The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Family Destruction

Last updated June 16, 2021.

Baby orca and mother at Marineland Antibes
“Baby Orca 3” at Marineland Antibes, image by marcovdz on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” -Mahatma Gandhi

In my last article about the plight of captive orcas, I presented some of the books and films I’ve seen and read in recent months about this subject. After all that I’ve learned, I can definitively say that orcas should not be held in captivity. As I was researching I was disappointed to discover that marine parks are not caring for them the way they should be. While there are many issues, I wanted to address the ones that illustrate the strongest arguments against captivity. Today, we will look at mother and calf separations.

Orca family in open ocean
Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash

Orca Pods are Families

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Separating Mothers and Calves

“In many orca populations, males spend their entire lives with their mothers, and in some populations, family ties are so persistent and well defined that all family members are usually within a 4 km (2.5 mile) radius of each other at all times.” -The Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity

Grief is Mammalian

she carried the carcass of her dead calf around for more than two weeks. Many cetaceans have exhibited grief but this case caught international attention. Some speculate as to why this mother grieved for so long, but I ask, what mother doesn’t grieve the loss of a child? Regarding the separation of mothers and calves in captivity, Dr. Naomi A. Rose said:

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.”

Katina and her calf at SeaWorld Orlando
“Katina and her calf” at SeaWorld Orlando, image by Bryce Bradford on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

SeaWorld Separations

1990, Kalina, SeaWorld’s first “Baby Shamu,” was separated from her mother (Katina) at age 4. SeaWorld later separated Kalina’s own calf Skyla, at age 2 or 3, sending her to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Some of the other orca calves separated from their mothers include:

        • Katerina, age 2
        • Keto, under age 4 years
        • Keet, 20 months old (still nursing)
        • Splash, 2.5 years old
        • Ikaika, age 4
        • Kohana, age 3
        • Trua, age 4
Takara at SeaWorld San Antonio
“Takara” at SeaWorld San Antonio, image by jordantea on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0). In 2004, SeaWorld moved twelve-year-old Takara (which was Kasatka’s firstborn calf) to another park. In 2006, they separated Takara’s own firstborn calf, Kohana, from her mother at age 3 and sent her to Loro Parque.
Trua at SeaWorld Orlando
“Trua” at SeaWorld Orlando, image by BrandyKregel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0). He is Takara’s second calf, separated from his mother in 2009 when they moved Takara to SeaWorld San Antonio. Trua remains at SeaWorld Orlando.

SeaWorld’s Justifications

Both the capture and importation of wild whales is illegal in most parts of the West. So SeaWorld had to breed orcas in order to keep their pools stocked. In order to maximize profits and breeding efficiency, they must move animals around between their parks. Additionally, baby orcas are a huge draw to the parks, increasing attendance and profits. SeaWorld became a multi-billion dollar company largely credited to its orca shows.

SeaWorld claims they are not separating calves from mothers by changing the semantics. “What they’ve tried to do is redefine the word “calf” by saying a calf is no longer a calf once they’re not nursing with their mother anymore, and that’s simply not true,” said John Hargrove. “A calf is always a calf.”[Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” Fresh Air, NPR, March 23, 2015. David Neiwert noted in Of Orcas and Men that SeaWorld “separates mothers from their offspring in a manner that is completely unnatural, with relative ease and no apparent pangs of conscience whatsoever.”6 Remember, many calves live with or near their mother for life.

When NPR asked Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s curator of zoological operations, about the separations, he responded:

“We’ve never moved a calf from a mom…A calf is an animal young enough who is still dependent on the mom, still nursing with the mom, and still requires the mom’s leadership…You can’t put it in human years; you’ve got to put it in killer whale years. We think they’re probably dependent [at] 4 to 5 years. After that, they start to gain their independence.”

So what about the relocations of the calves younger than age 4 or 5? I have been unable to find any information about that from SeaWorld’s website. All the marine biological studies contradict separation. Tompkins also mentioned that they prepare the whales for the separations and that they’ve “trained them to be relaxed during that move.” What does that even mean? How do you prepare a mother to never see her child again?

Calf Rejections

Sumar and Kasatka at SeaWorld San Diego
“Sumar & Kasatka” at SeaWorld San Diego, image by Bryce Bradford on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Trainers Experience these Heartbreaks Firsthand

“Unable to sense her daughter’s presence in any of the adjoining pools, Kasatka was sending sounds far into the world, as far as she could, to see if they would bounce back or elicit a response. It was heartbreaking for all who heard what easily be interpreted as crying.” -John Hargove, after Kasatka’s daughter was moved to another park

Orcas at SeaWorld
SeaWorld Orlando, image by Morten Graae from Pixabay

End of Captive Breeding?

SeaWorld claims to have ended its captive orca breeding program, “making the orcas in our care the last generation,” according to their website. In California, state legislation forced SeaWorld to do this before the company decided to do it on its own. Even so, it is a step in the right direction if all of its parks follow suit. If they have truly ended their breeding program, will they still separate and move orcas between parks? Could SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks keep mothers and calves together? The short answer is yes, but as you’ll see in my next post, a swimming pool is no place for an orca to spend its entire life.

Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

Article, “Op-Ed: SeaWorld was right to stop breeding orcas, but it should go further,” LA Times, February 23, 2017.

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Truths Revealed

Last updated on May 9, 2021.

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

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 San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego, photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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.”

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.”

Blackfish

Film cover

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

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.“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.”

“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”

Book coverBlackfish 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, book coverDeath 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

Long Gone Wild film poster 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. 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

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity cover

I found this publication 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

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

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!

 

Additional Resources:

Fall from Freedom film coverA 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 film cover

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.

The Performing Orca coverReport, 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.

 

 

 

Website, SeaWorld Fact Check

Website, Inherently Wild UK

Article, “The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the
well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca),” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 35, pages 69-82, January–February 2020.

Website, Orca Research Trust

Website, The Dolphin Project

Footnotes:

For the Love of Orcas

Last updated on June 13, 2021.

Orcas swimming with sunset
Photo by Bart van Meele on Unsplash

As far back as I can remember I’ve loved animals, and I’ve always felt the desire to protect them. I’ve never seen an orca in real life and I had always wanted to visit SeaWorld and had even hoped to take my son there one day. Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot about these amazing, majestic, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. But I also learned about the trials, dangers, and cruelty that come with having orcas in captivity. In this series, I’ll explain why I will now never be able to visit SeaWorld.

About Wild Orcas

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are perhaps the smartest species and have a higher emotional capacity than humans. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. There are several types of orcas and they are found in all of the world’s oceans, most abundantly in colder waters like in Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska. What they eat varies by location and pod preference. They live in matrilineal pods that travel between 50 and 100 miles per day. They have complex coordinated hunting techniques, showing a high level of communication. Mothers typically have one calf about every 5 years and calves, particularly males, will stay with their mothers for life. Orcas are apex predators, meaning that there are no animals that prey upon them.

Orcas have large brains and have challenged the belief that humans are the most intelligent species. These social animals have strong bonds with each other, organize for play and hunting, and communicate in ways beyond vocalizations that humans don’t understand. They use echolocation and rely on underwater sound to feed, communicate, and navigate. Even though their vocalizations sound the same to us, each orca pod possesses a unique set of culturally transmitted and learned calls.

“Social life for killer whales…is deeper and more omnipresent than it is for humans; their identities are defined by their families and tribal connections; and their empathy is powerful enough to extend to other species. If orcas have established empathy as a distinctive evolutionary advantage, it might behoove a human race awash in war and psychopathy to pay attention.” -David Neiwert1

There are many ecotypes of orca. The Southern Resident orca, which resides in the Pacific Ocean in areas ranging from central California to southeast Alaska, is critically endangered. There are only 74 individuals (three pods) in the wild as of October 2020. While they are protected, there are always threats stemming from food supply issues; pollution and contaminants in the ocean; global warming; and most importantly, human activities.

Orca pod in ocean
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Sound Pollution

Whales are extremely sensitive to sound as they can hear (and feel) much higher ranges than humans, so sound pollution from ships can significantly affect them. The NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, requests that people choose land-based whale watching because it decreases the number of boats on the water, which reduces underwater noise that can disturb killer whales. The Whale Trail2 includes many land-based observation sites where you can view and learn about over 30 marine mammals, and there are more than 100 shoreside sites in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.3 

One example of human activity and sound pollution comes from our own U.S. Navy, which “has been authorized for decades to conduct local testing and training, which includes firing torpedoes, detonating bombs and piloting drones.” Recently, NOAA Fisheries approved the U.S. Navy to continue military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters for an additional 7 years.4 I personally find it very confusing that they permit the Navy to cause such extreme sound pollution but ask that others reduce theirs.

Orca swimming in the ocean
Image by 272447 from Pixabay

“Orcas filter incoming sound through high-quality fat in their lower jaws, and this appears to give them abilities to distinguish sound and where it comes from in ways humans probably can’t visualize.”

Free Willy, starring Keiko

Though the Free Willy movies came out in the 1990s, I had never seen them. This year, since COVID-19 has kept us home, we’re obviously watching a few more movies than before. We watched three of them and even though these movies are a little dated and a little predictable, I enjoyed watching them with my son.

Afterward, I was curious if they were based on a true story, so I researched a little and found that while the movie was fictional, the starring whale, Keiko, had in fact lived in captivity and had later been freed. I wanted to know Keiko’s story so I watched the 2010 documentary, Keiko: the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy. Spoiler alert: I cried at Keiko’s death but he had lived in the ocean instead of a small tank for 5 years, and for a year and a half he swam freely in the ocean. He likely would have lived a much shorter life had he remained in captivity.

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverHis release was and still is controversial, but Keiko’s fame, life, and death hold great importance. One article described that “the fight for his freedom and his subsequent release…brought worldwide attention to the welfare of marine mammals in captivity.”6 Keiko will never be forgotten because of his importance in capturing the attention of the world regarding whales in captivity. 

 

“As a retirement project, it was a 100% success. [Keiko] lived in his natural habitat…the health problems he suffered from all cleared up. He thrived for 5 plus years. How is that a failure?” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

Blackfish

Film cover

Then I saw Blackfish, twice. I was so intrigued by the relationships trainers develop with these animals. But there is a huge controversy about orcas in captivity. This film told the story of Tilikum, an orca that was involved in the deaths of three people over the course of his captivity. Tilikum killed an experienced trainer in 2010 and her tragic death was highly publicized. The film highlights the fact that SeaWorld blamed her death on her instead of the whale. I’ll explore Blackfish and killer whales in captivity in this series.

Luna the Whale

The Whale cover art

One of my favorite documentaries was called The Whale, about a wild orca named Luna that tried to befriend humans after becoming separated from his pod. The whale’s behaviors gained fame and soon many people were trying to interact with him. It became controversial because some marine biologists felt that this was not good for the whale. Luna showed the connections between humans and animals.

 

The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna book coverMichael Parfit, who coauthored The Lost Whale, said this in the film above: “We meet at a dock in Mooyah Bay and we look at each and we recognize something. This isn’t casual stuff, I thought, this isn’t insignificant…I looked at him, I looked at that awareness that looked back at me, and I thought, we’ve treated you with inconsistency, we’ve treated you with disdain, but still, you trust us. How in the world, I thought, will we ever be forgiven by life, by nature, by ourselves – if we let you suffer just because you’re trying to be our friend?” I wept during this film but it made me appreciate these whales even more. They are such beautiful, social, emotional, and intelligent creatures!

“Many people hope that someday we’ll meet an intelligent being from another world. Hollywood tells us this being will come flying down in a spaceship, and he’ll look a bit like us. Most importantly, he’ll have a mind like ours, and we’ll figure out how to communicate right away. But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it will be like this” [showing Luna the orca]. -Ryan Reynolds, narrator of The Whale

More on Orcas

There are many documentaries about orcas, and there are also dozens of books about orcas. I’m still trying to read them all. As I do, I’ll update this post and my Books page. I encourage you to learn and read about orcas! Check your local library to see what resources they may offer. Comment below to let me know if there’s a good book you’ve read that you’d like me to know about! Thanks for reading, please subscribe, and look for my upcoming articles on the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld, and other marine parks.

 

Additional Resources:

Website, “Orcas (Killer Whales): Facts and Information,” National Geographic, accessed November 30, 2020.

Article, “Endangered orcas at risk from U.S. Navy, activists warn,” by Jeff  Berardelli, CBS News, July 31, 2020.

Website, “Meet the Different Types of Orcas,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, accessed December 9, 2020.

Article, “The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed,” The New York Times, September 16, 2013.

A Plastic Whale film coverA Plastic Whale, Sky News documentary film, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Video, “Freeing Willy,” Retro Report, The New York Times, September 16, 2013.

Article, “How to Watch Whales and Dolphins Responsibly,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed January 30, 2021.

Article, “Orca Recovery Day: Why The Whale Trail is greenest way to see marine life in wild,” The Palm Beach Post, October 18, 2019.

Page, “The Luna File,” The Orca Conservancy, accessed May 5, 2021.

Article, “Befriending Luna the Killer Whale: How a popular Smithsonian story about a stranded orca led to a new documentary about humanity’s link to wild animals,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 13, 2008.

Article, “Luna: the Orca Who Wanted to Be Friends,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed May 5, 2021.

Footnotes: