The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Part 3

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.

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