018): 85-93. 

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