Blackfish, the outstanding documentary about killer whales in captivity, airs this Thursday night on CNN, which posed some pointed questions to SeaWorld about the highly profitable practice. Some of the answers, provided by spokesman Fred Jacobs, range from half-truths to unscientific nonsense.
Most of these issues are discussed in my book, Death at SeaWorld, Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. Readers will recognize SeaWorld’s latest attempt at positive spin as part its eternal drive to make orcas in swimming pools appear to be a good thing, especially for the whales.
Here are some of the main points raised in the CNN Q/A with Jacobs, paired with what I discovered researching Death at SeaWorld:
Jacobs says SeaWorld has, “assisted whales many times, including killer whales,” who were lost or stranded. But in at least three cases, SeaWorld seemed more interested in sending these orcas into a life of captivity to entertain tourists, rather than releasing them back into the ocean.
First there was Springer, a young female discovered in Puget Sound, alone and undernourished. As I reported, the main organizations working to help Springer were the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Vancouver Aquarium, the Center for Whale Research and OrcaLab on Johnstone Strait, in British Columbia, the summer home to Springer’s pod.
Springer was eventually caught and transferred to a netted-off pen, where she could be fed and cared for. Many scientists and activists wanted to see her returned to her family, but her fate was uncertain.
According to my sources, SeaWorld wanted to see Springer taken captive permanently. “The SeaWorld vet tried his best to find something wrong with Springer that would dictate that she be moved to a SeaWorld tank,” says Howard Garrett of the Orca Network. Garrett and his wife Susan Berta spent time with Springer in Washington.
Springer had settled near the Vashon Island ferry dock. “She chose one of the best fishing spots in Puget Sound, and was seen catching salmon with ease,” Garrett recalls. “She was always very active and alert. We watched as Springer was captured. In the hour before, we watched her do half a dozen breaches or half breaches. We didn’t see anything about her condition to worry about.”
But SeaWorld veterinarian Jim McBain told the Seattle Times that, “We’re still worried about the next step. Her condition is a concern. This is not a robust killer whale. To me, this is a big question now: is she going to know she’s a killer whale?”
According to Garrett, “Industry vets were casting doubt on her ability to rejoin her pod, angling for permanent captivity. It was only the resounding voices of orca experts and conservationists who absolutely opposed captivity that turned efforts toward finding a way to transport her back to Johnstone Strait, where she did rejoin her family within 24 hours. She soon became an adopted member of her aunt’s matriline and returned this year with her own newborn.”
Despite SeaWorld’s concerns, Springer clearly “knew” she was a killer whale.
Then there was Luna, an adolescent male separated from his pod in Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island. Without his family, the lonely whale began bonding with boaters, an unwanted and potentially dangerous development.
Luna could not stay in the inlet. Plans were made to capture him, possibly to reunite him with his family. But a local First Nation tribe intervened, and Luna’s capture was thwarted. The entire drama was recounted in the documentary The Whale and companion book The Lost Whale.
But my sources told me about documents showing that SeaWorld was interested in exploring the possibility of sending Luna into a life of captivity. Sadly, Luna was killed by a tugboat propeller before he could be returned to his family, or sent to a marine park.
Finally, Jacobs mentions a young female rescued off the coast of the Netherlands, named Morgan. Despite attempts by scientists and activists to win the whale’s freedom, Morgan was sent to the Loro Parque theme park, in the Canary Islands, where she remains to this day.
All killer whales at Loro Parque belong to SeaWorld, and now the company lists Morgan as part of their “collection” in papers filed with the SEC. There will be another legal hearing on Morgan’s fate next month, but it’s clear that SeaWorld has no intention of letting go. SeaWorld and Loro Parque claim that Morgan is “hearing impaired,” but have not released data on how severe the impairment is.
Millions of SeaWorld visitors, Jacobs wrote, “have experienced killer whales in a way that is personal, enriching and inspirational,” adding that it is “our hope” that every SeaWorld visitor will leave the park, “with a greater understanding of and appreciation for all the animals we display, including killer whales.”
SeaWorld may “hope” it inspires people to support conservation, but the reality suggests otherwise.
I went to SeaWorld several times to research my book, and attended both the “Believe” and “One Ocean” Shamu shows, where I heard virtually nothing that would educate people about killer whales in the wild, how long they live, their social bonds, their hunting patterns, and ways to conserve their threatened natural habitats. Instead, I “learned” that whales like blaring music, roaring crowds, back-flips and French kissing. When I left, instead of hearing people talk about saving wild whales, they were talking about the “Shamu whales.” That’s bad education, which is worse than no education at all.
Dr. Lori Marino, a prominent whale and dolphin scientist, says there is no evidence based on valid science showing that people truly learn something, or are moved to take action for marine conservation, after visiting a marine park.
“It is not proper to simply ask people whether they have learned or what they think they
have learned, or how much they enjoyed the class,” Marino testified in a 2010 Congressional hearing. Direct testing of acquired knowledge, and not feel-good public opinion polling, is the only way to properly assess any education program. Industry-sponsored papers “typically involve asking visitors whether they think they have been educated. But they do not actually test knowledge,” she said. “There is no compelling or even strongly suggestive current evidence that visits to zoos and aquariums promote positive attitude change, learning or conservation actions.”
“Much of what is known about the killer whale’s anatomy, reproductive biology and capacity to learn was learned at SeaWorld and other accredited zoological institutions,” Jacobs wrote.
There is no question that some killer whale research could only be conducted in a tank, and SeaWorld is to be commended for adding to our body of knowledge on the species. But a scan of the scientific studies cited by Jacobs reveals that several were conducted in the ocean, not at SeaWorld. Many studies conducted with SeaWorld orcas pertained mostly to animal husbandry and keeping whales in captivity. One “study” was a book review and another documented the death of a SeaWorld orca that contracted St. Louis encephalitis via a mosquito bite.
QUALITY OF LIFE
While Jacobs conceded that “a killer whale can and occasionally might travel as much as 100 miles in a day,” he wrote that “swimming that distance is not integral to a whale’s health and well-being. It is likely foraging behavior.”
And he added this: “They adapt very well to life in a zoological setting.”
One wonders if Jacobs read the science on this issue. As I wrote in Death at SeaWorld: “Any species’ home range is as large as needed to support its food requirements. Animals with all their energy needs met in the immediate area evolved to have a small home range. But animals with energy requirements that were met only by widely dispersed sources evolved to cover a larger home range. Restricting an orca’s foraging range was precisely the reason why killer whales did not thrive in captivity. You cannot switch off millions of years of evolution just because an animal is captive.”
All carnivores that are wide-ranging do poorly in captivity. One 2003 study analyzed data from predators with small home ranges, and those with large ranges and widely dispersed prey. The former did well enough in captivity: their health was good, they didn’t develop behavioral stereotypies (pacing, etc.) and they had lower infant-mortality rates. The latter fared much worse. Their health was fair to poor, they often developed stereotypies and infant-mortality rates were higher.
Killer whales are wide-ranging and, according to the pattern the authors described, would do poorly in confinement. If a species evolved to be active, even because of food requirements, then taking that away could kill.
Dr. Naomi Rose, a leading marine mammal scientist who published a paper for the Humane Society of the United States called Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity, said that, “The science is in, and we should realize that nothing – not profit, not education, not conservation – can justify keeping this large, social, intelligent predator in a small box.” Her paper highlighted “the growing body of scientific evidence showing that orcas do not adapt to captivity,” including:
■ Captive female orcas were giving birth too young and too often, leading to a higher death rate among both adults and infants.
■ The most common cause of death for captive orcas was infection. Chronic stress might also be an important factor in weakening the animals’ immune response.
■ Captive orcas had poor dental health compared to wild whales, “which may be another factor in their susceptibility to fatal infections.”
■ Orcas in captivity were more aggressive toward each other, and females behaved abnormally toward their calves more often than in the wild.
■ Captive orcas had “seriously threatened the lives and safety of dozens of people,” four of whom had died.
To me, the most damning condemnation of orca captivity is the fact that killer whales in tanks have an annual mortality rate two-and-a-half times higher than wild whales.
Many opponents say the best thing for these animals is gradual retirement to netted-off sea pens. There, they could exist in real ocean water, catch and eat live fish, and live to the rhythms of the natural world. SeaWorld would still own the animals and could charge people to observe or study them from shore. It would be a win-win-win situation: for SeaWorld, for the public, and especially for the whales.
But SeaWorld disagrees. “Sea pens are not appropriate for long-term care,” Jacobs claimed, without providing any supporting data. Apparently, we should just take his word for it.
“Our killer whale habitats are the largest and most sophisticated ever constructed for a marine mammal: 7 million gallons of continually filtered and chilled water,” Jacobs said.
One expects that SeaWorld, at minimum, can filter and chill its own artificial seawater. But before you decide whether 7 million gallons is sufficient to sustain these top oceanic predators, watch Blackfish and then make up your own mind.