By: Mara Liz Díaz Burgos
Figure 1. Cartoon representation of a captive orca whale
Adapted from Haley Ann, Phighting for a cure while remaining simply phenomenal, by H. A., 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://phenomenalhaley.com/2014/01/06/mammal-monday/.
Imagine being taken away from your family and held captive in isolation for two thirds of your life, while being exploited everyday for the economic gain of a multi-billion dollar company. That is exactly what orca whales, marine animals, experience once they are taken from the freedom of the vast ocean and are thrown into the captivity of metal tanks. These animals (orca whales), like humans, are intelligent and social creatures that are being submitted to physical, mental, and emotional damage with no regard for their well-being or survival. Some people see it as a means of entertainment, others as an educational experience. In reality, it is an immoral act driven mainly by profit.
In 1970, the sound of bombs and frantic cries were heard along Puget Sound, Washington as more than 90 orca whales were being herded by multiple capture teams. Aircrafts flew above the Pacific Ocean spotting the fleeing whales while speedboats chased and gathered the young ones with explosives and seine nets. By the end of the day, 7 young orcas were captured and 3 were killed and disposed of. Video 1 (Jay G, 2013) shows a scene, from the documentary Blackfish, which relates this very process. Unfortunately, this is an event that dates back to 1961 and is still carried out to the day of this writing.
Video 1. Orca Kidnapping (Blackfish)
Adapted from YouTube, by Jay G, 2013. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zXMxBtBPJo.
Effects of Captivity
The first known orca captured was a female spotted in Newport Harbor. From the moment the whale was placed in a tank, she began exhibiting signs of erratic behavior consisting of her smashing into the walls of the tank at high speeds until it eventually caused her death (Messenger, 2014, para. 10-12). This type of behavior, along with psychosis, self-mutilation, laying or floating motionless, biting on gates and bars, and aggression towards others, is not uncommon among captive whales. The reason for this behavior is that, in the wild, whales spend their lifetime swimming approximately 100 miles a day along with their social and family groups, which can range from 15 to 60 members. However, in captivity, whales are separated from their families and isolated in small, shallow tanks where they can only swim in endless circles, causing boredom and depression (SOS Dolphins, n.d.). The red circle in Figure 2 (Limited space, n.d.) demonstrates the limited space whales have in these tanks. A better understanding of a whale’s perspective can be achieved by comparing it to a human spending the rest of his or her life alone in a bathtub.
Figure 2. Limited space of whale tanks (SeaWorld)
Adapted from “30 years and three deaths: Tilikum’s tragic story”, SeaWorld of hurt: where happiness tanks, n.d. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/30-years-three-deaths-tilikums-tragic-story/.
Besides behavioral issues, a number of health issues usually arise from being contained in small tanks. Some of these include deadly infections such as pneumonia, sunburn due to the lack of sun protection and the shallow depth of the pools, immune system malfunction, the dropping of dorsal fins, dental injuries, among others (Jett & Ventre, 2011; SOS Dolphins, n.d.). The tanks become an even harsher environment when whales from different social groups and cultural backgrounds are placed together. In addition, whales born into captivity are subjected to inbreeding or sold to other parks and aquariums in spite of the severance of their family ties (SOS Dolphins, n.d.).
The inhumanity and immorality involved in the captivity of marine life in general is greatly apparent from the discussion above. Nevertheless, marine parks and aquariums around the world not only participate but also benefit economically from this phenomenon, the most successful park being SeaWorld.
Making a Profit
SeaWorld is a marine mammal park owned by SeaWorld Entertainment, a leading theme park and entertainment company which also owns Discovery Cove, Aquatica, Busch Gardens, Adventure Island, Water Country, and Sesame Place. SeaWorld is most commonly known for its orca shows, although it also features sea lion and dolphin shows, marine animal exhibits, and thrill rides. Since its opening in 1964, SeaWorld has had a leading role in the utilization of marine life for entertainment and profit. More than 400,000 people visited the park during its first year. Last year (2014), it received more than 22 million visitors, each paying an entrance fee of more than $75. SeaWorld also generates revenues from its culinary services and merchandise sold inside its parks (SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, 2015). Video 2 (Behind the Thrills, 2012) shows a promotional video for SeaWorld Orlando aired in 2012.
Video 2. 2012 SeaWorld Orlando promotional video
Adapted from YouTube, by Behind the Thrills, 2012. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evgR7nLctsA.
SeaWorld currently holds 30 whales captive, 23 of whom can be found at its 3 locations across the United States, while the rest can be found on a zoo in Spain called Loro Parque. Over the years, the captivity of orcas has proven to be not only unethical but also unsafe due to the recorded number of incidents and deaths attributed to its whales and trainers alike. A total of 37 whales, 1 trainer, and 1 trespasser have died in SeaWorld’s facilities, while 93 incidents of injuries have been reported. Exhibit 1 (SeaWorld’s timeline of death, n.d.) depicts the 37 whale deaths that have occurred at SeaWorld. Exhibit 2 (Jacobs, 2015) lists the amount of incidents resulting from the captivity of whales, including the 93 that took place at SeaWorld parks.
In every incident that occurred, SeaWorld Entertainment tried to manipulate the media into relating the story in a way that was not detrimental to them. The main reason for this being that perceiving whales as dangerous and aggressive animals will most likely have a negative effect on the sale of tickets and merchandise. Therefore, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was fatally attacked in 2010, the company blamed the incident on her and not on the vicious outburst of a clearly abused and affected animal (Oteyza & Cowperthwaite, 2012).
Taking a Stand
It is evident, from the discussion above, that more importance is being placed on the economic aspect of the company and not on the moral issue at hand. Because of this, organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) have filed investigations and multiple lawsuits against SeaWorld. In order to create further awareness, a 90-minute documentary (Blackfish), which provides an in-depth look into this cruel reality, was released. The film has inspired many companies and the general public to take steps to end the practice by protesting, boycotting, and severing any association with the parks. As a result, in 2014, SeaWorld’s revenues dropped more than 7%, its attendance almost 5%, and its stock price 60%. In 2015, the company’s CEO, James Atchison, resigned (Ferdman, 2014).
Negative effects toward the company are rapidly becoming apparent, however, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Millions of people keep supporting the captivation and abuse of marine animals by visiting the parks year after year. One of the biggest reasons: they have not realized the ethical issues that the behavior of companies like SeaWorld implies. Their lack of environmental protection and company transparency is irrefutable. Because of this, stronger actions need to be taken to ensure not only the safe release of the animals currently in confinement but also the prohibition of future exploitation of all animals.
Exhibit 1. SeaWorld’s timeline of death
Adapted from “Lives stolen by SeaWorld”, SeaWorld of hurt: where happiness tanks, n.d. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/lives-stolen-seaworld/.
Exhibit 2. Amount of incidents resulting from the captivity of whales
Adapted from “Incidents between humans and killer whales in captivity – a longer list than the parks would like to tell you!”, Orca Home, 2015. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.orcahome.de/incidents.htm.
Behind the Thrills. (2012, April 20). 2012 SeaWorld Orlando promotional video. [Video file] Retrieved April 5, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evgR7nLctsA.
Ferdman, R. A. (2014). “The sinking of SeaWorld”. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/12/12/chart-what-the-documentary-blackfish-has-done-to-seaworld/.
H. A. (2014). Cartoon representation of a captive orca whale [Image]. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://phenomenalhaley.com/2014/01/06/mammal-monday/.
Jacobs, S. (2015). Amount of incidents resulting from the captivity of whales [Image]. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.orcahome.de/incidents.htm.
Jay G. (2013, December 31). Orca Kidnapping (Blackfish) [Video file]. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zXMxBtBPJo.
Jett, J. S., & Ventre J. M. (2011). “Keto & Tilikum express the stress of orca captivity”. The Orca Project. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from https://theorcaproject.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/keto-tilikum-express-stress-of-orca-captivity/.
(n.d.). Limited space of whale tanks (SeaWorld). [Image]. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/30-years-three-deaths-tilikums-tragic-story/.
Messenger, S. (2014). Remembering Wanda, The first killer whale taken into captivity. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from https://www.thedodo.com/remembering-wanda-the-first-ki-498461409.html.
Oteyza, M. (Producer), & Cowperthwaite, G. (Producer/Director). (2012). Blackfish [Documentary]. United States: Magnolia Pictures.
(2015). SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://seaworldentertainment.com.
(n.d.). SeaWorld’s timeline of death. [Image]. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/lives-stolen-seaworld/.
(n.d.). SOS Dolphins. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from http://sosdolphins.org.