I gave the keynote address at the World Whale Conference on November 7, 2013 in Gloucester, MA, with the following coverage in the local newspaper:
Killer whales held in captivity face a host of environmental and health threats that render their existence far more dangerous and stressful than if they lived in the wild, author David Kirby told attendees to the World Whale Conference Thursday at Cruiseport Gloucester.
Kirby, author of “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” painted a bleak tableau of life for captive killer whales, including a higher propensity for infection, disease and a mortality rate that is more than twice that of comparably aged whales in the wild.
“They die younger and in absolutely ghastly ways,” Kirby told the gathering at the second World Whale Conference co-hosted by the World Cetacean Alliance and Cetacean Society International in one of America’s leading whale-watch cities.
Those methods of death include a level of fighting among the creatures just not observed in the wild, Kirby said. He also pointed out that the whales represent a greater danger to humans while in captivity because of the abnormal ways their lives are altered.
Kirby said he is unaware of any fatal orca attacks on humans in the wild.
“They don’t eat us,” he said. “We are not on the menu.”
By comparison, killer whales have attacked and killed four trainers or staff members while in captivity. The most recent was in February 2010, when SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water by a male orca and died after the male and two other female killer whales attacked her.
Kirby, a freelance investigative reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times and on the Huffington Post, among other publications, said he initially was drawn to the fate of whales in captivity after the Brancheau incident.
“It had nothing to do with killer whales,” he said. “It had to do with SeaWorld. It was not only a corporate malfeasance story and a worker-safety story. This is a story about captivity.”
His research for the book, which alternated between observing killer whales in the wild in the Pacific Northwest and the SeaWorld parks in California and Florida, offered a stark difference in the quality of the whales’ lives in the two settings.
In the end, he simply decided keeping killer whales in captivity harms the animals in ways that overwhelm the educational benefits of providing public proximity to animals usually only available to be viewed in the wild.
“I’m a journalist and also a human being,” Kirby said. “I know right from wrong. It’s wrong.”
After his address, Kirby was asked if theme parks such as SeaWorld provide any public benefit in areas of research and education.
“There is a lot of good that the industry does and that SeaWorld does,” Kirby said, mentioning its educational programs, its outreach to children and schools, and its conservation efforts, which, he pointed out, do not include killer whales.
“I do not believe any of it mitigates the damage done by captivity,” he said. “I do not think one justifies the other.”
Kirby also drew a distinction between the subject of his book and any perception that he is opposed to everything the theme parks represent.
“My book and I are not anti-SeaWorld,” Kirby said. “I’m not anti-aquarium. I’m anti-cetaceans in captivity.”
In his talk, Kirby offered some insights into the insular world of the orca. Among them:
Killer whale society is matriarchal, with females holding the dominant roles in whale pods — the term for a social group of whales — when it comes to travel, breeding, feeding and the other important daily elements of orca life.
Male orca spend 70 percent of their lives within one body-length of their mothers and are expected to baby-sit younger siblings and relatives when the mother goes off to rest, feed or breed.
The orca are highly intelligent, with complex and large crenelated brains that allow them to learn and perform complicated tasks in captivity and live highly social lives in the wild.