The marine amusement park industry is thriving on the eastern side of the world, due to economic growth and an expanding middle class stimulating the entertainment industry. This means cetacean captivity has also increased in countries such as Russia, China, and Japan. As I mentioned in a previous article, wild captures of orcas have been outlawed or restricted in many parts of the world. However, the growth in marine amusement parks coupled with an absence of restrictions has led to a renewed increased in wild cetacean captures. It has also, unfortunately, prompted the creation of breeding programs in the eastern world, just when the western side is finally addressing the end of such practices.
“I foresee SeaWorld expanding overseas, where it would no longer be beholden to pressure from US legislators and public opinion. The premise of the company – to make money off the façade of conservation – has not changed from the 1960s and 1970s. And, if Americans learn to see through the terminology – ‘conservation through education’; ‘raising awareness for the species’; ‘in the care of man’ – then there will be fresh audiences overseas who may still buy into the mythology.” -John Hargrove, former SeaWorld senior trainer1
The Potential For Endangering Populations
Russian fishermen can catch belugas and orcas with a permit for ‘science and education’ under an allowable quota. But some believe that Russian orcas, which can sell for millions of dollars, are caught illegally and exported to China.2According to the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), in 2012, an industry for captive marine mammals started up in the Russian Okhotsk Sea. Since then, whale hunters have caught and sold at least 29 orcas to four marine facilities in China and Russia.3
Orcas in those areas are transients and are thought to have smaller populations than resident killer whales. This renewed whale hunting could quickly move these animals toward extinction in the wild.4 But it is unknown exactly how many transient orcas reside in the Okhotsk Sea, so it is impossible to measure the potential long-term effect of these captures.5
“China’s marine park industry got started only about ten years ago…whereas people in the West have been familiar with marine entertainment for decades.”6
In China alone in the last five years, about 30 new marine amusement parks and dolphinariums have opened. This brings the country’s total to over 80 parks. There are plans to open approximately another 25 parks. The China Cetacean Alliance estimates that combined, these facilities have at least 1,000 cetaceans in captivity,7 and most were wild captures imported primarily from Japan and Russia.8 China also has no federal animal welfare laws.
“China appears to be immune to the ‘Blackfish effect,’ the term often used to describe the public’s response to the film…Chimelong [Ocean Kingdom] has paved the way for more orca breeding in China.”9
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in China
This park opened in 2014 and is often referred to as the world’s largest aquarium. It is part of a larger tourist resort that mimics Orlando, Florida. They currently hold at least 9 captive orcas, but they may have additional whales that are not publicly displayed. The park began a breeding program in 2017, a year after SeaWorld announced they would end their captive orca breeding program.10 This park attracted more than 10 million visitors in 2018, so the business is thriving.
Moskvarium, Moscow, Russia
This facility opened in 2015 and has three captive killer whales performing in daily shows. When it was under construction, Erich Hoyt of FEROP said that it appeared that they were “enamored with the SeaWorld approach so I would expect loud music, the usual jumping through hoops and other circus-type routines,” as well as a breeding program like SeaWorld’s.11 If you look at videos online from people who’ve attended, it is exactly what Hoyt described.
Their website also shows that their focus is on entertainment, with learning as an afterthought: “Here you can spend all day: take a walk around the Aquarium, see a fantastic water show, have a bite at one of the many cafes and restaurants. Besides, it is not only a good place to entertain yourself, but also to gain some knowledge and experience in scientific work with unique opportunities to study marine biodiversity.”12
“Marine parks and shows make great attractions. Enamored and awed by the creatures, most people fail to realize the animals’ plight. In the news, training facilities are portrayed as caring institutions, marine mammals as happy, and their arrivals as celebratory events.”13
In 2018, the infamous Russian “whale jail” made worldwide headlines. Whale hunters illegally captured around 11 orcas and 87 belugas and held them in a series of small cells in Sreadnyaya Bay near Vladivostok. Fortunately, by 2020, the captors eventually released most of these animals but only after intense activism, investigations, and legal proceedings.14 But there are marine amusement parks in Russia, Japan, and China that are still seeking orca and beluga stock. This is what perpetuates these captures and places a high monetary value on their lives.
If you want additional information about captive orcas worldwide, Inherently Wild maintains a page on its website listing all known captured orca.15
How do we stop this practice worldwide? Is it through education, legislation, or activism? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it took a combination of the three in the United States just to get minimal improvements on marine mammal captivity. But we still aren’t anywhere near where we need to be. My hope is that people worldwide will continue to learn about and value the natural world. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
Report, “Orcas in captivity,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, updated August 8, 2019.
Article, “Time running out for orcas, belugas trapped in icy ‘whale jail’,” National Geographic, April 8, 2019.
Video, “Inside China’s booming ocean theme parks,” China Dialogue Ocean, February 19, 2021.
Article, “Orcas don’t do well in captivity. Here’s why.” National Geographic, March 25, 2019.
For as long as there have been stories and records about it, whale hunting has always been brutal, barbaric, and gory. Capturing orcas and other marine mammals for sale to aquariums and amusement parks is just as violent and brutal. Whale hunters have used explosives, helicopters, and other fear tactics to separate orcas from their pod. Many orcas have been killed accidentally in the process. Even more reprehensible was the cover-up of those deaths. Whale hunters posthumously cut open dead orcas and stuffed them with rocks to sink their bodies. Additionally, these captures in the 1960s and 1970s greatly reduced the populations of orcas, particularly the Southern Resident orcas.
At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, and 129 of these orcas are now dead.1 Eventually, laws ended these practices and captures. But this directly led to the establishment of breeding programs at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks.
“Most cetacean capture methods are extremely traumatizing, involving high-speed boat chases and capture teams violently wrestling animals into submission before hauling them onto a boat in a sling and then dumping them into shallow temporary holding tanks or pens.”2
The Vancouver Aquarium
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium captured an orca named Moby Doll, a male that they first believed was female. Originally, the aquarium had no intention of capturing an orca. They actually commissioned an artist to kill an orca to use as a body model for a killer whale sculpture. However, after harpooning a young whale and then shooting it several times, the whale did not die. Instead, the orca followed its captors as if on a leash for 16 hours in order to avoid the pain of resistance with the harpoon in his back. The aquarium put Moby Doll on display for scientists and the public to view. He did not eat for 55 days. When he started eating finally, he consumed 200 pounds of fish per day. But he never fully recovered and died after 87 total days of captivity.
“Moby Doll was the first orca ever held in captivity, and his amazing qualities, seen by humans for only those hard last months of his life, started both a new appreciation for orcas and a new industry of catching and displaying the whales for entertainment.”3
The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps captive whales. “After Moby Doll, [they] got more orcas and kept at least one in captivity until 2001, when its last orca, an Icelandic whale nicknamed ‘Bjossa,’ was shipped away to SeaWorld in San Diego, where she soon died.”4
Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56
In 1965, Fishermen accidentally caught Namu the orca in their net in Canadian waters. Namu was the first captive performing killer whale. They contacted the owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, Ted Griffin, who bought Namu for $8,000. Griffin put him on display. “Crowds flocked to Pier 56 to watch Griffin ride the whale and to see Namu jump on command,” according to The Seattle Times.5 Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.6
“Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale…Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu.”7
Griffin intended to capture another whale so that Namu would have a mate. Activists and scientists protested. Then two female whales died during Griffin’s effort, which exacerbated the issue. In the midst of that, Griffin received approval to build a new marine park as a new home for Namu. But the project never came to be.8
The success of the aquarium from having Namu “spark[ed] a period of orca captures in the region, when a generation of southern resident killer whales was taken and shipped to aquariums around the world.”9 Other marine amusement parks sought the financial success of having captive performing orcas. Unfortunately, it became an established practice.
“Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world. Captors particularly targeted the young, the cheapest to ship.”10
Sadly, Namu died within one year. He drowned after he became entangled in the netting of his pen. The autopsy revealed a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting the bay,11 and this likely contributed to the whale’s disorientation and drowning.12
The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972
In the 1960s and early 1970s, whale captures were largely unregulated and were completely legal. Humans captured hundreds of orcas and thousands of marine mammals during those decades for all types of purposes. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 (MMPA) in direct response to concerns about the effects of human activity on marine mammals. But at the insistence of the theme park industry, Congress gave an exemption for marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, under the facade of ‘for educational purposes.’13 Conservation was the term used to claim these exemptions.
“When drafting the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), members of the US Congress believed, or were lobbied into promoting, the long-accepted view that the public display of wildlife (at facilities such as zoos and aquaria) serves a necessary educational and conservation purpose.”14
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted SeaWorld an economic-hardship exemption in 1974. This allowed them to continue the practice of hunting orcas.15 All of this affected the Southern Resident populations.
NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.
In 1976, Washington State closed its waters to killer whale captures, a direct reaction to the ridiculous craze for capturing them. “By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured — many multiple times — in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one,” referring to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium.16 Southern Resident orcas were classified as endangered in 2005.
Icelandic and North Atlantic captures
Less than 8 months later, SeaWorld and other marine parks moved their capture operations to Icelandic and North Atlantic waters. “Tilikum was a victim of the wild capture efforts that shifted to Iceland and the North Atlantic after they were run out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s,” as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation of North America described.17 Tilikum was the whale who killed his trainer in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando and may have been responsible for two other human deaths during his captive history. He passed away in 2017. Whale hunters captured Keiko, the star of Free Willy, from the same area. Kiska, whom I wrote about previously, was also captured there.
“Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. [Seventeen] of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks.”18 Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.19 Killer whale capture in Iceland ended in 1989, but whale hunting, in general, began again in 2003.
“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose20
Laws prohibiting wild captures led to the establishment of captive breeding programs at marine amusement parks. Over the last 40 years, this practice has become the new standard for replenishing orca stock. “One of the keys to SeaWorld’s success was its ability to move away from controversial wild orca captures to captive births in its marine parks. The first captive birth that produced a surviving calf took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 1985. Since then, SeaWorld has relied mostly on captive breeding to stock its parks with killer whales, even mastering the art of artificial insemination.”21
Thankfully, the practice of captive breeding is now ending in the western world. But in other parts of the world, marine amusement parks are growing in popularity. This means wild captures are now on the rise in those areas. In my next article, I’ll share some of this information with you. Thanks for reading, and please share and subscribe!
Article, “A Whale of a Business: Laws, Marine Mammal Legislation,” Frontline Online, PBS, accessed March 3, 2021.
Video, “Choosing between hunting & saving whales,” CNN.com, November 18, 2014.