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, Kiska and Kshamenk

Last updated November 6, 2021.

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland, Canada, 2011.
Kiska, a lone orca at Marineland, Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

In my last article, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. Today, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.

Kiska, Marineland Niagara Falls, Ontario

Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at Marineland since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.

Relationships

In 1979, Marineland purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.

In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to Marineland. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between Marineland and SeaWorld.3

Kiska swimming in her tank, view from below the surface.
“Kiska was wild-caught off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, and lives alone in this tank.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Behavioral Changes

Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at Marineland. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).

“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4

Habitat

The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This  would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5

Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls.
Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls. Image taken from Google Maps.

Retirement

In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed Marineland to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will Marineland give her up?

Updates

In May 2021, inspectors issued two orders to Marineland to repair the water system in the pools that house the beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and Kiska. “A months-long inspection of Marineland by Ontario’s animal welfare watchdog has found that marine mammals at the tourist attraction were in distress due to poor water quality,” according to the Canadian Press. Marineland initially appealed the orders, arguing that the unknown number of recent whales deaths were not related to poor water quality.6 But they later withdrew the appeal. It seems that the inspection is still ongoing, and I have not been able to find out whether or not Marineland has begun the required repairs.

There have also been numerous concerns over the regularity in deaths of beluga whales at Marineland, and animal rights activists are calling for more transparency. “The amusement park and aquarium has not been able to breed any new belugas since the passing of federal law (Bill S-203) in 2019 that prohibits the capture and breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity — something animal advocates say once masked the number of belugas dying at the park each year.”7 There were around 54 belugas in 2019, and today there are around 40. Five of those were transferred to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, so what happened to the other 9?

In September 2021, a video of Kiska repeatedly hitting the side of her tank at Marineland went viral. This type of behavior is usually a sign of chronic stress. “Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a neuroscientist, explains that these kinds of behaviors, known as stereotypies, can include endless circling of the tank, grating their teeth on tank walls and gates, and other forms of self-injury.”8 Other visitors have made observations about Kiska exhibiting stereotypes. In addition to her loneliness, she now has poor water quality – this must be extremely stressful for her. 

Kshamenk, Argentina

Orca jumping out of the water during a performance at Mundo Marino
“Lightness” by Lorenzo Blangiardi on Flickr, Mundo Marino, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, an ecotype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.

Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank

The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.

Mundo Marino orca pools, aerial view, image captured from Google Earth
Mundo Marino orca and dolphin pools, image captured from Google Earth, February 20, 2021. This is the clearest image available from Google.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the smaller pool.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the main pool, and not the dolphin pool. The latter is much larger but their map does not accurately depict this. Image downloaded from Mundo Marino’s website, February 20, 2021.

Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:

At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”9 Obviously, the plans were never revived.

His capture

His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”10 There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.11 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”12 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.

Retirement?

The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:

“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”13

The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on its website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.

Image of Kshamenk jumping out of the water at Mundo Marino
“Mundo Marino,” image of Kshamenk by -fabio- on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Captivity Continues

I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.

“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish

Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will Marineland Ontario give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?

Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket!  Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Marineland faces legal complaint about Kiska, ‘the world’s loneliest orca’,” by Bobby Hristova, CBC News,

Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.

Article, “The man behind Marineland: 50 years of controversy,” by Liam Casey, The Toronto Star, October 3, 2011.

Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.

Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.

Website, Free Morgan Foundation

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Footnotes: