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:

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 June 16, 2021.

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.

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, 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.”

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:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Hugo and Lolita

Last updated on June 13, 2021.

Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s.
Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s. Photo by my mother

In my last article, I explained a few of the issues with keeping orcas in captivity.  Today I want to share the sad stories of two orcas held for decades at the Miami Seaquarium.

“It’s inherently hypocritical to keep a large-brained, gregarious, sonic animal in a concrete box. It needs to end.-Ric O’Barry1

Postcard, Hugo, the Killer Whale, performing at Miami Seaquarium, circa 1968. From Florida Memory of the State Library and Archives of Florida, public domain.[efn_note]Postcard, Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida, accessed January 29, 2021.[/efn_note]

Hugo, Miami Seaquarium

In 1968, whale herders captured Hugo at approximately age 3 near Puget Sound, Washington. The Miami Seaquarium purchased him but did not yet have an orca tank. He lived in an even smaller tank, the present-day manatee tank, for the first 2 years. The current tank was completed in 1970 and is the one the park still uses.

Hugo repeatedly injured himself while in captivity. At one point he severed the tip of his rostrum and a veterinarian had to sew it back on. According to a newspaper article at the time of the incident, “His powerful drive shattered the acrylic plastic bubble, and knocked a five-inch hole in it. And a piece of jagged plastic severed Hugo’s nose.”2 The same article speculated that an incident like this might happen again. And it did. Hugo rammed his head into the tank multiple times throughout his twelve years in captivity.

In 1980, Hugo died from a cerebral aneurysm, likely from the trauma he suffered from his self-mutilating behavior.3 Many refer to Hugo’s death as a suicide. The Miami Seaquarium lifted his body from the tank and put it in the Miami-Dade landfill.4 They did not memorialize his life or death in any way, “it was as if he had never existed.”5 Even today, this is the only mention of him on their website: “Miami Seaquarium welcomes the arrival of Hugo, it’s First Killer Whale to the park. The whale is named after Hugo Vihlen, the man who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a six-foot sailboat.”6 

Hugo and Lolita performing at the Miami Seaquarium around April of 1977.
Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium around April of 1977. Photo found and digitized by Thomas Hawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Lolita, Miami Seaquarium

While Hugo’s story is sad, Lolita’s story is even more sorrowful. She is a 7,000-pound orca and is 22 feet long but lives in the smallest and shallowest tank of any orca in North America. The tank is 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. She can’t dive because she is as long as the tank is deep. For comparison, an Olympic-sized swimming pool is 164 feet in length and 82 feet wide. The tank violates the law, as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), operating under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), requires a minimum of 48 feet wide in either direction with a straight line of travel across the middle. But they do not have the authority to require an expansion. Worse, the local jurisdiction opposes the expansion of the Seaquarium on the small island. Drone footage shows just how small the pool she lives in is compared to her body:

“The orca Lolita’s tank at the Miami Seaquarium may be the smallest for this species in the world—she is longer than half the width of the main tank.”

But the size of her tank isn’t even the worst part.

Lolita lives alone.

Recall that orcas are highly social animals that usually live together for life in multigenerational family groups. Since Hugo’s death in 1980, she’s lived alone. Sometimes two or three Pacific white-sided dolphins live with her, but reports show that they rake and harass her.8 Can you imagine living alone except for two other species that only sometimes interacted with you?

After Hugo’s death, the Miami Seaquarium required Lolita to continue performing without her companion. In fact, they had her doing her regular performances the very next day. Her former trainer told a reporter at the time: “We expected problems when Hugo died, but Lolita performed as usual the next day…Once in a while she would look for him, but she got over it.”9 We now know that orcas grieve as humans do, so it is difficult to understand this today.

Lolita has always struggled in captivity. A former Seaquarium employee recalled Lolita’s early days at the Miami Seaquarium: “The skin on her back cracked and bled from the sun and wind exposure,” she said.  “She wouldn’t eat the diet of frozen herring. … At night, she cried.”10 Today, she often floats very still and appears despondent. She cannot get enough physical activity, hasn’t seen another orca in over 40 years, and likely suffers emotionally. 

Orca at Miami Seaquarium
Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, image by Marita Rickman from Pixabay

Capture & Relation to Hugo

In August 1970, four-year-old Lolita (originally named Tokitae) was one of six juvenile orcas captured from the waters off Washington state. “By 1987, Lolita was the only survivor out of an estimated fifty-eight killer whales taken captive from Puget Sound or killed during captures.”11 The captures were often violent and whale herders used speedboats, an airplane, and explosives in the water to herd the orcas into a small area. “The juvenile orcas were separated from their mothers, as the infants were prime candidates to be sold to aquariums, while the adult orcas were released and free to leave.  However, the adult pod would not leave their offspring and refused to swim free, vocalizing human-like cries, until the last baby was pulled out of the water, never to return again.”12 Another account described it this way: During those weeks between capture and transport, the adult orcas never left the abduction site, and the sound of their grief-filled keening rang through the cove.”13 One adult and four young orcas were killed during Lolita’s capture.

Though caught in separate years, it turns out that Hugo and Lolita were related. “Unbeknownst to the staff and owner of Miami Seaquarium, Hugo and Lolita both were captured from the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, and shared similar dialects with one another, allowing them to communicate.”14 So while this was an accidental good pairing for companionship, Hugo and Lolita only had each other and mated. Lolita was pregnant several times but did not birth any live babies. She may have miscarried due to inbreeding. This does not seem to happen in wild orca populations.

“For the Seaquarium, Lolita represents a star money-making attraction, a possession so prized that officials maintain their grip on her despite years of protests by activists and animal experts who cite evidence that her living situation is legally and ethically unacceptable.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project15

Trainer "surfing" an orca at the Miami Seaquarium in the 1970s
Trainer “surfing” an orca, either Hugo or Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s. Photo by my mother

Time for Lolita’s Retirement

There are many organizations working on Lolita’s behalf to free her, including the Orca Network, the Center for Whale Research, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, the Empty The Tanks organization, the Salish Sea Marine Sanctuary organization, and The Whale Sanctuary Project. Ken Balcomb, marine biologist and founder of the Center for Whale Research, even offered to purchase her outright from the Miami Seaquarium in 1992. He had a plan to retire her to a sea pen in San Juan Island, Washington.16 These movements began in the 1990s and have escalated since Southern Resident orcas were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2005. These organizations have had multiple campaigns, detailed retirement plans, lawsuits, and appeals filed on Lolita’s behalf. The best thing for this orca is to allow her to retire to an ocean sanctuary.

View showing an animal trainer performing with an Orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium attraction.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. View showing an animal trainer performing with an Orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium attraction. 20th century. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93509>, accessed 6 May 2021.

But the Miami Seaquarium has no such plans. In 2019, their general manager, Eric Eimstad, wrote to The Seattle Times: “There is no room for debate on what is best for Lolita … For almost 5 decades we have provided and cared for Lolita, and we will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment. We will not jeopardize her health by considering any move from her home here in Miami.”17 The argument against her retirement is that she will not survive in the wild.

However, biologists would not drop Lolita in the ocean and leave her to fend for herself. They would move her to a sanctuary where she could learn to swim great lengths and depths again, catch food, and socialize. They would monitor her and provide veterinary care. The hope would be that she could go back to the open ocean someday. Her pod, known as the L pod, is still active and in fact, orca biologists have even figured out who her motherly most likely is – L25 – and she’s still alive! Named Ocean Sun, she’s approximately age 90 now, and L25’s pod still lives in the same area of Lolita’s capture. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could reunite them someday?

Retire Lolita campaign poster
#50YearsOfStolenFreedom #Retire Lolita

“When I heard the Lolita story, I imagined how amazing it’d be to bring her back to her mother decades after her capture…This singlular, feasible event could catapult us into such a dignified direction. We owe this species big time. And we could start with her.” -Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director18

Hurricane Irma

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, when the storm was on track for Miami, the Seaquarium did not evacuate her – they left her there! That storm turned and went to Tampa instead, but she would have likely died if Irma had hit Miami directly. As Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer, noted, “In the context of the original storm forecast, which predicted a CAT 4 or 5 direct strike on Miami, the Seaquarium’s decision to roll the dice with her life is certainly callous, immoral, and unjust.”19

The City of Miami declared that anyone who abandoned their pets during the storm could be charged with animal cruelty. But this did not include the Miami Seaquarium, and Lolita could have been injured or killed. “The threats to exposed captive killer whales include missile injuries, blunt force trauma, stress, and foreign objects in the pool, which can be swallowed. In nature the whales can ride out storms, spending their time predominantly below the surface and at greater depths,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre. Another former SeaWorld trainer and advocate of orcas, Samantha Berg, pointed out that Lolita’s “tank is not deep enough for her to submerge and find refuge from flying debris.”20

According to the Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity, facilities frequently do not evacuate animals in advance of storms. So is this a larger problem that we should not ignore? It is not unreasonable to believe that any zoo, aquarium, or park that is responsible for other beings should protect them at all costs.

“If [the Seaquarium] has no plan or protocol during a storm other than leaving her behind, then Lolita shouldn’t live there,” O’Barry says. “It’s a death sentence.” -Ric O’Barry23

Why is Lolita still living in captivity?

Many people consider Lolita to be the prime candidate for removal from captivity. After Hurricane Irma, the Miami Beach City Commission “voted unanimously on a resolution urging the Seaquarium to release her. The proposal is only symbolic because the Seaquarium is located on Virginia Key, not under the jurisdiction of Miami Beach. But Miami Beach officials are asking the park to retire Lolita into the care of the Orca Network, a nonprofit based in Freeland, Washington, which has had plans for how to retire the creature since 1995.” The Seaquarium argued against the vote and insisted Lolita was safer at the marine park than she would have been in a sea enclosure.24

Miami Seaquarium
Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

“It is Lolita, more than any other captive orca, who offers the potential to answer the big question that hovered around the Blackfish debate: Why not return wild-born orcas to their native waters and pods?” -David Neiwert25

As mentioned above, there are many organizations advocating for Lolita’s release. There are current proposals for her to move to a sea pen where she will have human care since she cannot simply be released into the ocean. There’s also the Whale Sanctuary Project which is currently building an ocean sanctuary for former captive whales. I’ve listed links to all of these below if you want to learn more or support these projects.

The best thing you can do, though, is to not visit marine theme parks that hold captive whales or other marine mammals that require the animals to perform for entertainment. I’ve only shared two stories about captive orcas in this post, and I’ll share a few others in my next post. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Lolita slave to entertainment film cover art

Film, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

Website, Lolita, The Orca Network, accessed February 4, 2021.

Website, The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed February 4, 2021.

Film, A Day in the Life of Lolita, the Performing Orca:

Website, Action for Lolita, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 4, 2021.

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

Article, “Photo Illustrates the Lesson We Should Have Learned About Orca Captivity in the 1980s,” One Green Planet, accessed February 4, 2021.

Website, Action for Lolita, Empty The Tanks, accessed February 4, 2021.

Article, “What Happens to Them Happens to Us,” Hakai Magazine, May 12, 2020.

Website, Save Lolita Organization, accessed February 4, 2021.

Film, “Window of the Living Sea,” Florida Memory State Library and Archives of Florida, 1970. Original film from the Miami Seaquarium, features Hugo and Lolita together in brief sections.

Footnotes: