In order to continue its business sustainably, any industry that uses animals must largely align their ethical position with that of the general public: ‘the mainstream social ethic’. Although zoos are transitioning from entertainment venues to conservation actors, many cetacean (whale and dolphin) facilities present the animals in unnatural-looking enclosures and entertainment-driven contexts. But what is the ‘mainstream social ethic’ regarding cetacean facilities, and what might it mean for the industry’s future? The evidence is first reviewed on cetacean welfare and the purported purposes for displaying cetaceans in the past and present. The mainstream social ethic is then defined, suggesting we may be at a crossroads for this industry. Welfare has improved in the last decades but could be further enhanced through providing more choice and control in cetaceans’ environments, particularly in enrichment, training and social groupings. Sanctuary settings provide a potential environment with more choice and control, but are still in the very initial stages of development. Fundamental, structural changes to the mission, presentation of the cetaceans and business model seem to be needed to realign the public display of cetaceans with the mainstream social ethic of the times.