Orcas in Captivity: A Tipping Point?

It has been nearly a year and a half since SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed by a 12,000 pound orca named Tilikum. Preceding Ms. Brancheau in death was Alexis Martinez, who was killed at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands in December 2009 in a similar and unfortunate accident by Keto, a 6,000 pound orca on loan to the park since 2006 by SeaWorld.  What has transpired since has been a mixture of increased public scrutiny aimed at the keeping of orcas in captivity and a flurry of defensive responses from the marine park giant SeaWorld.  Ranging from a congressional oversight hearing questioning the educational value of public display (captive) facilities and their programs, to a series of orca deaths at SeaWorld parks in the US, to exploration of safety measures by SeaWorld seeking to ultimately reinstate in-water work with its trainers and orcas, this past year has exposed some of the shocking realities facing both orcas and trainers alike.

Thanks to the courage of former SeaWorld trainers, the public has been provided detailed information regarding the chronic stress that these orcas endure, exacerbated by and inextricably linked to the poor dental condition and chronic infections that occur in captivity and require constant regiments of antibiotics, and perhaps also contribute to their aggressive tendencies and shortened lives in captivity.  News also came to light about the cause of death of an orca (Kanduke) that occurred over twenty years ago in 1990 at SeaWorld Orlando due to an encephalitis virus transmitted through a mosquito bite, further illustrating the risks to orcas in captivity. 

WDCS was not surprised by SeaWorld’s immediate challenge to OSHA’s citation and fine issued in August 2010 which stated that SeaWorld acted knowingly and irresponsibly in exposing its trainers to known safety  hazards (orcas) that could result in death.   SeaWorld will appear before an administrative law judge this September to contest OSHA’s findings and to defend its position, outlining recent mitigation measures meant to create a safer environment for its trainers.  The hearing before the independent US Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission was postponed from last April, and is slated to occur September 19th.  It is uncertain whether the hearing will be open to the public

Among the measures that SeaWorld has offered as abatement include the installation of railings at the orca performance stadium;   a ‘net box’ that is intended to allow trainers to more quickly deploy safety nets in case of an emergency with an orca; and spare air devices that would allow life-sustaining oxygen to be incorporated into trainer wetsuits.  Other measures that are being considered are a pool floor that can be lifted to quickly dry dock an orca, and underwater remotely controlled submersibles or robots that can be used to distract the animals. WDCS maintains that there is no way to reduce or remove the risks to trainers inherent to interacting with orcas in captivity, particularly physical injury from an aggressive orca. 

SeaWorld has tried to address the elements it has control over (the pool and surrounding environment), but has done little to address the orcas or their circumstances in captivity. WDCS has documented over 40 separate incidents involving orcas and their trainers, ranging from the 1970s to present day. Other sources have cited higher figures, documenting the injuries and accidents between orcas and trainers that were never reported or revealed to the public through media accounts. SeaWorld boldly announced the reopening of  the ‘Dine with Shamu’ show at SeaWorld San Antonio on February 26th,  2011, just a year after the accident that took Ms. Brancheau’s life in the same attraction in Orlando, and returned Tilikum to performances in April.    Also in April, SeaWorld showcased its new One Ocean show as a replacement to its Believe show at its Orlando location, and to accommodate a new format where trainers do not directly interact with the orcas in the water during performances. However, SeaWorld has stated that it intends to have its trainers enter the water  again as soon as it has exhausted every safety measure.


Furthermore, and perhaps in an attempt to convince the public that it is making significant contributions to  conservation, SeaWorld is diversifying , including the recent announcement that it will open a dolphin rehabilitation ‘hospital’ at its Orlando location.  While we would like to believe in the good intentions of SeaWorld, the real proof of their commitment to conservation and the welfare of the stranded animals it brings into this facility will be the release of these animals back to the wild, rather than their retention in marine parks across the US. 

But SeaWorld’s troubles are far from over. SeaWorld is also involved in a court case with Marineland, Canada and has been thrust into the spotlight again with more orca troubles. Despite SeaWorld's claims of having their orcas' best interests' in mind, an argument that is being used to justify its request to cancel its breeding loan with Marineland and return an orca named Ikaika (Ike) back to one of its US facilities, Ike is only one example of an orca born at a SeaWorld facility and moved to another. Ike was taken from his mother Katina and father Tilikum in November 2006 at the age of 4, disrupting their family unit, and shipped off to Marineland from SeaWorld Orlando to breed with the now 36-year old Kiska. A recent article  focusing on the troubles at Loro Parque, where Alexis Martinez was killed by an orca on loan from SeaWorld, details the lethal potential of orcas being trained for our entertainment, and the inadequacies of the facilities holding them.  

Through the affidavits associated with the Marineland case, WDCS has learned that SeaWorld has inadvertently validated the very arguments that WDCS and others have presented against keeping these large predators in confinement:  citing aggression, poor dental health, stress and other factors as the basis for their concerns over the welfare of Ike at Marineland, SeaWorld is demanding that Ike come home. 

The struggle for control over Ike clarifies for us that orcas are the property of no one. They are part of the public trust, and any public display facility is accountable to us--all of us--in its treatment, transfer and ultimate wellbeing of these animals, whether they were originally taken from the wild, or whether they were born in captivity. Furthermore, human lives are also being weighed against the costs and benefits of maintaining these valuable, yet dangerous, orcas in captivity

Further illustrating our assumptions regarding SeaWorld’s attempts to acquire and control valuable orca assets, and in blatant conflict with growing public opinion in opposition to holding orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has announced its intent to acquire Morgan, a juvenile orca rescued from the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands and transfer her to Loro Parque.  WDCS, along with a coalition of partners, submitted a plan for the rehabilitation and retirement of Morgan, as an alternative to keeping her in captivity.  With the troubled past and current orca issues at Loro Parque, including aggression and questionable care, and the likelihood that Morgan will eventually end up as a performing orca at SeaWorld in the US, WDCS opposes this transfer.

This past year and a half has brought us a personal glimpse of the truth, tragedy and risk associated with the confinement of orcas in captivity.  It has also revealed the quality of life and welfare concerns that orcas in these theme parks must endure for our entertainment.  And the stories are not over. As more and more details surface from the orca trainer and research communities, through lawsuits and media inquiries, and even from SeaWorld itself, WDCS is certain that the mounting pressure against holding orcas in captivity will serve to provide the public with an aversion to these shows and outdated practices, and serve as a tipping point in the right direction.  WDCS continues to call for an end to the confinement of whales and dolphins in captivity.





I just got back from SeaWorld San Diego 3 hours ago. We saw the One Ocean Shamu Show twice! It doesn't have the trainers in the water but it was aanizmg! After doing some research it turns out that the stopped the trainers riding on whales routine because of the danger and accidents happening to the trainers. Then with a new routine that doesn't involve trainers in the water, we no longer have the Believe Shamu Show but One Ocean Shamu instead. It still rocks!