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:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Wild Captures

Last updated April 4, 2024.

A baby orca with two adults, jumping out of a pool during a performance.
Photo by Holger Wulschlaeger from Pexels

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.

“The capture, imprisonment, possession, and profits made from the suffering of Orcas is by every definition – a slave trade. Stolen and forcefully removed from their family and their pods (tribes), trained, and selectively bred to work for the profit of the owners, transported, abused, their lives shortened, the dead outnumbering the living, traded like commodities, deprived of food to force compliance, and paraded before people for amusement…We need to abolish [cetacean] slavery and toss the entire industry into the dustbin of history. It is perversely cruel, unnecessary, unethical, inhumane, and a foul disgrace to humanity.” -Captain Paul Watson, Orcapedia: A Guide to the Victims of the International Orca Slave Trade

Wild orcas in the sea
Photo by Nitesh Jain on Unsplash

Whale Capture

“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.”

The Vancouver Aquarium

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium captured an orca named Moby Doll. He was a male they first believed was female but did not know until after his death that he was, in fact, male. 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 displayed Moby Doll for scientists and the public to view. He did not eat for 55 days. When he finally started eating, he consumed 200 pounds of fish daily. 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.”

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.”

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. Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.

“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.”

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.

Proposed "marine park" at Seattle Center, 1966, elevations/drawing.
Proposed “marine park” at Seattle Center, 1966. Image from the Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Namu’s legacy

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

Ted Griffin continued pursuing orcas and was part of the famous Penn Cove massacre in August 1970 when four orcas were drowned in their nets. In a failed effort to cover up the deaths, Griffin ordered workers to cut the whales open and weigh them down with chains and rocks to sink them. But the corpses were caught in a fisherman’s net and hauled to shore a few months later, and news reporters captured the event. “Griffin lost the stomach for orca captures after the Penn Cove debacle and dropped out after 1972.”13 

Wild orcas swimming off of the coast of Alaska. Snow covered mountains in background.
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” near Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Every one of the fifty Southern Resident whales captured by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry from the Puget Sound is now dead, with one exception…Lolita.” -David Neiwert14 

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.’

“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.”

NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.

Orca jumping out of the ocean
Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

Washington State

In 1975, Washington State filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld and in 1976, 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. 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. SeaWorld hired Don Goldsberry, who had been a part of the Puget Sound massacre, to go to those areas.20 “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.” Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.

Tilikum was one of the wild captures from Iceland and the North Atlantic. 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.

“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

Four orcas jumping out of the water at Marineland Antibes
“Orca Whales (Orsinus orca), Marineland, France,” by Spencer Wright on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

After 1989

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.”

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!

 

Additional Resources:

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.

Footnotes: