The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Final Thoughts

Orca swimming inside of a lightbulb, lying on its side on a green forest floor with autumn colored foliage and trees in the background.
Image by Burak Erk from Pixabay

I want to end this series with some final thoughts and ideas for the future about orcas in captivity.

The Impact of Blackfish

My own interest in orcas began with the film Blackfish and my education about orcas grew from there. I found the documentary moving, educational, and enlightening. While some charge that Blackfish was one-sided, the producers, as indicated in the film, requested interviews with SeaWorld multiple times and SeaWorld declined all requests. Further, many other sources support the information in the film. SeaWorld spent years fighting against the film’s revelations, calling it propaganda, and even dedicating an entire website to trying to debunk the film. That website has since been taken down and their current website does not make a single reference to it that I could find. 

According to David Neiwert, “The marine-park industry attracts more paying customers than even the most popular sports leagues. In 2012, orca facilities around the world drew over 120 million people, more than the combined attendance of Major League Baseball, National Football League, and National Basketball Association games. Orcas are Big Money now.”1 Of course, the Blackfish effect permanently altered the course of the marine amusement park industry on the western side of the world. There have been many articles written about the film’s significant long-term effects, some of which I’ve included under Additional Resources below.

Still, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment alone had annual attendances of over 22 million in both 2018  and 2019.2 It is difficult to determine if SeaWorld has experienced a continued decline in recent years since 2020 and part of 2021 were affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Entertainment as Cause

Brochure cover advertising a trainer swimming on top of an orca.
1970s Marineland Niagara Falls brochure, image from Cetacean Collective on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In my article about wild orca captures, I explained how the marine amusement park business model developed over time. Killer whales were once feared and believed to be dangerous. “Then someone got the clever idea to capture one of these terrifying creatures and to put it on display. And that changed everything…The public’s fascination with orcas was remarkable, considering that less than a generation before, these creatures had mostly elicited shudders of fear.”3 Humans discovered how intelligent and easy it was to train killer whales to perform, much like circus animals, for the purpose of entertainment.

“Ironically, it is their intelligence that has made these animals desirable for public display—their ability to understand human commands and learn  complex behaviors or tricks has been exploited to provide humans with entertainment.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Two orcas swimming in a marine amusement park pool.
Image by M W from Pixabay

The Argument For Captivity

In Of Orcas and Men, David Neiwert talked about his experience taking his daughter to SeaWorld when she was very young. He asked, “These parks deserve great credit for providing people the opportunity to actually see, in the flesh, one of these great creatures, but do they truly show orcas as they really are?”5 Of course, the answer is no. I have struggled with that exact point throughout my whole orca series: the parks allow people to see orcas, and most of us don’t have the opportunity to see one otherwise. Isn’t that one of the same arguments in favor of zoos? To allow people to see and learn about the animal kingdom so that they will want to protect them?

“Captivity has been a catastrophe for most killer whales taken from the wild. Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild.”8

Orca jumping out of the water near a coast with golden colored grass.
Photo by Shawn McCready on Flickr, Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Façade of Science and Education

Many marine amusement parks in the U.S. are AZA-accredited. But many have not contributed to science, conservation, and education to the extent that zoological parks have. As whale researcher, Erich Hoyt, noted in 1992, “Marine parks do not measure up to the best zoos or environmental groups in terms of supporting or conducting science.”“If science were a primary goal at marine parks, rather than display, much better scientific results could have been obtained with a fraction of the number of captive orcas and in a fraction of time.” Then the orcas could have been released. Hoyt argued that “science” was an excuse to keep captive orcas.

Marine amusement parks also do not educate their patrons about cetaceans in the wild, or at least not very accurately. SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks sometimes portray the ocean as a scary place that orcas face a lot of challenges within, which is misleading. “However, that does not mean captivity is a better place for them than the wild. It only means that the people who fear for their well-being in captivity, and wish to see it ended, also need to be engaged in helping killer whales to thrive in the wild.”11 SeaWorld and the other parks have an opportunity to inspire their patrons to help protect the natural world.

“There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.” -Jacques Cousteau

An Example in Morgan the Orca

Morgan the orca swimming in his tank
Photo by Annemieke Podt, found on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0)

Morgan is a female orca at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands whose captivity is very controversial. Accidentally separated from her family when she was about 3 years old, she was captured off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. She was taken to Dolphinarium Harderwijk to receive medical care for starvation and dehydration. Morgan was supposed to be rescued, rehabilitated, and released back to the ocean. However, the marine amusement park transferred her to Loro Parque instead where she has become a performing orca and was integrated into the park’s breeding program in conjunction with SeaWorld. The original agreement stated that she would not be put on public display but that part was ignored. There was a year of lengthy court battles but in the end, Morgan sadly remains at Loro Parque. She is an example of a captive orca that could be released to a sanctuary, if not back to the wild.

“Children know conservation is important, but what more powerful lesson than to show them how to put conservation into action by returning something to nature? It would be a noteworthy gesture from marine parks that have earned so much money from cetaceans.” -Erich Hoyt

“If captive [cetacean] facilities were serious about trying to conserve the species that they possess, they would be focusing on protecting the habitats of populations in the wild and would actively be trying to ensure that their captive-bred animals could be reintroduced, and survive, in the wild.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Orca jumping out of the sea.
Photo by Adam Ernster from Pexels

The View of Captivity is Changing

The view of orca and cetacean captivity is changing, though more on the western side of the world. As David Neiwert noted, “When we are forced to concede, as with orcas, that we are not unique in our intelligence, that we may not be the only creatures worthy of being considered persons, then we likewise have to reconsider our previous, Western-grown position as special beings somehow separated from nature.”14 But the marine amusement park industry is growing on the eastern side of the world, as I wrote about in a previous article. We, as human beings, have a long way to go in spreading the information and educating others about the problems of cetacean captivity.

“Growing awareness about the problems associated with captive cetaceans have led marine parks around the world to shut down or redefine themselves,” including India and Switzerland, both of which have banned orca captivity.15

The Future of Orcas in Captivity

There are many possibilities of drawing visitors to marine amusement parks without necessarily having real animals, especially ones that do not fare well in captivity. Several scientists have promoted the idea of having visitors view live feeds of wild whales, or offering virtual reality productions. Erich Hoyt wrote in 1992, “Anyone will then be able to experience life in an orca pod, to get a taste of life among wild whales at sea. With such possibilities, marine mammal shows which feature performing orcas will seem as passé as those spectacles of the Roman Colosseum. As public attitudes change, we believe that SeaWorld and other marine parks could make the transition to these new ways of ‘exhibiting’ marine mammals without any loss in admissions.”

Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with people in background.
Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Examples

The Vancouver Aquarium was the first to start changing its programming surrounding orca exhibition. In 1986, the programming featured information about the daily life of orcas and was perhaps the most educational show at any marine park at the time. Then, in 1991, they discontinued scheduled performances, moving away from the circus-like show, and instead offered limited training demonstrations.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which focuses on the complex marine environment of Monterey Bay in California, is a highly successful aquarium with no large captive cetaceans or marine mammals. They have life-sized models and wildlife viewing from their facility.

Blue whale model at the Natural History Museum in London
Some museums offer full-scale models of all types of cetaceans, such as this one. “Blue whale model” at the Natural History Museum in London. Photo by Matt Brown on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Viewpoints

“We need to realize that these are beings that suffer the same as we suffer, they want freedom the way we want freedom.” -Russell Simmons, music executive19

Orcas were once feared and called ‘killer whales.’ But orcas in captivity changed the view of millions of people. People started to view them as more like playful dolphins that were fun, loveable, and intelligent. “Studies of wild orcas followed – some of the first were to help regulate the number of live captures – and this research gave insight into the lives of the free, wild orcas and led some to question whether orca captures and the practice of keeping them in marine parks should continue.”

I don’t believe so. Humpbacks, blue whales, and other large cetaceans aren’t kept captive and people are still drawn to those animals. Interest breeds education and education breeds understanding. Also, the destructive wild captures have decimated some ecotype populations of orcas. Those populations might be fine if the marine amusement park industry hadn’t tried to capture so many, killing some unintentionally along the way.

Orcas swimming near Alaska, snowy mountains in background.
Photo by Christopher Michel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Where do we go from here?

I encourage you to read books, articles, and publications, and watch documentaries about the issues in my Orca Series. I’ve listed many resources throughout my articles in this series. You can follow the organizations trying to help both captive and wild cetaceans and the scientists who work with those organizations. For example, the Whale Sanctuary Project is a proposal to build a large sanctuary for retired cetaceans in Nova Scotia. They have a large team of scientists and professionals and have conducted extensive research in order to build the sanctuary once fundraising is complete. Cetaceans from marine amusement parks will have a safe ocean area to retire to, where scientists will care for and monitor them.

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project has operated for decades to free dolphins from captivity. They’ve worked tirelessly to close down or prevent from opening dozens of facilities that would have held captive dolphins and whales.

Don’t support marine amusement parks if you aren’t sure about their practices and ethics. If you don’t want to support a company, don’t buy tickets to any of their parks, as some companies own multiple. SeaWorld Entertainment, for instance, owns 12 parks. Though SeaWorld seems to be improving its practices and being supportive of the ocean and wildlife, they have a ways to go. But they claim that every ticket helps support their rescue operations. What do you think?

“Humans, despite a poor record of respecting the rights of other humans, as well as whales in general…are now in the position of helping or hurting all life on Earth. The question may well become: Can humans be good managers without assuming the traditional role of exploiter?” -Erich Hoyt

Thank you for reading this series. I hope it’s helped you understand the issues, problems, and potential solutions regarding orca captivity. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Blackfish:

Article, “SeaWorld’s ’69 Reasons you Shouldn’t Believe Blackfish’ – My Rebuttal,” Inherently Wild, accessed April 7, 2021. This website also features a full database of captured orcas, deceased orcas, pregnancies, and mother and calf separations.

Webpage, “Blackfish Reviews,” Blackfishmovie.com, accessed April 1, 2021.

Article, “The Blackfish Effect,” The Nonhuman Rights Project blog, December 27, 2013.

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau:

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” NPR, March 23, 2015.

Manuscript, “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity,” Dr. John S. Jett and Dr. Jeffrey M. Ventre, The Orca Project, January 20, 2011.

SeaWorld Curator: Ponytail Likely Caused Fatal Killer Whale Attack,” ABC News, February 25, 2010

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Morgan the orca:

Article, “Morgan the Orca: a Tale of Betrayal,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, December 9, 2017.

Website, The Free Morgan Foundation, accessed April 4, 2021.

Other:

Film, “Voiceless,” A Blue Freedom Film, 2016.

Page, “SeaWorld Cares,” SeaWorld Entertainment Blog, accessed July 20, 2021.

Organizations:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Empty The Tanks

Save The Whales

The Orca Project

International Marine Mammal Project

The Orca Research Trust

Animal Welfare Institute

The Humane Society of the United States

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, SeaWorld Today

Orca performance at SeaWorld San Diego, taken from the top area of the arena.
Orca performance at SeaWorld San Diego, May 7, 2021. Photo by K M on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

In my series, The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, I have spent a lot of time explaining why I (and many others) believe that SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks should end orca captivity and cetacean performance. However, I’d like to emphasize that I am not anti-SeaWorld across the board. In fact, I believe SeaWorld has a chance to lead the way! They have the audience, expertise, funds, and resources to be leaders in ending such practices. They could be the example of increasing marine amusement park sales without having performing, captive marine mammals. Also, they could become leaders in conservation.

Today, I’ll explore those ideas, as well as what SeaWorld is already doing to change its own image and brand.

Orca performing at SeaWorld San Diego
Orca performing at SeaWorld San Diego on October 24, 2019. Photo by .Martin. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“All the care in the world cannot compensate for the stress brought on by placing a large, highly mobile, highly intelligent, and highly social animal with a complex life into a small concrete tank.”1

SeaWorld in the Last Decade

After the deaths of two orca trainers in late 2009 and early 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated SeaWorld. They found that SeaWorld violated labor and safety laws. They instituted fines and banned “waterwork,” meaning that trainers could no longer swim with the killer whales. In 2013, after Blackfish and several books raised awareness about the harmfulness of orca captivity, SeaWorld’s ticket sales and shares declined steadily. They spent years on an ineffective public-relations campaign, criticizing and trying to discredit the producers of Blackfish, authors of several books, journalists of multiple publications, and former SeaWorld employees. They claimed the information stemming from all of those was agenda-driven. SeaWorld wasted resources on misleading public relations campaigns. That time and energy would have been more useful if directed toward transparency, education, and conservation.

Half-Measures and Misleading Public Relations

In 2015, the state of California proposed banning breeding, restrictions intended to gradually end orca captivity. The then-president of SeaWorld San Diego said that “A ban on breeding would sentence these animals to a slow extinction in our care.”2 Many orca experts and marine biologists found SeaWorld’s breeding practices unethical and inhumane. By 2016, California passed the law and banned the practice through the California Orca Protection Act.3 In 2017, SeaWorld San Diego announced that it was ending its breeding program, as if it were a decision they made voluntarily. This “spin” was somewhat misleading because it was driven by legal requirements, it was not a decision made of their own volition.

Two orcas at the edge of the pool.
Image by Aktim from Pixabay

That same year, SeaWorld San Diego announced a new orca experience. The new program “takes place in more natural looking habitats, with a focus on the whales’ natural behaviors” and that it would “include the awe-inspiring moments you love with an added emphasis on education and conservation.”

SeaWorld noted in that same post: “We haven’t collected a whale from the wild in nearly 40 years.” This was, again, misleading in that they didn’t mention that orca captures were banned by the late 1970s in several areas of the world, largely because of marine amusement parks and aquariums. Nor do they include the number of ‘transfers’ they’ve had over the years, which I wrote about in a previous article. In these situations, SeaWorld paid other marine amusement parks to capture whales and then transfer them years later with ‘incomplete’ documentation about the orcas’ origins.

“I have always been told that the truth is the best defense. If you are telling the truth, then there is no defamation.” -Dr. Naomi Rose5

Orcas jumping out of the water at SeaWorld.
Image by Chris Jones from Pixabay

Conservation in Marine Amusement Parks

Conservation efforts in aquaria and zoos are the most important of all. Though marine amusement parks aren’t quite an aquarium nor a zoo, they fall somewhere in between. Does this mean they should be exempt from having to participate in such efforts? No. In fact, any institution that holds captive animals should take responsibility for those animals in the wild.

Many in the scientific community are skeptical that marine amusement parks are not making real efforts, but merely participating in limited conservation efforts for public relations purposes. As Dr. Naomi Rose noted:

“The one area of activity in which dolphinaria and aquaria can legitimately claim to serve a conservation function is work involving the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of stranded marine animals…But even stranding programs, as they are now conducted, give cause for concern…Often the rescue efforts of the industry seem motivated by the desire to create better public relations…A more subtle facet of the issue is that the public display industry takes every opportunity to use a stranding as proof that marine mammals’ natural habitat is a dangerous place full of human-caused and natural hazards.”6

As noted in The Case Against nly beached, injured, or rescued individuals should be held until released. Those who cannot be released could be exhibited but without making the animals perform. Retained animals should have enclosures that replicate their natural habitats as much as possible.7

“That Should Be The Show”

Marine amusement parks have a unique opportunity now. Conservation is the area where they can make the biggest difference. Ric O’Barry, in A Fall from Freedom, said that many animal rights advocates don’t want to close down marine amusement parks. “Our strategy is to revolutionize them.” Marine parks can play a major role in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured, stranded, and sick species. “That should be the show…not reducing them to performing circus clowns and selling this as education and research.”8

“Some marine parks participate in rescue work and education on conservation issues such as marine pollution and overfishing. These are commendable, but they do not justify displaying cetaceans captive for entertainment purposes. With the technology available today, there are endless possibilities for cruelty-free attractions, experiences and rides that can engage and entertain park guests, and in turn continue to fund rescue and education efforts.” -Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project9

Orca jumping out of the water at SeaWorld Orlando Florida in Shamu Stadium during the Ocean Discovery Show
Photo by Chad Sparkes on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

SeaWorld’s Potential

In a commentary in the Orlando Sentinel, Brian Ogle, an assistant professor of anthrozoology, wrote that SeaWorld struggles with a “brand-identity crisis.” It was once a theme park based on entertainment but has now switched its identity to more closely align with the increasingly higher standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He argued that SeaWorld must work on “creating a balance between a modern theme park and a contemporary zoological facility.” He applauded their marine-life rescue programs but noted that “it must continue to do more.”10

“SeaWorld finds itself uniquely positioned to show the world it remains the industry leader in marine life exhibition and conservation.” -Brian Ogle, assistant professor of anthrozoology at Beacon College in Leesburg11

There are wild animal sanctuaries across the world for retired and rescued animals. Most operate on a non-profit business model, but Dr. Naomi Rose believes that a for-profit model could work for SeaWorld. They could have a sanctuary and rehabilitation center in a coastal area and open it to the public, generating ticket sales and other sources of income. “A visitor’s center can offer education, real-time remote viewing of the animals, a gift shop, and in the case of whales and dolphins can even be a base for responsible whale watching if the sanctuary is in a suitable location for that activity,” she told David Neiwert.12

SeaWorld Today

SeaWorld’s website claims that they are working toward being more environmentally responsible, by reducing single-use plastic straws and shopping bags, investing in renewable energy at one of their parks, reducing their overall waste and emissions, and using water conservation practices such as collecting rainwater and updating landscaping that requires less water. Unfortunately, the link to their Corporate Responsibility Report was broken so I could not review it. I emailed SeaWorld twice requesting the report but they never responded.13

Seaworld today is very different from the SeaWorld’s of the 1960s and 1970s when they were first established. They began as solely an entertainment park, and while that is still their primary purpose, their company statement indicates that their paradigms are shifting:

“SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is a leading theme park and entertainment company providing experiences that matter and inspiring guests to protect animals and the wild wonders of our world. We are one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal husbandry, behavioral management, veterinary care and animal welfare.”14

They want to inspire people to care and protect, which is a goal of many zoos and aquariums. Most wildlife photographers and biologists agree that people will only protect what they can see and love. But there are ways to present these beautiful creatures without keeping them in small pools and making them perform.

Orca performance at SeaWorld San Diego, taken from the top area of the arena.
Orca performance at SeaWorld San Diego, May 7, 2021. Photo by K M on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Rescue & Rehabilitation Operations

All SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks participate in the rescue and rehabilitation of injured or stranded species. From their website:

“The SeaWorld Animal Rehabilitation Program is an important part of SeaWorld’s commitment to conservation, research, and education. Through this program, the SeaWorld animal departments rescue, treat, shelter, and release stranded animals. The main objective of the Rescue and Rehabilitation Program is to return rehabilitated animals to the wild.”

The company considers the program a “valuable scientific resource” because they learn about the biology and ecology of rescued animals and “this information adds to the pool of knowledge necessary to conserve threatened and endangered species.”15 According to their website, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens rescue teams have helped more than 38,000 animals in need since 1965. Where does that number come from? Here is a brief breakdown from their website:

Brief breakdown of SeaWorld's 38,000 rescues, from SeaWorld's website.

Seaworld’s website provided more detail about the animals they’ve rescued and rehabilitated over the years, although it is not comprehensive.16

Laws and Regulations

SeaWorld is required to follow federal and state regulations regarding animal rescues. They outlined their rehabilitation process and included these statements: “The eventual outcome of an animal depends upon its initial condition when rescued…Rehabilitated marine animals must meet criteria for return established by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).”17 Some might argue that these are justifications for retaining animals for display rather than true rehabilitation. But there is a hierarchy and SeaWorld cannot go rescue an animal without authorization from state and federal agencies. When the latter is notified of an injured or stranded animal, they have a contact list of organizations that can assist, like SeaWorld.

An example was in April 2021, when a boater discovered a sea lion with its head stuck in a buoy. They called the Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department, which contacted SeaWorld San Diego for assistance. The rescue team was able to free the sea lion. Additionally, they tagged the animal with a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) identifier. NMFS is an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and SeaWorld would not be able to do this without their authorization.18 In fact, NMFS has all three SeaWorld parks listed on their “Report a Stranded or Injured Marine Animal” contact page.19

Sea World employees rescuing a distressed sea turtle, April 2016.
Rescuing a distressed sea turtle, April 2016. Photo by USFWS – Pacific Region on Flickr, copyrighted by SeaWorld. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program

This program is a sector of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It supports efforts to advance the knowledge and conservation of killer whales. They specifically focus on the recovery of the Southern Resident orcas. They partner with SeaWorld, Shell, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. According to the program’s website, “Resident populations of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest saw steep declines in the early 1970s and have failed to recover even with increased management protection since then.”20 They do not address that the steep decline was because of orca captures for marine amusement parks, including SeaWorld. SeaWorld does not directly address this either.

Orcas swimming in the sea.
Photo by Bart van meele on Unsplash

Manatees

Organizations such as the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) regularly work with SeaWorld, in addition to other local and state agencies, to rescue injured and sick animals. Manatees are a threatened species and are often injured by boats and propellers. They’ve also been affected by toxic algae blooms, known as red tides, in Florida.21 SeaWorld Orlando has a Manatee Rehabilitation Area that people can visit.

Manatee underwater, facing the camera.
Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

Coral Reefs

SeaWorld has partnered with multiple organizations to help conserve coral reefs. This is especially in regards to the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in Florida reefs. The disease was first discovered in Miami in 2014. It has spread and now affects more than 95% of Florida’s coral reef. The disease has high rates of transmission and mortality and has even traveled to the Caribbean. Numerous institutions and organizations have collaborated to fight the disease to try and save the coral reefs.22

In the meantime, AZA-accredited zoos, aquariums, and marine amusement parks are storing and caring for the rescued coral colonies.23 SeaWorld and Disney are among the organizations that help support the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando, “the nation’s largest caretaker of rescued corals.”24

Underwater example of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, a blighted coral.
“Image of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) on a Montastrea cavernosa, common name: Great Star Coral.” Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other Partnerships

Other SeaWorld partnerships include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to help save the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale;25 Rising Tide Conservation;26 The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the Western Everglades;27 and OCEARCH.28

SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

The SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has donated more than $18 million to projects such as animal conservation projects, coral reef restoration, habitat protection, and clean ocean initiatives. Established in 2003, the non-profit “works with organizations, individuals and experts in the U.S. and around the world to identify the most pressing challenges facing wildlife. The Fund then awards grants to projects focused on protecting wildlife, people and places in ways that are sustainable and long-term.” They partner with more than 40 organizations and universities.

But there are questions about this fund. They have not posted an annual report to their site since 2014. Their website also indicates that they are pausing and will not be accepting new grant applications because they want to “focus on funding pre-selected projects.”29 It is not clear what that means.

Three orcas jumping out of the water at SeaWorld Orlando.
Photo by Leslie Driskill on Unsplash

Is SeaWorld Changing?

When it comes to performing cetaceans, SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have a dark history. I hope that era is coming to an end with SeaWorld leading the way. This would go a long way in earning the public’s trust and respect. And while they are not breeding orcas, SeaWorld still holds captive marine mammals that perform daily. SeaWorld should shift its focus away from performing captive animals and animals bred in captivity. They should retire and if possible, release their cetaceans into a sanctuary or their natural habitat. They should make the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of aquatic wildlife the point.

At the beginning of this article, I said that I believe SeaWorld could lead the way in conservation. It turns out that SeaWorld is already doing more than I thought. The company regularly commits time, energy, and resources to rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation efforts. They have many partnerships with organizations that are doing good work as well. So are they on the path to leading? Could it evolve their whole business model?

My hope is that SeaWorld does continue to change for the better. Maybe someday I can feel good about buying a ticket. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website, Investor Relations, SeaWorld Entertainment, accessed May 31, 2021. This site features information about the company’s financials, stocks, shareholders, governance, annual reports, policies, etc., going back to 2013.

Page, “Federal & State Regulations,” SeaWorld Entertainment, accessed July 8, 2021.

Page, “Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program,” National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed June 30, 2021.

Website, Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership.

Page, “Benefits of Rescue Program,” SeaWorld Entertainment, accessed July 8, 2021. Provides information on what to do if you encounter a stranded or injured animal.

Page, “Florida’s Coral Reef Disease Outbreak: Response,” Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed June 26, 2021.

Article, “Proposed Pot/Trap Fisheries Regulations to Help Save North Atlantic Right Whales Available for Public Comment,” National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, December 30, 2020.

Page, “Restoring Our Reefs,” Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, accessed June 26, 2021.

Footnotes:

Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes:

 

Happy World Sea Turtle Day!

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Giorgia Doglioni on Unsplash

World Sea Turtle Day is a day to honor and highlight the importance of sea turtles. It is on June 16th because that was the birthdate of Dr. Archie Carr, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s founder and the ‘father of sea turtle biology.’

Sea turtles have been around for over 100 million years, as far back as the Cretaceous period and the dinosaurs. They spend their lives in the sea, except for nesting, and swim in almost all oceans. Sea turtles navigate through their sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields. All species of female sea turtles return to the same exact beach they hatched on to nest.

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling
“A leatherback sea turtle hatchling starts and begins its adventure into the vast unknown, to grow, to see the world, and to become its adult self.” Photo by Max Gotts on Unsplash

Endangered

Six out of seven species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. The 7th is listed as ‘data deficient.’

“Humans have caused sea turtle populations to decline
significantly all over the world.” -Oceana.org

Green sea turtle
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Importance

“Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems.” -World Wildlife Fund

Sea turtles keep the natural ocean environment and the food chain balanced. Following are specific ways in which they provide this balance.

Balancing the Food Chain

The largest sea turtles, the leatherbacks, consume up to 440 pounds of jellyfish daily. Loggerheads and Green sea turtles also eat them. As sea turtle populations decline, jellyfish populations increase. This not only affects humans, but it affects fish populations. “Declining fish stocks leave jellyfish with less competition for food, resulting in proliferation of jellyfish around the world. The increase in jellyfish is already proving detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks since jellyfish prey on fish eggs and larvae.”

Certain fish “clean” the barnacles, algae, and epibionts (organisms that survive by living on other organisms) from sea turtles’ bodies and shells, sometimes providing their sole food source. Without turtles, these organisms would have to find another, potentially unsuccessful, food source. “Species associated with a host, such as sea turtles, are important to generating and maintaining diversity throughout the world’s oceans.”

Sea turtles also provide food to many other species as prey. Many predators eat eggs and hatchlings, and even juvenile sea turtles. Sharks and killer whales sometimes eat adult sea turtles.

Last, but not least, some species, such as loggerheads, consume crustaceans. While eating they break the shells into fragments and create trails in sediment along the ocean floor, practices that both contribute to what is known as ‘nutrient cycling.’

Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.
“Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.” Photo by P.Lindgren on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Seagrass control

Sea turtles are one of the few animals that eat seagrass, especially Green sea turtles. It needs to be cut short constantly to stay healthy and to keep growing. Seagrass beds are important because they are the breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Those species are consumed by many other species, so lower levels of seagrass impact the food chain, all the way up to humans.

Additionally, seagrass control provides balance to the ocean. “Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose and provide suitable habitat for the growth of slime molds. Older portions of seagrass beds tend to be overgrown with microorganisms, algae, invertebrates and fungi.” The Caribbean has seen a sharp decrease in Green sea turtles and thus a loss of productivity in commercially fished species.

“All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.” -Sea Turtle Conservancy

Dune Protection and Prevention of Beach Erosion

Beaches and dunes do not get a lot of nutrients because sand doesn’t hold them. However, all of the sea turtle nests, eggs, and hatchlings don’t make it to the sea, leaving valuable nutrients behind, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, that allow the dunes to thrive. Even the eggshells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients. This is called nutrient cycling. “Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems helps to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion.” But as sea turtles decline, nests decline, and the beaches start eroding.

Additionally, sea turtle eggs, shells, and even hatchlings provide food for other species, which then redistribute the nutrients through their feces. Those nutrients also feed the vegetation that provides stabilization to the dunes.

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Baptiste RIFFARD on Unsplash

Coral Reef Development

Hawksbill Sea Turtles, which eat a lot of sea sponges, help protect the coral reefs. “Sponges compete aggressively for space with reef-building corals. By removing sponges from reefs, hawksbills allow other species, such as coral, to colonize and grow.” Without sea turtles, sponges could start to dominate reef communities and limit the growth of corals, and altering the entire coral ecosystem.

“These amazing creatures are endangered by human interactions, both intentional and unintentional: fishing lines, nets, boat hulls, propellers, and plastic debris, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish and ingest.” -Joel Sartore

Sea turtle entangled in abandoned fishing netting.
Entangled green sea turtle. Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

What You Can Do

There are so many things you can do to help protect sea turtles! Here’s a quick list, but you can check out my article “Sea Turtles are Endangered” for detailed information.

      • Avoid plastic bags. This is a big one because turtles, especially leatherbacks, mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish, and ingesting bags kills them.
      • Stop using disposable plastic straws; decline them at restaurants. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.
      • Keep beaches clean. Litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.
      • Turn off the lights.
      • Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen.
      • Buy sustainable seafood.
      • Do your part to slow climate change.
      • Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.
      • Don’t buy products made from real turtle shells.
      • Make turtle cookies. I know that sounds funny, but if you have children, cookies are a great conversation starter. Even coworkers would give you a few minutes of listening while enjoying them.
      • Educate others. Try the cookie trick.
      • Stop releasing helium balloons.
      • Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible.
Plastic bag floating in ocean, looking similar to a jellyfish.
Photo by MichaelisScientists on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Adopt-A-Turtle!

There are numerous programs that offer sea turtle nest “adoption” for donation. You can do a quick internet search to find one. I adopt a loggerhead sea turtle nest annually through the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. For my donation, I receive a certificate, a car sticker, and regular email updates about the general nesting season, and information about the specific nest I’ve sponsored. The funds support their educational programs “which inspire people to care for the Lowcountry and all the plants, animals, and people who call this place home.”

Taped off with sign posted, Loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach.
A loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach on Hilton Head Island, May 2021. Photo by me

I hope this information was helpful, and thanks for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Species of the World,”

Article, “World Sea Turtle Day: 10 Things you Never Knew About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund UK, June 16, 2018. This is a quick read and is a great way to introduce the topic to children.

Article, “Drone footage shows 64,000 green turtles migrating to Cairns rookery,” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 10, 2020. The article shows a migration map for Green Sea Turtles.

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Threats to Sea Turtles,”

Footnotes: