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, Orca Health

Last updated on May 9, 2021.

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

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.

Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium
Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium, photo by Pengxiao Xu on Unsplash

Unnatural environments

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.

Orcas at SeaWorld Orlando
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” SeaWorld Orlando. Image by V.L. on Flickr, public domain (CC0 1.0)

“The tanks speak for themselves.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

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.”

Inadequate Size

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.

“The pools of SeaWorld are gigantic – if you are a human being.” -John Hargrove

Dine with the Orcas programs
“Lunch with Orca, SeaWorld San Diego.” Image by Thank You (20 millions+) views on Flickr. Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“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.”

Climate and Sun Exposure

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:

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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.”

“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.”

Water Quality

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).”

“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 Hargrove

Orcas flipping through air at SeaWorld Orlando
SeaWorld Orlando, image by Eduardo Neri Du from Pixabay

Auditory problems

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.

“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.”

Illnesses from Mosquitos

Two captive orcas died from mosquito-borne illnesses, one at SeaWorld Orlando and the other at SeaWorld San Antonio. 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.”

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.

Two orcas being fed at a marine park
Image by M W from Pixabay

End Captivity

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!

 

Additional Resources:

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.

Footnotes: