What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, Marineland Ontario purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

Marineland sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at Marineland Ontario in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at Marineland Ontario, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

Footnotes:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

An orca through round viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo.
An orca through a viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today, I want to tell you about an organization that is very dear to me: The Whale Sanctuary Project. This sanctuary will allow captive cetaceans a chance at retiring and living freely. I love the organization’s work, research, scientists, and hold the utmost respect for this project. This is one that I’d appreciate your help in supporting!

If you’ve read my Orca series, then you understand why it is wrong to make them perform for humans and keep them in captivity. Cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete tanks. There just isn’t enough space for them to swim and get enough physical exercise. Years of breeding and artificial insemination caused cetaceans to breed too young, too inexperienced, and without the choice of when and with whom to breed with. Mothers and calves are regularly separated when the calf is only a few years old. Some cetaceans are forced to live alone, causing depression in these highly social, intelligent, and emotional creatures. After decades of observation, it is obvious to many how cetaceans are suffering in marine amusement parks. But now we have a chance to make it right.

“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.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

A beluga whale on display at Marineland with people viewing it through the acrylic tank.
A beluga whale on display at Marineland. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We
Animals Media

Purpose of a Sanctuary

There are sanctuaries for all kinds of animals including horses, elephants, primates, pigs, dogs, and birds. Many animals retired from farm life, circuses, and zoos reside in sanctuaries. But there has never been a sanctuary for whales and orcas. What better time than now?

The Whale Sanctuary Project “is the first organization focused solely on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins, and porpoises who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care.”2 Most people now understand that cetaceans in marine amusement parks are akin to performing circus animals. However, even if these animals are retired from performing, there is no place for them to go. A sea sanctuary will completely change that.

“Our vision is of a world in which all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are treated with respect and are no longer confined to concrete tanks in entertainment parks and aquariums.”-The Whale Sanctuary Project3

About The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP)

Bird's eye view of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site.
View of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP formed in 2016. In 2020, after years of research, exploration, and fundraising, the WSP selected a 100-acre site for the sanctuary at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. This is an ideal location because it fulfilled the WSP’s principal considerations: “It offered an expansive area that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that’s open to the ocean but was sheltered from storms. It had access to necessary infrastructure and plenty of room along the shore for the facilities that would be needed to care for the animals.” And the Sherbrooke area locals are very supportive.4 

The seaside sanctuary will be 300 times bigger than the typical concrete tank. It will be more natural than tanks in terms of acoustics, water quality, and habitat surroundings (plant and animal species that share the space).5 The cetaceans will be able to swim further and dive deeper, thus getting the exercise their bodies need. “The goal is to offer captive orcas and beluga whales a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.”6 They’ll be able to make their own decisions, feed themselves, and most importantly – they won’t be required to perform like circus animals.

“We can’t undo all the harm we’ve inflicted on cetaceans by keeping them in captivity, but by providing them with seaside sanctuaries, we can improve their quality of life. That is our goal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose7

Orca performing at Marineland.
Image by Victor Cardella from Pixabay

Sanctuary Squashes Argument For Captivity

SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have always indicated that it would be cruel to set captive orcas free into the ocean because they have been in captivity too long. This is partially true. Like animals in other sanctuaries, captive cetaceans cannot be returned to the wild. They may not be able to survive without some care and monitoring. They may not know how to hunt or socialize, and they may never find their original familial pod. Captive cetaceans may be attached to humans for food and social needs. Many captive orcas have dental problems and other health issues. Obviously, captive-born whales are not candidates for release into the wild. But a sanctuary is another story and is a real possibility.8

The Whale Sanctuary Project will change everything.

“The science tells us that these animals – dolphins and whales – cannot thrive in concrete tanks and theme parks and aquariums.” -Dr. Lori Marino9

Setting The Example

Human riding two dolphins in a performance at marine amusement park.
Image by JensG from Pixabay

“There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. To end captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. But it’s not easy. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to re-learn the skills they will need to survive.” -Whale and Dolphin Conservation10

There are 58-60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine amusement parks and aquariums. Other species include different species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Hundreds of dolphins are held at vacation resorts that offer “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy” and “Swim-with-Dolphins” programs.11 Most of the orcas at parks are candidates for the sanctuary, but it cannot provide a home to hundreds of cetaceans. “While our primary focus is the creation of the sanctuary in Nova Scotia, every aspect of it is designed with the larger purpose of its being a model for other and future sanctuaries around the world.”12

The WSP will provide additional support for cetaceans in situations that do not include its sanctuary through its Whale Aid programs. These programs “range from rescuing and rehabilitating ocean-going whales to developing complete plans for other organizations that are working to retire captive whale and dolphins to sanctuaries. Our Whale Aid team comprises experts from around the world in fields ranging from veterinary care to transport to construction and engineering.”13 The Whale Aid program will assist Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Working with the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, she will be returned to the Salish Sea from which she was born, if the Miami Seaquarium ever relinquishes her.14 

If marine amusement parks and aquariums partnered or even just participated with the Whale Sanctuary Project, they could have a huge impact on the whales’ lives, conservation, and even their own public relations. It “would be a powerful legacy for the marine park that released them – a real example of conservation and education in practice.”

“If seaside sanctuaries function as intended, eventually they will no longer hold any retired captive cetaceans. However, they will also serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans, even during the period when they have ‘retirees’ as residents. And they will be able to serve this purpose in perpetuity.” -Dr. Naomi A.  Rose16

Orcas swimming at the surface with a mountain and sunset in the background.
Image by Chris Amos from Pixabay

Support This Project & Learn More

“Sanctuaries strive to go out of business.” -Dr. Ingrid Visser

Though a new movement, the WSP isn’t the only sanctuary in the works. Clearly, there’s a need for sanctuaries for marine mammals. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary opened in Iceland in the spring of 2019. They care for two female beluga whales who came from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. In addition, they partner with another organization to rescue puffins.17 There have been proposals for a Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy and for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.18

“We’ll spend less on building a sanctuary than a marine park would…spend building the next small concrete tank.” -Charles Vinick, Whale Sanctuary Project19

Image of The Whale Sanctuary Project's new Operation Centre, a white historic house on a street.
The Whale Sanctuary Project’s new Operation Centre. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP had the grand opening of the Operations Centre on October 29, 2021. It is located in the small town of Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site in Port Hilford Bay. This center, to which I proudly donated a small amount toward its opening, is the WSP’s home base for all of the design, engine­ering, and construc­tion of the sanctuary. It will also serve as a welcome center and it has lodging for two visiting staff members and advisors.20 Going forward, they will focus on the construction of the sea pen.

I encourage you to continue to learn more about the problem of captive cetaceans, and I hope you can support The Whale Sanctuary Project with me! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

The Whale Sanctuary Project logo
Logo courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.” -David Neiwert21

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Orca Series, to learn more about captive orcas.

Video, “Whales Without Walls,” Charles Vinick, TEDxSantaBarbara, December 18, 2017.

Page, Deeper Dive, The Whale Sanctuary Project. Features scientific studies on cetaceans.

Page, “Live Series” of Webinars and Conversations, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

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

 

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Final Thoughts

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

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

The Impact of Blackfish

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

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

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

Entertainment as Cause

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

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

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

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

The Argument For Captivity

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

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

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

The Façade of Science and Education

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

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

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

An Example in Morgan the Orca

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

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

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

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

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

The View of Captivity is Changing

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

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

The Future of Orcas in Captivity

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

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

Examples

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

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

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

Viewpoints

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Additional Resources:

Blackfish:

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

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

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

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau:

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

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

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

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

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

Morgan the orca:

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

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

Other:

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

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

Organizations:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Empty The Tanks

Save The Whales

The Orca Project

International Marine Mammal Project

The Orca Research Trust

Animal Welfare Institute

The Humane Society of the United States

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, SeaWorld Today

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

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

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

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

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

SeaWorld in the Last Decade

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

Half-Measures and Misleading Public Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation in Marine Amusement Parks

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

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

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

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

“That Should Be The Show”

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

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

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

SeaWorld’s Potential

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

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

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

SeaWorld Today

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

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

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

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

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

Rescue & Rehabilitation Operations

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

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

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

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

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

Laws and Regulations

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

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

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

The Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program

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

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

Manatees

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

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

Coral Reefs

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

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

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

Other Partnerships

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

SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

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

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

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

Is SeaWorld Changing?

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

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

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

 

Additional Resources:

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

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

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

Website, Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership.

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

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

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

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

Footnotes: