Editor’s Note – Contributing MST writer Michael Bear is an AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Science Diver and a Featured Contributor with California Diver Magazine. He lives and works in San Diego.
Recently, the movie ‘Blackfish‘ has created quite a stir in the world of captive orcas and those concerned with the ‘captive display industry,’ ie: SeaWorld and its impact on killer whales.
David Kirby and his dog, Wilson.
Not everyone is aware that a full year before the movie came out, David Kirby authored a ground-breaking book on the subject, called ‘Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,’ which was the first in-depth examination of the controversy surrounding the death of one of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau, at the hands of one of SeaWorld’s largest bull, Tilikum, as well as the science behind the subject of orcas in general, featuring orca expert, Dr. Naomi Rose, who also appeared in the movie’s DVD extra.
David Kirby is also the author of ‘Evidence of Harm,’ which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and ‘Animal Factory,’ an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work The Jungle.
Marine Science Today recently caught up with Mr. Kirby to ask a few questions about some of the issues raised in both the movie and his book. Here’s part one of the two-part interview.
Q: Although not an orca researcher yourself, you have interviewed several in the course of researching your book, namely, Dr. Naomi Rose and Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, Co-Principal Investigator on the Orca Survey since 1994, so you have obviously done your homework on a subject, which can get pretty emotional at times. SeaWorld says that having orcas in captivity helps educate the public on these complex animals and that without the public display industry, the average person would probably never get to see an orca.
A: It is an emotional issue, to be sure, but when you examine the evidence objectively, weighing both sides of the argument, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than captivity for killer whales is, on balance, neither good, ethical, nor educational.
1) Seeing orcas at SeaWorld does not educate the public on orcas in the wild. In fact, SeaWorld mis-educates the public about these animals, their natural history, social bonds, longevity, compassion and so on. At SeaWorld, you learn that orcas like to “party” and “dance” to rock music, wave their pectoral fins at people and French kiss each other, which of course is nonsense. I have heard visitors leave the park raving about the ‘Shamu whales,’ but they remain uneducated about the species and the serious challenges that some populations (especially in the Pacific Northwest) must endure, or how to help alleviate these problems.
2) And the argument that most people cannot see orcas in the wild is unfounded. Just recently, all kinds of orcas were spotted off the coast of Southern California, much to the delight of whale watchers out on boats.
3) Furthermore, it costs roughly as much to fly from, say, Chicago, to Orlando or San Diego as it does to fly to Seattle. From there, you can board the Victoria Clipper for a day of orca watching off San Juan Island, which includes 2.5 hours of dedicated viewing (as opposed to the 18-minute Shamu show). It’s true that prices have increased this year: Adult tickets run $83-to-$138, depending on the month, though child tickets are only $22. So for an average family of four, it is still the equivalent, or cheaper, than a day at SeaWorld. And there are many places in the area where you can see orcas from the shore, for free, often more up close than on a boat (where Federal regulations limit vessels to 200 yards away). Finally, many people, especially kids, are fascinated by dinosaurs, yet they have never seen one in person.
Q: Why is captivity for orcas a bad idea?
A: In a word: longevity. One scientific study found that the annual mortality rate for killer whales in captivity is two and a half times higher than orcas in the Pacific Northwest (and more recent estimates put the figure at three times higher). But that is just the beginning.