There has been a lot of recent attention paid to the multi-billion dollar marine theme park industry – you know, those places like SeaWorld where whales and dolphins are used for human entertainment.
The attention has been largely if not completely negative, focused on the ways in which dolphins and whales (collectively known as cetaceans) are either captured in the wild or bred in captivity, and the mistreatment and deteriorating mental and physical health of the animals while in captivity. The largely publicized 2010 death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau (at SeaWorld Orlando by an Orca named Tilikum) raised a lot of questions about how the animals at these parks are treated, what trainers actually know about individual animals, and what goes on behind the scenes.
Reports have documented that SeaWorld down-plays the risks involved with working with these wild animals, not just to the public but to their trainers. Animal profiles that are meant to be a collective history of an individual are often misconstrued to mask aggressive or problem behavior and hide fatal or major injuries inflicted on trainers. There were two fatal incidents with Tilikum that occurred before the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau (one of which was at SeaWorld), yet the details of the events were kept from trainers working with Tilikum. To the point, SeaWorld has never compiled an official incident report for Dawn Brancheau’s death.
Some former trainers have been speaking out about their experience and the toll that captivity takes on the animals. You can watch two television interviews with former trainers here (the first video interview starts at 2:00 and the second at 3:33).
Orcas have been starring in shows at marine parks since 1965. The history of the industry is one filled with exploitation, greed, cruelty, and legal loopholes. SeaWorld owns 26 of the 42 Orcas that are currently alive in captivity around the world. Dolphins and whales live extremely shortened lives when in captivity – Orcas rarely reach their 20’s in captivity yet in the wild males can live for 50-70 years and females up to 90+ years.
But attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in parks and aquariums may be changing. On August 6 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied a request from the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 Beluga whales from Russia. This was the first application to NOAA in 20 years to import wild-caught whales to the US, and its denial challenges assertions often made by marine parks and aquariums when importing these animals.
The deaths of trainers or visitors at marine parks is a tragedy. I’m not denying that. And I love aquariums. I was mesmerized by all the critters in aquariums as a kid, and is probably a large reason why I love and study them now. Aquariums expose and teach people about the marine world and garner an appreciation for our oceans, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. I understand that.
But I also know that marine mammals are not built to live in captivity. Most large cetaceans like Orcas are migratory, often traveling 1,000’s to 100,000’s of miles every year. Orcas are incredibly intelligent and live in a highly complex family social structure of individuals (called pods) that play, hunt, live, and travel together for their entire lives. Families within a pod are so close that males often die shortly after their mothers do. Distinct populations throughout the world have even evolved unique hunting strategies and different “dialects” for communication. Separation anxiety is very real for them.
And Orcas are more commonly known as “killer whales.” This is because they are hunters, they can be aggressive, and they can be dangerous. But as this report in Outside notes, Orcas have never been known to attack, never mind kill, humans in the wild. Also in the report, Dr. Paul Spong, Orca researcher and founder of OrcaLab in British Columbia, notes that “If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them….Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.”
Tilikum was captured in the wild when he was 3 years old and has been living in captivity for 30 years. Since Dawn’s death in 2010 he has been isolated from other Orcas and receives no direct human contact whatsoever.
I think (or maybe just hope) that it’s only a matter of time before the mistreatment of these animals for human entertainment falls out of fashion. The new documentary Blackfish, which has been named a NY Times Critics’ Pick, details the life of Tilikum and “compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the mulit-billion dollar sea-park industry.”
SeaWorld was completely uninterested in the documentary until its recent release in the US and UK. They have since started refuting many points in the film. You can watch the trailer here and get links for many more articles on the subject here.
PLEASE NOTE: I am in no way associated with the Blackfish movie, SeaWorld, or any other organization mentioned here. I am simply a lover of marine life. This continues to be a controversial subject and this post is the author’s opinion, meant to stimulate conversation. Research on the mental and physical health of cetaceans in captivity continues to generate knowledge that can inform our thoughts and actions.