The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, SeaWorld Then

Animal trainer riding an orca at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. Animal trainer riding an orca at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1973 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93877>, accessed 6 May 2021.

“SeaWorld didn’t become a $2.5 billion company because of sequins and choreography. It was built on the backs of captive killer whales.” -John Hargrove1

SeaWorld Then

The first SeaWorld opened in 1964 in San Diego. SeaWorld Ohio followed in 1970 but closed in 2000. The Orlando park opened in 1973, and the San Antonio location in 1988. SeaWorld also has numerous affiliations with other parks, including Loro Parque in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

“SeaWorld was strictly created as entertainment. We didn’t try to wear this false facade of educational significance.” -George Millay, the founder of SeaWorld, 1989

Orca performing at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. Orca performing at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1973 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93815>, accessed 6 May 2021.

Shamu family name

Namu was the first performing orca at the Seattle Marine Aquarium. SeaWorld purchased an orca from the owner, Ted Griffin, and also purchased the rights to the name “Shamu,” a combination of “she” and “Namu.” Shamu became the first SeaWorld orca. SeaWorld used the names Shamu and Baby Shamu for marketing purposes and even took out copyrights and trademarks on those names. For decades, people thought that the orcas were the same few that SeaWorld began with in the late 1960s. This left the impression that “Shamu never dies,” as Erich Hoyt wrote. Other marine parks have used similar marketing techniques.

But the original Shamu had experienced the harpooning and death of her mother during their captures. Shamu bit three people during her captivity, sending at least one person to the hospital. The orca died four months after that incident in 1971 of septicemia at age nine.3 SeaWorld veterinarians had put her on progesterone to increase her fertility so that they could breed her. But instead, she contracted pyometra, a condition that causes serious infections in the uterus. “In the wild, her grandmother lived to be a hundred.”4 Despite her sad story, Shamu became the brand.

My parents visited SeaWorld Orlando between 1973 and 1976 and saw ‘Shamu’ perform, but it was actually Ramu. They took these photos:

Ramu the orca performing at SeaWorld Orlando

Trainer riding Ramu the orca at SeaWorld Orlando

Ramu the orca flipping over the water at SeaWorld Orlando

Circumventing capture laws

In the 1970s, after the implementation of import laws and bans on whale and orca captures, marine parks began ‘transferring’ orcas from park to park to circumvent those laws. SeaWorld imported orcas on ‘breeding loans’ where no payment was involved, and they didn’t necessarily return the orcas. “According to researcher Ron Kastelein at Dolfinarium Harderwijk, ‘breeding loan’ is simply industry jargon which means that the first calf becomes the property of the acquiring institution and the second calf goes to the institution that provided the breeding-age male or female. Technically, the breeding animal remains the property of the first company.”

Other times, marine parks relocated orcas multiple times until their origin was no longer able to be determined because documentation was ‘incomplete.’ Or, SeaWorld paid marine parks in other countries to acquire orcas, and then ‘transfer’ them a few months or even years later. This is often referred to as ‘warehousing’ and has been going since the late 1970s. “While orca care in captivity has improved measurably in the recent past, the industry still regularly engages in appalling practices like ‘whale laundering’ or warehousing orcas captured overseas (orcas are not legally available in U.S. waters) at a windowless backroom tank in another nation until sufficient times passes for it to be imported to a U.S. facility as a transfer, all so the American company doesn’t have to obtain a U.S. capture permit.”6

View showing an Orca whale leaping out of the water during a show at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
View showing an Orca whale leaping out of the water during a show at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1976. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93860>, accessed 6 May 2021.

Captive Breeding vs. Conservation

The captive breeding programs at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks were a direct result of bans on captures and the implementation of import laws. The parks had to find other ways to restock their orcas. However, this was the only purpose for captive breeding.

In 2015 Joel Manby, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Sea World, said in a statement: “Depriving these social animals of the natural and fundamental right to reproduce is inhumane and we do not support this condition.”But this was not simply by allowing orcas to mate. SeaWorld trainers artificially inseminate female orcas with the sperm from males also in captivity. SeaWorld’s breeding practices have been called inhumane and questionable by scientists and animal rights groups for decades.

In 2013, it was revealed that Tilikum was the father or grandfather of more than half of SeaWorld’s captive-born orcas. “Tilikum’s value to SeaWorld extends well beyond the raw market; he is, in fact, the cornerstone of the company’s captive-breeding program,” as David Neiwert wrote in 2015.9 Tilikum passed away in 2017 but it is believed that SeaWorld retained multiple samples of his frozen sperm to continue the practice.

“Rather than for conservation, captive cetaceans are bred merely to provide replacement animals for public display—an ongoing need given the high rate of mortality in captivity.”

Orcas in captivity have a high infant mortality rate. Since 1980, three orcas died within 3 months of birth, and there have been 14 stillbirths and miscarriages. Those are just the documented ones. One sad example is Corky II at SeaWorld San Diego. She “had at least seven unsuccessful pregnancies before she achieved menopause and stopped cycling.”

Baby orca Makani with an adult orca, perhaps his mother Kasatka and SeaWorld San Diego.
Kasatka and Makani. Photo by lolilujah on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Makani’s mother, Kasatka, was an Icelandic orca, her father was the captive Argentinian orca Kshamenk from Mundo Marino. This is a prime example of the interbreeding of orca ecospecies through artificial insemination at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks.

Mother-Calf Separations

These factors lead to high levels of infant mortality.

“Captive breeding – often cited as a key reason for keeping animals in captivity – is an important part of conservation for some species and there have been notable successes at some zoos…But just keeping an animal in captivity is hardly conservation. In the artificial conditions of a zoo or marine park, an animal cannot continue its evolutionary path. The true measure of success is returning the animal to the wild.”

“Education”

Many have already documented the lack of education in SeaWorld’s programming and educational materials. SeaWorld trained employees with inaccurate information about lifespan, diet, and environment that they relayed to the public. The company coached employees to circumvent tough questions from inquisitive visitors. They trained them to use semantics to defuse arguments against captivity. For example, orcas exhibit ‘behaviors’ instead of ‘tricks’. “SeaWorld orcas do not live in ‘cages’ or ‘tanks’ in ‘captivity’ and were never ‘captured’ from the ‘wild’; instead, they live in an ‘enclosure’ in a ‘controlled environment’, having been ‘acquired’ from the ‘natural environment.'”

Dawn Brancheau being pushed out of the water on an orca's rostrum.
Dawn Brancheau, October 9, 2006, photo by Ed Schipul on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Incidents

There were many incidents over the decades at SeaWorld. In 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), whose role is to protect employees, investigated SeaWorld after an incident involving a trainer named Ken Peters. He was taken more than 30 feet down by an orca, suffering injuries and almost drowning. OSHA concluded in 2006 that “‘swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen.’ This of course turned out to be prophetic, as two trainers were killed by orcas within four years of the state agency issuing this statement.”

But that incident did not come out publicly until after Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010, during another OSHA investigation. The footage of the Ken Peters incident was shown at trial in full and leaked to the press (and you can find it online today).

Death

Since the advent of using captive orca for performance, there have been countless trainer injuries and several deaths. In December 2009, an orca named Keto killed Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque. Just a few months later, in February 2010, Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau. Even more shocking, she was the third person known to have been killed by Tilikum during his captive history. SeaWorld blamed Brancheau for her own death, not once, or even twice – but multiple times. They have since gone back on those statements. But blaming the victim is reprehensible.

After Brancheau’s death, OSHA again investigated and “cited SeaWorld for subjecting employees to a workplace that contained “recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or physical harm to employees” and they were fined the maximum. The long-term result of their unfortunate deaths was that OSHA banned “waterwork,” meaning that trainers can no longer perform in the water or swim with the whales. This was a massive change in the attraction’s main stage. You can learn more about the incident and the OSHA cases in the resources I’ve listed below.

As for the orcas, about 40 have died in SeaWorld parks alone. They could have prevented many of these.

The Blackfish Effect

Businesses like Southwest Airlines and top musicians severed ties to SeaWorld after Blackfish and David Kirby’s book both came out in 2013. Former senior trainer John Hargrove published his book shortly thereafter. The exposure created controversy over the issue of marine mammal captivity that has lasted almost a decade and is sometimes referred to as The Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld’s annual attendance decreased and their shares fell, and it seems that they have never fully recovered.

Orca jumping out of the water, performing in front of a crowd, SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego, photo by Andrew Van Pernis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

SeaWorld Now

In 1992, Erich Hoyt wrote: “SeaWorld has borrowed liberally from the wild to fashion its corporate image and to make its millions. Will it one day return something important by restoring an endangered cetacean to its natural habitat?”

While SeaWorld initially resisted the changing views of the public, they have begun embracing those new perspectives. In Part 2, I’ll explain SeaWorld’s changes over the last decade and explore what they are doing today. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, book cover

Book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 2012.

 

 

 

 

Book cover

Book, “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish,” by John Hargrove, St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

 

 

 

 

Film cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Orcas and Men book cover

Book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.

 

 

 

 

Article, “Fate of Orcas in Captivity,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, accessed May 18, 2021.

Article, “Kavanaugh Sided with Seaworld in ‘Blackfish’ Case,” by Wes Siler, Outside Online, September 27, 2018. Brett Kavanaugh dissented in the OSHA case against SeaWorld.

Page, “Ramu’s Gallery,” Inherently Wild, accessed May 12, 2021.

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

Article, “Blood in the Water,” by Tim Zimmermann, Outside Online, July 15, 2011.

Footnotes: