The marine amusement park industry is thriving on the eastern side of the world, due to economic growth and an expanding middle class stimulating the entertainment industry. This means cetacean captivity has also increased in countries such as Russia, China, and Japan. As I mentioned in a previous article, wild captures of orcas have been outlawed or restricted in many parts of the world. However, the growth in marine amusement parks coupled with an absence of restrictions has led to a renewed increased in wild cetacean captures. It has also, unfortunately, prompted the creation of breeding programs in the eastern world, just when the western side is finally addressing the end of such practices.
“I foresee SeaWorld expanding overseas, where it would no longer be beholden to pressure from US legislators and public opinion. The premise of the company – to make money off the façade of conservation – has not changed from the 1960s and 1970s. And, if Americans learn to see through the terminology – ‘conservation through education’; ‘raising awareness for the species’; ‘in the care of man’ – then there will be fresh audiences overseas who may still buy into the mythology.” -John Hargrove, former SeaWorld senior trainer1
The Potential For Endangering Populations
Russian fishermen can catch belugas and orcas with a permit for ‘science and education’ under an allowable quota. But some believe that Russian orcas, which can sell for millions of dollars, are caught illegally and exported to China.2According to the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), in 2012, an industry for captive marine mammals started up in the Russian Okhotsk Sea. Since then, whale hunters have caught and sold at least 29 orcas to four marine facilities in China and Russia.3
Orcas in those areas are transients and are thought to have smaller populations than resident killer whales. This renewed whale hunting could quickly move these animals toward extinction in the wild.4 But it is unknown exactly how many transient orcas reside in the Okhotsk Sea, so it is impossible to measure the potential long-term effect of these captures.5
“China’s marine park industry got started only about ten years ago…whereas people in the West have been familiar with marine entertainment for decades.”6
In China alone in the last five years, about 30 new marine amusement parks and dolphinariums have opened. This brings the country’s total to over 80 parks. There are plans to open approximately another 25 parks. The China Cetacean Alliance estimates that combined, these facilities have at least 1,000 cetaceans in captivity,7 and most were wild captures imported primarily from Japan and Russia.8 China also has no federal animal welfare laws.
“China appears to be immune to the ‘Blackfish effect,’ the term often used to describe the public’s response to the film…Chimelong [Ocean Kingdom] has paved the way for more orca breeding in China.”9
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in China
This park opened in 2014 and is often referred to as the world’s largest aquarium. It is part of a larger tourist resort that mimics Orlando, Florida. They currently hold at least 9 captive orcas, but they may have additional whales that are not publicly displayed. The park began a breeding program in 2017, a year after SeaWorld announced they would end their captive orca breeding program.10 This park attracted more than 10 million visitors in 2018, so the business is thriving.
Moskvarium, Moscow, Russia
This facility opened in 2015 and has three captive killer whales performing in daily shows. When it was under construction, Erich Hoyt of FEROP said that it appeared that they were “enamored with the SeaWorld approach so I would expect loud music, the usual jumping through hoops and other circus-type routines,” as well as a breeding program like SeaWorld’s.11 If you look at videos online from people who’ve attended, it is exactly what Hoyt described.
Their website also shows that their focus is on entertainment, with learning as an afterthought: “Here you can spend all day: take a walk around the Aquarium, see a fantastic water show, have a bite at one of the many cafes and restaurants. Besides, it is not only a good place to entertain yourself, but also to gain some knowledge and experience in scientific work with unique opportunities to study marine biodiversity.”12
“Marine parks and shows make great attractions. Enamored and awed by the creatures, most people fail to realize the animals’ plight. In the news, training facilities are portrayed as caring institutions, marine mammals as happy, and their arrivals as celebratory events.”13
In 2018, the infamous Russian “whale jail” made worldwide headlines. Whale hunters illegally captured around 11 orcas and 87 belugas and held them in a series of small cells in Sreadnyaya Bay near Vladivostok. Fortunately, by 2020, the captors eventually released most of these animals but only after intense activism, investigations, and legal proceedings.14 But there are marine amusement parks in Russia, Japan, and China that are still seeking orca and beluga stock. This is what perpetuates these captures and places a high monetary value on their lives.
If you want additional information about captive orcas worldwide, Inherently Wild maintains a page on its website listing all known captured orca.15
How do we stop this practice worldwide? Is it through education, legislation, or activism? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it took a combination of the three in the United States just to get minimal improvements on marine mammal captivity. But we still aren’t anywhere near where we need to be. My hope is that people worldwide will continue to learn about and value the natural world. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
Report, “Orcas in captivity,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, updated August 8, 2019.
Article, “Time running out for orcas, belugas trapped in icy ‘whale jail’,” National Geographic, April 8, 2019.
Video, “Inside China’s booming ocean theme parks,” China Dialogue Ocean, February 19, 2021.
Article, “Orcas don’t do well in captivity. Here’s why.” National Geographic, March 25, 2019.
In my last article, I explained how mother and calf separations are one of the greatest examples of why captivity is wrong for orcas. Today I want to look at their captive environments.
When visiting aquariums or zoos, we passively observe their habitats. For example, the sharks and sea turtles at the Tennessee Aquarium live in a tank that appears to mimic a natural environment: saltwater, a variety of other species and lifeforms, plants, coral, rocks, etc. At the Georgia Aquarium, shown below, whale sharks (which are sharks, not whales) live in a similar environment. At zoos, animals typically reside in an area that at least attempts to recreate the habitat native to the animal. Even if they’re too small, these exhibits include other animals, grass, trees, plant life, rocks, and water.
The environments of captive orcas at marine theme parks don’t even try to replicate what orcas experience in the wild. None of the interesting things found in a vast ocean exist in the tanks, as they are barren with concrete walls. There is no plant life and there are no other species. The tanks are too small and the water isn’t even saltwater. There is nothing for them to echolocate on, and nothing for them to examine up close except for the humans that walk by the underwater viewing windows.
“The tanks speak for themselves.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose1
Captive environments alter the regular behaviors of many marine mammals. In the wild, they travel large distances in search of food. But in captivity, the animals eat and live in constricted spaces, so they lose natural feeding and foraging patterns. Worse, “stress-related conditions such as ulcers, stereotypical behaviors such as pacing and self-mutilation, and abnormal aggression within groups frequently develop in predators denied the opportunity to hunt.” Other natural behaviors altered in captivity include pod dominance, mating, and maternal care, which have negative impacts on the animals. “In most cases, these behaviors are strictly controlled by the needs of the facility and the availability of space. The needs of the animals are considered secondary.”2
Simply looking at an orca tank, one can see that it’s far too small and shallow for such a large animal. They are unable to get enough daily physical activity. In the wild, orcas swim up to 100 miles per day, but they cannot swim anything close to that in the pools. Orcas typically dive hundreds of feet deep and the deepest pools at SeaWorld and other marine parks are about 40 feet. “Even in the largest facilities, a cetacean’s room to move is decreased enormously, allowing the animal access to less than one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of its normal habitat size,” wrote Dr. Naomi A. Rose.3
In 1992, noted whale and dolphin researcher Erich Hoyt wrote about the small sizes of their tanks. “It is ironic when some of these establishments are surrounded by acres and acres of space in theme parks which include large areas devoted to boating, joy rides, and so forth.” Hoyt acknowledges that no pool can approach the size of space orcas use in the wild, the ocean. This is why so many marine biologists question keeping orcas in any size pool.4 The size of the tanks also impairs their ability to use echolocation.
Further, in the wild, orca pods have miles of space between them and other pods to avoid conflict. In captivity, there’s nowhere for the whales to go if they don’t fit in with their assigned pods (unlikely to be family members). “The stress of social disruption is compounded by the fact that orcas in captivity don’t have the ability to escape conflict with other orcas, or to engage in natural swimming behaviors in pools,” National Geographic noted.5
“The pools of SeaWorld are gigantic – if you are a human being.” -John Hargrove
“No facility can simulate the vast reaches of the ocean that these animals traverse when they migrate, or can include in the enclosure oceanic flora and fauna. In short, in physical terms, the captive environment of these animals is profoundly limited and impoverished.”6
Climate and Sun Exposure
Most wild killer whales reside in much cooler climates than those of many of the marine parks. The three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas, and California, the Miami Seaquarium, Loro Parque, and Marineland of Antibes in southern France are all in hot, sunny places. Only SeaWorld San Antonio and Loro Parque feature a partially covered and shaded orca area, as you’ll see in the images below:
Captive orcas spend hours resting at the surface of the water and spend a good deal of time jumping out of the water and up onto platforms. In nature, diving helps orca get out of the sun, and the depths of the water shade their skin from UV rays. Trainers use black zinc oxide on their skin, both to protect their skin and to cover up sunburns from public view. Jeffrey Ventre, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, told The Dodo that “zinc oxide is a way to paint over burns — like a mechanical coat — usually on [the] dorsal surface of the animal. It’s also for aesthetic reasons, to hide blistering peeling skin.”7 SeaWorld denies the latter part, but even if this were not true, these whales are exposed to far more sunlight at marine parks than in the wild.
“In any design of a dolphinarium or aquarium, satisfying the needs of the visiting public and the facility’s budget comes before meeting the needs of the animals. If every measure were taken to create comfortable, safe, and appropriate conditions, then the size, depth, shape, surroundings, props, colors, and textures of concrete enclosures would be different from those seen now.”8
The chlorinated water is nothing like the composition of the sea. Live plants and fish species cannot live in chlorinated water, one reason the tanks are devoid of other life. Chlorine can also cause skin, eye, and respiratory complications for marine mammals. According to former senior trainer John Hargrove, SeaWorld treats the water with two other caustic substances, both of which can cause skin, tissue, and eye irritations. One is ozone, which controls bacteria that can contaminate the pools. The other is aluminum sulfate, which is very acidic and helps keep the water visibly clear.
Despite the chemical treatments of the water, a common cause of illness and death in marine mammals are bacterial and viral infections. According to the Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity, “US federal regulations do not require monitoring of water quality for any potential bacterial or viral pathogens (or other possible sources of disease), other than general “coliforms” (rod-shaped bacteria such as E. coli normally present in the digestive system of most mammals).”9 Therefore, we just have to hope that marine parks regularly check the water quality.
“Humans cannot replicate the ocean…It is a paradoxical empire: the chemically processed water in the pools is purer than that of the ocean, but it is not anywhere near what is natural for the whales; the orcas cavort for the crowds but they do not get enough physical exercise because there is not enough room to allow them to swim normally.” -John Hargrove10
Hearing is essential to orcas, as their primary sensory system is auditory. It is a highly-developed system that includes its ability to echolocate. Unfortunately, they cannot use echolocation the same way they do in the ocean. The sounds bounce off of the walls of the barren pools reflecting nothing.
Additionally, there is often a lot of noise at marine amusement parks from fireworks displays, musical events, and roller coasters. These unnatural loud sounds disturb marine mammals daily, if not several times per day.11
“The acoustic properties of concrete tanks are problematic for species that rely predominantly on sound and hearing to perceive and navigate through their underwater surroundings. Persistent noise from water pumps and filtration machinery, if not dampened sufficiently, and any activity nearby that transmits vibrations through a tank’s walls, such as construction or traffic, can increase stress and harm the welfare of these acoustically sensitive species.”12
Illnesses from Mosquitos
Two captive orcas died from mosquito-borne illnesses, one at SeaWorld Orlando and the other at SeaWorld San Antonio.13 This is extremely unlikely to happen in the wild since cetaceans are below the water most of the time. According to an article in the Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology: “Unlike their wild counterparts who are rarely stationary, captive orcas typically spend hours each day (mostly at night) floating motionless (logging) during which time biting mosquitoes access their exposed dorsal surfaces. Mosquitoes are attracted to exhaled carbon dioxide, heat and dark surfaces, all of which are present during logging behavior. Further, captive orcas are often housed in geographic locations receiving high ultraviolet radiation, which acts as an immunosuppressant. Unfortunately, many of these facilities offer the animals little shade protection.”14
Other Captive Ailments
Captive marine mammals suffer from a range of eye and dental problems that are unique to captivity. Many captive orcas experience dorsal fin collapse. This is likely caused by gravity from their fins being out of the water much more than in the wild. Overexposure to sunlight, stress and dietary changes contribute to these ailments as well.
The obvious conclusion is that humans should not keep captive orcas. We should not force them to live in large swimming pools for their entire lives. Nor should they be performing for humans for entertainment, as if it were the circus. Orcas and other marine mammals should be viewed in the ocean, either from boats, the Whale Trail,15 or a sanctuary. In my next post, I will show you some of the orcas currently living in captivity. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!
Article, “Tanked: Killer Whales in Captivity,” Hakai Magazine, May 12, 2015.
Article, “Why killer whales should not be kept in captivity,” BBC Earth, March 10, 2016.
Website, Voice of the Orcas, accessed January 21, 2021.
Article, “Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” NPR, March 23, 2015.
As I mentioned in my first article in this series, I grew up loving animals and held a deep respect for zoos and aquariums. My parents took me to our local zoo often as a child. I loved seeing and learning about the vast array of species on our planet. They also took me to Disney World and several other parks in Orlando, but we never made it to SeaWorld. I’ve always wanted to go, and when I became a mother, I mentally added it to the list of places I’d like to take my son. I thought it would be truly awesome to experience.
But marine and ocean-themed amusement parks are often different from zoos and aquariums in that they do not provide anything close to a species’ habitat or natural environment. Established for entertainment purposes first and foremost, they are more amusement parks than aquariums. After learning all that I’ve learned this year, I simply cannot support SeaWorld and similar parks across the world. The lives they live in captivity are analogous to the circus, and I have never supported circuses.
I am choosing to not buy a ticket.
I want to share the resources with you that led me to this decision. But first, let me address SeaWorld and marine parks in general.
“Marine parks differ from zoos in that the animals – whales, dolphins and seals – are performers. This, say critics, puts them squarely in the circus tradition.”-Erich Hoyt1
SeaWorld as the Representative
Though a very successful business, SeaWorld has always had controversial beliefs and practices. Thad Lacinak, Vice President and Corporate Curator of Animal Training of SeaWorld Orlando from 1973-2008, said in 1989: “You get the so-called environmentalists who say they don’t think the whales like it here, but what proof do they have? Everything we see indicates to me that they don’t sit out in the pool thinking about being out in the ocean– because of the way that they seem to enjoy what we do.”2 I’m not convinced that orcas swimming in a pool with concrete walls and no other species, plant life, or ocean activity taking place is all that interesting compared to the open ocean. But the lack of empathy in that statement is what is most bothersome.
While the issues of captivity occur in all marine parks holding captive marine mammals, SeaWorld is the epitome. The documentary, A Fall from Freedom, called SeaWorld the “largest, wealthiest, and most politically powerful of all marine parks.”
After watching Blackfish, I was intrigued not only by the controversy of captivity but also by the relationships trainers developed with orcas. This film, the most well-known documentary about this subject, told of the dozens of killer whale incidents at SeaWorld, including several deaths. The producers interviewed many former SeaWorld trainers and all shared similar stories. Management routinely omitted information about incidents and provided misinformation about orcas. The work environment elicited a consistent fear of being transferred away from orca work or being let go altogether. The film interviewed marine biologists who have studied wild orcas and found SeaWorld’s “educational” materials offensively inaccurate.
The film highlighted that orcas in captivity behave differently than wild orcas because captivity is traumatizing to them. It brought the issue of keeping them in captivity into the public’s view. This argument had been going on for years between different agencies, scientists, and marine biologists. “Outrage over the film metastasized quickly into calls to prohibit keeping killer whales in captivity,” wrote Michael J. de la Merced in the New York Times.3 The debate continues today but the changes are happening, albeit slowly.
The Killer in the Pool
An article entitled “The Killer in the Pool” written by Tim Zimmerman inspired director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite to begin researching Tilikum’s story. The article, written shortly after Dawn Brancheau’s death, detailed the history of orca capture and captivity, as well as marine park practices, trainer injuries, and deaths.4 Cowperthwaite said, “For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees and unhappy animals – a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image. But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.”5 She’s also said in an interview featured in the film Long Gone Wild that she used to take her kids to SeaWorld and now will never buy a ticket again and hopes others will not either.
“If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them. Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.” -Paul Spong, the founder of OrcaLab
John Hargrove, SeaWorld “Whistleblower”
Blackfish led me to John Hargrove’s book, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. Hargrove was a senior trainer at SeaWorld and spent 14 years of his life working in the industry. He left the company and became a “whistleblower” and provided even more insight into the practices of SeaWorld. I could hardly put this book down at times, it was so well-written and read almost like a novel.
Hargrove loved orcas from childhood and dreamed of being a trainer someday. While that dream came true and it was thrilling to work with the whales, it was also heartbreaking for him. He left because he was no longer able to go along with SeaWorld’s policies that he considered poor. These surrounded breeding practices, the separations of calves and mothers, and the mistreatment of trainers and animals alike. He loved the whales and had strong bonds with them, especially one named Takara. But he knew that “love alone was not going to save them.” He dedicated his book to all the orcas he swam and built relationships with for many years. “You gave me everything,” he wrote. “But most especially to Takara, who taught me so much and whom I loved the most.”
“It would make my life so much easier if I could say that those animals are thriving in captivity, living happy and enriched lives. Unfortunately, after all the years of experience that I had, I saw the psychological and physical trauma that results from captivity. A massive corporate entity is exploiting the hell out of the whales and the trainers.” -John Hargrove6
David Kirby’s book
Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby was published the same month that Blackfish first aired. Though difficult to read at times, the book was very well researched and well cited. Regardless, I learned a lot from his research. Throughout the book, Kirby followed the life and experience of marine biologist and animal advocate, Dr. Naomi Rose. It introduced many people taking part in this debate including former trainers, eyewitnesses of marine park incidents, animal rights activists, and marine mammal biologists. This book went beyond SeaWorld’s problems and examined the problem of cetacean (whales and dolphins) captivity. It covered the multiple accidents and deaths in marine parks, the OSHA cases against SeaWorld, the media backlash against SeaWorld from Blackfish, and other orca studies across the world. I recommend this book to those who really want to delve into the details of these topics.
Long Gone Wild
This film, released in 2019, focused on the continued plight of captive orcas, picking up where Blackfish left off. The film covered the case against captivity as orcas continue to live in barren concrete tanks. It explained the effects of Blackfish on SeaWorld, as the park took a major hit on attendance and profit. It appealed to its audience to stop supporting SeaWorld – “Don’t buy a ticket.”
The documentary went into depth about the plight of captive marine mammals in Russia and China, triggered by the growth in ocean-themed parks in those regions. It also presented the proposed Whale Sanctuary Project, a seaside sanctuary for retired orcas that would provide a safe, permanent home in their natural habitat.7 There are sanctuaries for elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, and other land mammals, but none for marine mammals in the entire world. I’ll write a post in the near future about the project.
Many orca experts were in the film as well as renowned authors such as David Kirby (mentioned above) and David Neiwert (Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us). It explained the monetary value of the whales and how it has increased over time. Between 1966-1970, dozens of orcas were captured around Puget Sound, Washington, and sold for $30,000 – $50,000 each, some to SeaWorld. In 1976, people captured nine orcas from the seas around Iceland and sold them for $150,000-$300,000 each. Today, the wildlife trade values each orca between $2 million and $7 million dollars.
By the 1980s, wild orca captures had become controversial, especially in Western cultures. SeaWorld realized it would need to rely on breeding in order to have additional orcas for its parks. In 1985, Katina was born, becoming the first “Baby Shamu” for marketing purposes. It was effective. By 1989, SeaWorld had become a billion-dollar corporation.
SeaWorld did not respond to requests for interviews for this film.
The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity
I found this publication8 from the Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection, authored by Dr. Naomi A. Rose and Dr. E.C.M. Parsons. This is by far the best report on this subject that I’ve found and at times difficult to stop reading. It is extremely well researched, organized, and written. It addresses the history of the public display industry and marine parks, the capture of cetaceans, conservation issues, animal environment, veterinary care, mortality and birth rates, ethics, swim with dolphins attractions, and the legacy of the film Blackfish. I highly recommend this if you are researching this topic, or even if you are just interested.
“The only hope of winning this war is for the public to stop buying tickets.” -Ric O’Barry, Founder and Director of The Dolphin Project
My intention for this post is to make you think about the issue of captivity. Reconsider buying tickets to these parks. I’m going to save my money. Someday I’ll take my son whale watching to witness these beautiful creatures free in their own environment. In my next post, I want to explore the issues in detail. I’ll be using research from the sources I’ve listed in this article and many more. Thanks for reading!
A Fall from Freedom from the Discovery Channel was a good film with some dated filmography and interviews. However, I learned more about killer whales, the captive industry, and the people who study them. This film helped me put faces with names that I’d read about in David Kirby’s book.
The Cove, an Academy Award-winning film that heightened public awareness of the global problems surrounding dolphin captivity. From the Oceanic Preservation Society: “A team of activists, filmmakers, and freedivers embark on a covert mission to expose a deadly secret hidden in a remote cove in Taiji, Japan. By utilizing state-of-the-art techniques, they uncover a horrible annual tradition of unparalleled cruelty. A provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure, and arresting imagery make this an unforgettable and courageous story that inspires outrage and action.” I appreciate this film and think it offers valuable insight. But it was difficult to watch at times due to the graphic nature of the content. The team of people was amazing. They risked their lives to capture the footage and expose the mass murders of dolphins.
Report, The Performing Orca – Why The Show Must Stop: An in-depth review of the captive orca industry, by Erich Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, January 1, 1992. This is an older publication, but many of the issues are still as relevant today.