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:

  1. Book, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.
  2. Article, “California commission deals blow to SeaWorld’s ability to breed killer whales,” Washington Post, October 9, 2015.
  3. Page, “SB-839 Public resources,” California Legislative Information, accessed May 30, 2021.
  4. Blog post, “SeaWorld has ended its killer whale breeding program,” seaworldentertainment.com, June 8, 2017, accessed May 30, 2021.
  5. 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.
  6. Report, Rose, N.A. and Parsons, E.C.M. (2019). The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, 5th edition (Washington, DC: Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection), 160 pp.
  7. Report, Rose, N.A. and Parsons, E.C.M. (2019). The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, 5th edition (Washington, DC: Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection), 160 pp.
  8. Film, A Fall from Freedom, 2012.
  9. Page, “Captivity Frequently Asked Questions,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed June 22, 2021.
  10. Commentary, “‘Blackfish’ sparked positive new era for zoos, SeaWorld,” Orlando Sentinel, October 25, 2019.
  11. Commentary, “‘Blackfish’ sparked positive new era for zoos, SeaWorld,” Orlando Sentinel, October 25, 2019.
  12. Book, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.
  13. Page, Corporate Responsibility, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, accessed June 24, 2021.
  14. Page, About Us, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, accessed May 31, 2021.
  15. Page, Objectives of Rescue Plan, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, accessed July 2, 2021.
  16. Page, Rehabilitated Animals,” SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, accessed July 8, 2021.
  17. Page, Results of Rescue Program,” SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, accessed June 30, 2021.
  18. Article, Oh, Buoy! SeaWorld Rescues Trapped Sea Lion in San Diego Bay,” NBC San Diego, April 16, 2021.
  19. Article, Report a Stranded or Injured Marine Animal,” NOAA Fisheries/NMFS, accessed June 25, 2021.
  20. Page, “Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program,” National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, accessed June 27, 2021.
  21. Article, “The Other Side Of SeaWorld,” by Christian Sylt, Forbes.com, accessed October 13, 2018.
  22. Article, “SeaWorld Committed to Combating Coral Reef Disease in Florida,” by Ernest Hamilton, Nature World News, May 5, 2021.
  23. Article, “SeaWorld Committed to Combating Coral Reef Disease in Florida,” by Ernest Hamilton, Nature World News, May 5, 2021.
  24. Article, “The Race to Rescue Florida’s Coral Reef,” by Craig Pittman, Flamingo Magazine, June 8, 2021.
  25. Press release, “SeaWorld & Busch Gardens conservation fund commits $900,000 to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, November 14, 2019.
  26. Article, “Rising Tide Conservation,” SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Blog, April 17, 2015.
  27. Press release, “SeaWorld Conservation Fund Continues to Support Sanctuary Restoration Efforts,” Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, April 16, 2021.
  28. Page, About, OCEARCH, accessed June 26, 2021.
  29. Page, “Frequently Asked Questions,” SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, accessed June 27, 2021.

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