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 Then

Animal trainer riding an orca at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. Animal trainer riding an orca at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1973 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93877>, accessed 6 May 2021.

“SeaWorld didn’t become a $2.5 billion company because of sequins and choreography. It was built on the backs of captive killer whales.” -John Hargrove1

SeaWorld Then

The first SeaWorld opened in 1964 in San Diego. SeaWorld Ohio followed in 1970 but closed in 2000. The Orlando park opened in 1973, and the San Antonio location in 1988. SeaWorld also has numerous affiliations with other parks, including Loro Parque in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

“SeaWorld was strictly created as entertainment. We didn’t try to wear this false facade of educational significance.” -George Millay, the founder of SeaWorld, 1989

Orca performing at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. Orca performing at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1973 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93815>, accessed 6 May 2021.

Shamu family name

Namu was the first performing orca at the Seattle Marine Aquarium. SeaWorld purchased an orca from the owner, Ted Griffin, and also purchased the rights to the name “Shamu,” a combination of “she” and “Namu.” Shamu became the first SeaWorld orca. SeaWorld used the names Shamu and Baby Shamu for marketing purposes and even took out copyrights and trademarks on those names. For decades, people thought that the orcas were the same few that SeaWorld began with in the late 1960s. This left the impression that “Shamu never dies,” as Erich Hoyt wrote. Other marine parks have used similar marketing techniques.

But the original Shamu had experienced the harpooning and death of her mother during their captures. Shamu bit three people during her captivity, sending at least one person to the hospital. The orca died four months after that incident in 1971 of septicemia at age nine.3 SeaWorld veterinarians had put her on progesterone to increase her fertility so that they could breed her. But instead, she contracted pyometra, a condition that causes serious infections in the uterus. “In the wild, her grandmother lived to be a hundred.”4 Despite her sad story, Shamu became the brand.

My parents visited SeaWorld Orlando between 1973 and 1976 and saw ‘Shamu’ perform, but it was actually Ramu. They took these photos:

Ramu the orca performing at SeaWorld Orlando

Trainer riding Ramu the orca at SeaWorld Orlando

Ramu the orca flipping over the water at SeaWorld Orlando

Circumventing capture laws

In the 1970s, after the implementation of import laws and bans on whale and orca captures, marine parks began ‘transferring’ orcas from park to park to circumvent those laws. SeaWorld imported orcas on ‘breeding loans’ where no payment was involved, and they didn’t necessarily return the orcas. “According to researcher Ron Kastelein at Dolfinarium Harderwijk, ‘breeding loan’ is simply industry jargon which means that the first calf becomes the property of the acquiring institution and the second calf goes to the institution that provided the breeding-age male or female. Technically, the breeding animal remains the property of the first company.”

Other times, marine parks relocated orcas multiple times until their origin was no longer able to be determined because documentation was ‘incomplete.’ Or, SeaWorld paid marine parks in other countries to acquire orcas, and then ‘transfer’ them a few months or even years later. This is often referred to as ‘warehousing’ and has been going since the late 1970s. “While orca care in captivity has improved measurably in the recent past, the industry still regularly engages in appalling practices like ‘whale laundering’ or warehousing orcas captured overseas (orcas are not legally available in U.S. waters) at a windowless backroom tank in another nation until sufficient times passes for it to be imported to a U.S. facility as a transfer, all so the American company doesn’t have to obtain a U.S. capture permit.”6

View showing an Orca whale leaping out of the water during a show at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida.
View showing an Orca whale leaping out of the water during a show at the Sea World attraction in Orlando, Florida. 1976. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93860>, accessed 6 May 2021.

Captive Breeding vs. Conservation

The captive breeding programs at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks were a direct result of bans on captures and the implementation of import laws. The parks had to find other ways to restock their orcas. However, this was the only purpose for captive breeding.

In 2015 Joel Manby, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Sea World, said in a statement: “Depriving these social animals of the natural and fundamental right to reproduce is inhumane and we do not support this condition.”But this was not simply by allowing orcas to mate. SeaWorld trainers artificially inseminate female orcas with the sperm from males also in captivity. SeaWorld’s breeding practices have been called inhumane and questionable by scientists and animal rights groups for decades.

In 2013, it was revealed that Tilikum was the father or grandfather of more than half of SeaWorld’s captive-born orcas. “Tilikum’s value to SeaWorld extends well beyond the raw market; he is, in fact, the cornerstone of the company’s captive-breeding program,” as David Neiwert wrote in 2015.9 Tilikum passed away in 2017 but it is believed that SeaWorld retained multiple samples of his frozen sperm to continue the practice.

“Rather than for conservation, captive cetaceans are bred merely to provide replacement animals for public display—an ongoing need given the high rate of mortality in captivity.”

Orcas in captivity have a high infant mortality rate. Since 1980, three orcas died within 3 months of birth, and there have been 14 stillbirths and miscarriages. Those are just the documented ones. One sad example is Corky II at SeaWorld San Diego. She “had at least seven unsuccessful pregnancies before she achieved menopause and stopped cycling.”

Baby orca Makani with an adult orca, perhaps his mother Kasatka and SeaWorld San Diego.
Kasatka and Makani. Photo by lolilujah on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Makani’s mother, Kasatka, was an Icelandic orca, her father was the captive Argentinian orca Kshamenk from Mundo Marino. This is a prime example of the interbreeding of orca ecospecies through artificial insemination at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks.

Mother-Calf Separations

These factors lead to high levels of infant mortality.

“Captive breeding – often cited as a key reason for keeping animals in captivity – is an important part of conservation for some species and there have been notable successes at some zoos…But just keeping an animal in captivity is hardly conservation. In the artificial conditions of a zoo or marine park, an animal cannot continue its evolutionary path. The true measure of success is returning the animal to the wild.”

“Education”

Many have already documented the lack of education in SeaWorld’s programming and educational materials. SeaWorld trained employees with inaccurate information about lifespan, diet, and environment that they relayed to the public. The company coached employees to circumvent tough questions from inquisitive visitors. They trained them to use semantics to defuse arguments against captivity. For example, orcas exhibit ‘behaviors’ instead of ‘tricks’. “SeaWorld orcas do not live in ‘cages’ or ‘tanks’ in ‘captivity’ and were never ‘captured’ from the ‘wild’; instead, they live in an ‘enclosure’ in a ‘controlled environment’, having been ‘acquired’ from the ‘natural environment.'”

Dawn Brancheau being pushed out of the water on an orca's rostrum.
Dawn Brancheau, October 9, 2006, photo by Ed Schipul on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Incidents

There were many incidents over the decades at SeaWorld. In 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), whose role is to protect employees, investigated SeaWorld after an incident involving a trainer named Ken Peters. He was taken more than 30 feet down by an orca, suffering injuries and almost drowning. OSHA concluded in 2006 that “‘swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen.’ This of course turned out to be prophetic, as two trainers were killed by orcas within four years of the state agency issuing this statement.”

But that incident did not come out publicly until after Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010, during another OSHA investigation. The footage of the Ken Peters incident was shown at trial in full and leaked to the press (and you can find it online today).

Death

Since the advent of using captive orca for performance, there have been countless trainer injuries and several deaths. In December 2009, an orca named Keto killed Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque. Just a few months later, in February 2010, Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau. Even more shocking, she was the third person known to have been killed by Tilikum during his captive history. SeaWorld blamed Brancheau for her own death, not once, or even twice – but multiple times. They have since gone back on those statements. But blaming the victim is reprehensible.

After Brancheau’s death, OSHA again investigated and “cited SeaWorld for subjecting employees to a workplace that contained “recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or physical harm to employees” and they were fined the maximum. The long-term result of their unfortunate deaths was that OSHA banned “waterwork,” meaning that trainers can no longer perform in the water or swim with the whales. This was a massive change in the attraction’s main stage. You can learn more about the incident and the OSHA cases in the resources I’ve listed below.

As for the orcas, about 40 have died in SeaWorld parks alone. They could have prevented many of these.

The Blackfish Effect

Businesses like Southwest Airlines and top musicians severed ties to SeaWorld after Blackfish and David Kirby’s book both came out in 2013. Former senior trainer John Hargrove published his book shortly thereafter. The exposure created controversy over the issue of marine mammal captivity that has lasted almost a decade and is sometimes referred to as The Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld’s annual attendance decreased and their shares fell, and it seems that they have never fully recovered.

Orca jumping out of the water, performing in front of a crowd, SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego, photo by Andrew Van Pernis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

SeaWorld Now

In 1992, Erich Hoyt wrote: “SeaWorld has borrowed liberally from the wild to fashion its corporate image and to make its millions. Will it one day return something important by restoring an endangered cetacean to its natural habitat?”

While SeaWorld initially resisted the changing views of the public, they have begun embracing those new perspectives. Next, I’ll explain SeaWorld’s changes over the last decade and explore what they are doing today. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, book cover

Book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 2012.

 

 

 

 

Book cover

Book, “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish,” by John Hargrove, St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

 

 

 

 

Film cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Orcas and Men book cover

Book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.

 

 

 

 

Article, “Fate of Orcas in Captivity,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, accessed May 18, 2021.

Article, “Kavanaugh Sided with Seaworld in ‘Blackfish’ Case,” by Wes Siler, Outside Online, September 27, 2018. Brett Kavanaugh dissented in the OSHA case against SeaWorld.

Page, “Ramu’s Gallery,” Inherently Wild, accessed May 12, 2021.

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

Article, “Blood in the Water,” by Tim Zimmermann, Outside Online, July 15, 2011.

Footnotes: