Can We Be Rational About SeaWorld?

Image by Shalom

Image by Shalom


Last Friday night, I was skimming through Facebook when I noticed a slurry of posts from my SeaWorld friends, expressing shock and sadness at the events of the day.

That’s how I found out that over 300 workers had just been laid off. Among them were friends I’ve known since 2003, when I first took a job in the Education Department at SeaWorld San Diego.

I hadn’t bought a ticket to SeaWorld in over 10 years, but my fiancée and I went out the next day and got ourselves a pair of annual passes. We figured this was the least we could do to support the park.

Still, I knew it was no consolation to the people who had just lost their jobs. And that’s why I’m writing this piece now.

To my friends who have dedicated most of their adult lives to SeaWorld, this one is for you.

As for those of you who are anti-SeaWorld, please understand that the people who have chosen a career caring for marine animals do so out of love for these animals and respect for our oceans.

Even if you disagree with what SeaWorld does, I hope you can spare an ounce of sympathy for those who lost their livelihoods last week.

Avoiding The Black-Or-White

In this post, I will not pronounce my adulating support for SeaWorld. Yes, I worked there for several years. Yes, I still have close friends who work there. Yes, at heart, I do believe in SeaWorld’s mission. But that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the problems of keeping killer whales in captivity.

I am not taking a black-or-white stance (get it?) on this issue. If you want right versus wrong, good versus evil, this is not the blog post you’re looking for.

Instead, I will wade into the muddy gray waters this topic inevitably swirls up. I will weigh the pros and cons as logically as I can. I will share the information my personal research has uncovered, as well as the insights I gained as an educator at SeaWorld. And yes, I will explain why I do ultimately support SeaWorld’s endeavors.

My goal isn’t to convince you to agree with me, but to help you see that the issue of killer whales in captivity is nowhere near as clear-cut as movies like Blackfish would lead you to believe. I don’t want to tell you what to believe. I want to help guide you towards drawing your own informed conclusions.

For this reason, I will attempt to link to as many objective sources as I can — sources that lay out the facts, sources that present both sides. Yes, I will state my opinions, but I will also back them up with evidence. And when I do point to a biased source, it will be to illustrate one side or the other’s argument. To me, that’s the only rational way to draw conclusions on a topic as contentious as this one.

Maybe this way, we can all come to an educated position on this issue. And if we ultimately disagree, then at least we can respectfully disagree, secure in the knowledge that the other side is well-informed, too.

Having said that, let’s start by discussing how we shouldn’t think about this topic….

Navigating The Murky Waters

Did Blackfish strike you in the gut? Did it evoke feelings of rage within you, even as a tiny little violin played in your heart for the plight of the killer whales? Did it make you want to condemn SeaWorld for all their heinous practices?

If so, congratulations. You’re now operating on emotion, rather than reason. This was the intent of Blackfish (though, in their defense, emotional manipulation is the goal of any filmmaker).


Case in point….

Now, emotions are great and all (at least, that’s what my fiancée tells me). But when it comes to controversial topics, there is no place for them. This is why I will attempt to counter Blackfish’s emotional joyride with cold, hard rationalism.

Yes, I know I have an uphill battle. When was the last time logic won out over pure emotion?

Maybe today. Maybe today.

Alright, let’s start by discussing how Blackfish manipulates us….

That Blackfish-Flavored Kool-Aid

More than anything else, what Blackfish accomplishes so adeptly is anthropomorphism. Don’t know what that means? Let me Google that for you.

In short, anthropomorphism is attributing human characteristics to animals.

If you watched Blackfish and thought to yourself, “How can SeaWorld keep their killer whales in those glorified bathtubs? That’s horrible,” then you just committed anthropomorphism. You are projecting human needs onto animals that are decidedly not human.

Please don’t do that. It’s ultimately counterproductive, and we’ll see why up ahead.


Then again, we can blame SeaWorld for anthropomorphizing killer whales in the first place. Source

Now, to be clear, avoiding anthropomorphism doesn’t mean that we stop caring about the animals. We absolutely must consider their welfare first and foremost. We just have to consider their actual needs, not what we would need if we were in their situation.

cat in sweater by alll

Like our need for clothing, for instance. I’m skeptical that cats actually want to wear sweaters. Source

To get you to drink their Kool-Aid, the makers of Blackfish put on a great anthropomorphic production. Even Roger Ebert’s glowing review of the movie mentions the emotional gimmickry. (Also notice how he ends with an anthropomorphism…. *grumble grumble grumble*)

This is why we have to focus on the actual facts.

To do that, I’m going to address five big claims made by Blackfish and other anti-captivity advocates. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you by nitpicking every last inaccuracy in the movie. (SeaWorld has already done that, and Blackfish has responded with their own list of nits.)

As you’ll soon see, the truth is a bit more nuanced than the movie would have you believe….

1. Killer whales in the wild swim up to 100 miles per day

I Googled “killer whales swim 100 miles per day” and found site after site quoting this exact stat.

Do you know what I didn’t find? The original scientific study that reports it.

Although I was never able to track down an online copy of this study, I did find a conservation plan prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The plan references the study that reports the 100-miles-per-day stat, so… close enough.

Reading through the report, I realized that context changes the significance of this stat considerably. The section titled “Traveling” reports the following:

Whales swimming in a constant direction at a slow, moderate, or rapid pace without feeding are considered to be traveling. This behavior is usually seen among animals moving between locations, such as desirable feeding areas…. In Washington and British Columbia, traveling occupies about 15-31% of the total activity budget of transients, but only about 4-8% of the time of northern residents. [Proposed Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales, p. 21]

Later on, the section titled “Movement and Dispersal” reports this:

Many pods inhabit relatively small core areas for periods of a few weeks or months, but travel extensively at other times…. Both types of whales can swim up to 160 km per day, allowing rapid movement between areas.  [Proposed Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales, p. 23]

So that’s why I couldn’t find the original study! The stat was reported in kilometers. Facepalm moment, eh?

Anyway, as the report indicates, swimming long distances is a rare event. Most of the time, the killer whales stay in one area, and only when they need to find a new food source will they start traveling. And even then, 100 miles is a maximal value, not a typical occurrence. This is entirely in agreement with what we know about animal migration.

Note: In the original published version of this post, I mentioned that I wasn’t able to find a study reporting the 100-miles-per-day stat, but continued on the assumption that it was true. Commenter ND1987 directed me to the conservation plan, so I revised this section with the updated information on December 22, 2014.

Now, as for the way Blackfish uses this stat, remember what I said about anthropomorphism? This is it right here. Animals don’t swim (or run, or slither, or hop, or whatever they do to get around) hundreds of miles a day just for kicks. They do so because they need to find food. Or have sex. Or have a crazy-food-sex orgy. (Okay, now I’m anthropomorphizing, too.)

Yes, higher mammals have a sense of curiosity and a need for mental stimulation. But nowhere is there evidence that long-distance migration is required to satisfy this need.

As for their physical health, the assertion that they “need” to swim 100 miles a day is specious at best. Do I have a source that proves they don’t need to swim 100 miles a day? No, I don’t. Then again, where is the source that proves they do?

In the absence of evidence either way, it is utterly irrational to ignore our pre-existing knowledge of animal behavior and assume that killer whales have an actual physical need to swim long distances. If they do swim 100 miles in a day, it’s due to changing food availability.

Since we love to anthropomorphize, maybe this analogy will help:

I have a coworker named Joe, who’s been known to run up to 50 miles a day. No, seriously, the dude ran uphill from Salt Lake City International Airport to Park City, Utah, back in September. For fun.

This means that humans can run “up to” 50  miles per day, right? Joe runs up to 50 miles a day, and Joe is human (though, admittedly, his running ability makes me suspect otherwise sometimes). Does that mean the rest of us aren’t getting adequate exercise if we run less than 50 miles a day?

Of course not. Some of us are perfectly happy holing up inside our 700-square-foot studio apartments, playing video games and accumulating body lint for days on end.

Maybe there’s an orca version of Joe out there. Let’s call him Dave (because I really think there should be a killer whale named “Dave”). Maybe Dave is the one setting the benchmark for distance swimming for all killer whales. And maybe Dave makes all the other killer whales think, “Man, that Dave is really making us look bad.”

SeaWorld - Lazy Shamu

Pictured: Not Dave

Point being, just because killer whales in the wild may swim up to 100 miles per day does not necessitate that they swim 100 miles per day in captivity in order to stay healthy. There’s simply no evidence to support that. If we want to measure their physical and mental health, we have to resort to other observations.

Like what, you ask? Let’s try this one….

2. The dorsal fin of killer whales only droops over in captivity

The scientific evidence for this one does indicate a difference between killer whales in the wild and in captivity. However, the cause of the dorsal fin collapse itself is unknown. According to the research:

The collapsed dorsal fins commonly seen in captive killer whales do not result from a pathogenic condition, but are instead thought to most likely originate from an irreversible structural change in the fin’s collagen over time. Possible explanations for this include (1) alterations in water balance caused by the stresses of captivity or dietary changes, (2) lowered blood pressure due to reduced activity patterns, or (3) overheating of the collagen brought on by greater exposure of the fin to the ambient air. Source

SeaWorld’s explanation is similar to (3) above: Killer whales in captivity spend more time near the surface of the water, their dorsal fins sticking up into the air. This causes them to soften and droop over, but it doesn’t indicate poor health.

SeaWorld also points to a study that found the percentage of adult male killer whales with abnormal fins to be 23% in New Zealand and 6.25% in British Columbia. These numbers include not just collapsed dorsal fins, but any abnormal shapes, so SeaWorld has been called out for misrepresenting that figure. The point is that collapsed dorsal fins do occur in the wild — just at a lower frequency.

So yes, this is one instance where there is a significant difference.

At the same time, there’s no evidence that this difference is a symptom of an actual health issue. Here’s an unbiased explanation, and here’s an in-depth paper that discusses the potential causes — and refers to the condition hilariously as “flaccid fin syndrome.” Man, way to call the whales’… uh, whalehood into question.

Enzyte Bob

In case you don’t get the reference….

The conclusion is that captivity does seem to contribute to dorsal fin collapse. However, the collapsed dorsal fin probably doesn’t affect the overall health of the animal. One of the leading advocates against killer whale captivity admits as much now.

Make another mark firmly in… that gray area… right… in the middle of the debate spectrum. Guess we’ll have to look at another factor then….

3. Killer whales live three times longer in the wild

According to Blackfish, female killer whales in the wild live up to 100 years, and males up to 60 years. Meanwhile, killer whales at SeaWorld live only 25 to 30 years.

In case you don’t immediately see how laughable this comparison is, let me make an equivalent comparison:

The tallest professional basketball player ever is Manute Bol, at 7′ 7″. Meanwhile, the average height of the entirety of the Los Angeles Lakers is 6′ 7″….

Holy crap, that means the Lakers are a foot shorter than normal! No wonder they suck so bad this year! Right?

Dude. We can’t take the oldest age of a wild killer whale and compare that to the average age of captive killer whales. That’s why articles like this one amount to nothing more than pure propaganda. Apples to apples, people.

Or tennis balls to tennis balls.

In an attempt to find some actual numbers, I took to the internet again, and I did find an unbiased source that calculated life expectancy of killer whales in the wild versus captivity. Here’s what they concluded:

When accounting only for orcas born in captivity and not captured, SeaWorld’s killer whales had an average life expectancy of 46 years. Populations of killer whales off British Columbia and Washington state that are often used as a benchmark for wild orca populations have an average life expectancy of around 49 years. Source

Not as big a discrepancy anymore, is it? And of course, we also have to consider the fact that some of the killer whales who were captured and brought into captivity are still alive and well. And we can’t calculate the mortality of an animal that is still alive and well.

This is why life expectancy is not an appropriate measure in the first place. Instead, a more accurate one is annual mortality rate — the percentage of animals that die in any given year. Here’s a news article that explains this in more detail and presents both sides fairly objectively.

One of the more oft-cited studies found the annual mortality rate to be 2.4% for wild killer whales, and 6.2% for captive ones — almost three times higher. However, there are two huge caveats here:

  1. This study was performed in 1995 — almost 20 years ago. Killer whale husbandry at SeaWorld has vastly improved since then.
  2. Only adults were counted. In the wild, calf death rates can be shockingly high, so it seems a bit unfair to discount calves here.

Either way, an updated study by the same researchers found that the mortality rate for captive killer whales has dropped to around 2% in more recent years. So now we’re down to a difference of around 0.4%.

Is this significant? Naomi Rose, the same scientist-turned-activist who conceded the point about collapsed dorsal fins above, seems to think so. She rebuts SeaWorld’s statements point-by-point to show that they are lying about killer whale longevity. To her rebuttal, I only have two replies (re-rebuttals?):

  1. Dr. Rose cites a 98.3% annual survival rate for captive orcas versus a series of survival rates ranging from 98.6% to 99.7% for wild orcas. Is this really the best stat she can muster up to support her argument? Less than half a percent to 1.5%?
  2. To the point that only non-calves were counted, Dr. Rose claims that this is a red herring. I can’t understand why this fact wouldn’t matter to her, when the difference between 98.3% and 98.6% does.

Look, we could go back and forth forever on this issue. At the same time, if we’re now citing half-percent differences for the sake of being right, I’d argue that we’re losing sight of the big picture here:

Is the captive environment really that much more harmful for the killer whales? Or at least enough to conclude that they should not be in captivity?

If we really are talking half a percent (and to be clear, this is the number cited by an activist who has battled SeaWorld for over 20 years now), and we also acknowledge that SeaWorld is continually improving their habitats, then I simply do not consider this point to be valid support that killer whales should be taken out of captivity.

Oh, but hey, at least no one is anthropomorphizing here. Woo hoo, small victories.

Moving on….

4. Killer whales only get aggressive in captivity

I won’t dispute the numbers for this one. It is absolutely true that attacks on humans by killer whales in captivity far outnumber those by killer whales in the wild.

And here we have another statistic that is ridiculously easy to misconstrue. What would you think if I said this?

“In 2013, you were 2.25 million times more likely to get attacked by a domestic dog than a wild wolf.”

If you believe this claim, you might think, “Holy crap, that’s scary. I’d better give the next dog I come across a nice hard kick to the stomach. For self-preservation.”

But if you consider the stat for a second, it should become obvious why this is a factually correct statement:

Domestic dogs interact with humans way more often than wild wolves do. Of course the numbers of attacks are going to be higher. It wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. Similarly, wild killer whales have little contact with humans. It’s silly to think their “attack rate” should be anything close to that of captive killer whales.

Furthermore, we have to consider what we define as an “attack.” If you’re a 10,000-pound predator, the line between “attack” and “play” is virtually non-existent. Here’s an adorable video of two wild killer whales “playing” with a sea lion pup (skip ahead to 1:48 to catch all the “fun”):

And that’s the issue here. There’s no reason to believe that if a killer whale “attacks” a trainer, it’s due to some long-standing bitterness at its human overlords. Books like Death at SeaWorld describe these incidents in graphic detail. The only problem is, the explanations they provide are pure conjecture. They all boil down to someone saying, “We can’t be sure what happened, but he must have been pissed off about… something.”

Here’s a quote from the book:

“What snapped in his brain that led him to beat her up so badly, after 27 years of never showing QUITE this behavior before, and after 11 years of relative calm?” [Death at SeaWorld, p. 346]

The quote is referring to Tilikum, the killer whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The author uses this and other incidents as evidence that captivity is inducing stress in these animals, and attacking humans is how they lash out. To be fair, he does clarify that no one will ever know for sure what the killer whales are thinking, but that doesn’t stop him from drawing his conclusions nevertheless.

Lest anyone accuse me of failing to consider both sides. Spend my $14 well, Mr. Anti-SeaWorld.

Here’s my take, which I acknowledge is my own conjecture:

If the killer whales truly are stressed, if they truly are resentful of their human trainers, wouldn’t we expect way more incidents? They’re five-ton animals. If they’re that pissed off, I imagine SeaWorld trainers will start dropping like, well, baby sea lions.

Going back to the last analogy, if you’ve ever tried to train a dog, you understand that even the most domesticated pooch is going to have his good days and his bad days. There are days he’ll fetch every ball and lick every hand. And then, there are other days he might snap at you for something seemingly innocuous.

Is it possible that Tilikum had “a bad day”? Is it possible that something set him off that particular day, and he responded by aggressing towards Brancheau?

Yes, absolutely. We have to entertain this possibility.

On the other hand, does this mean that Tilikum was therefore “lashing out” over decades of captivity? No, it doesn’t. Even if we accept that this was an act of aggression and not just “play,” we still can’t assume that three human deaths over the course of 27 years is demonstrable proof that the systematic oppression of killer whales by SeaWorld is now leading to a massive orca uprising. Is it shocking? Absolutely. Does it mean Tilikum is now heading up the revolution? Absolutely not.

massive orca uprising

That’s going to be the name of my band.

As callous as it sounds, I’d say that three fatal attacks by a five-ton wild animal in 27 years is a pretty good track record. You are free to disagree.

On this issue, both sides are equally obstinate. On the one end, we have anti-captivity people arguing that these incidents prove demonstrably that SeaWorld makes killer whales go crazy. On the other end, we have scrubbed-clean press releases by SeaWorld that these are tragic accidents that rarely happen, and they only happen because the killer whales are playing, or the trainers messed up somehow, and really, everything is all sunshine and marshmallows otherwise.

Why can’t we meet in the middle and just acknowledge that, look, we are in fact dealing with an apex predator here? They can be aggressive, and yes, there is a tangible danger to working with them.

The trainers who choose a career working with killer whales know the risks involved. In the wake of Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has barred trainers from getting in the pools alongside killer whales. Now, to me, this is a worthwhile discussion. Is this something the government should mandate? Or is it the right of a killer whale trainer to voluntarily accept the risk? And if so, what type of precautions can be taken to protect both the trainers and the animals?

Let’s talk about all this.

Note: I’m purposely glossing over the issue of trainer safety here. Both Blackfish and Death at SeaWorld describe the alleged disconnect between the trainers and the “corporate” side of SeaWorld. Not having been a trainer myself, I’m not privy to the conditions described by the ex-trainers or the pressure placed on them by their superiors. Therefore, I am not qualified to comment on this topic. At the same time, the issue of corporate interest versus trainer safety is only tangential here. This post is about killer whale captivity, not corporate politics. To me, it’s more important to address orca welfare first, then discuss how we can shape corporate interests around orca welfare.

But to say that a handful of isolated tragedies over the course of five decades is proof that killer whales should be removed from captivity altogether, or that SeaWorld should be shut down? That just strikes me as extremist. You might as well argue that, hey, sex can lead to unwanted pregnancy and STDs, so you should never have sex.

Ahhhh, crap. I guess some people do believe that.

Bottom line: As tragic as any human death may be, the incidents involving so-called killer whale attacks in captivity provide scant evidence that they’re behaving aggressively out of stress in their captive environment.

And finally….

5. SeaWorld disrupts the natural social structure of killer whales

That SeaWorld separates mothers from their calves is indisputable. SeaWorld outright denies it, though, so are they just arguing the semantics of the word “calf” here?

Despite being an emotionless cyborg, I’m actually hesitant to call anthropomorphism on this one. We do know that mothers and their babies form strong bonds (well, in mammals, anyway — you’re kinda screwed if you’re a sea turtle baby). If SeaWorld separates a calf from its mother, can that be mentally traumatizing for both parties?

Yes, I absolutely believe so.

At the same time, I also feel compelled to point this out (okay, maybe I am a robot after all):

Dogs are social animals, too. And we almost always separate puppies from their mothers. It may be an adjustment for the puppy at first, but eventually, the puppy learns to form just as tight of a bond with its new owners.

We know that the killer whales do in fact form strong bonds with their trainers. Even the staunchest anti-captivity activist won’t deny that. So is it not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll actually be “emotionally” okay if they get separated?

If we’re going to explore this line of reasoning, we also have to consider how old the calf is when they get separated. I did find this fact sheet on mother-calf separations, though I’m unsure how reliable the source is (the site looks like it was designed in 1998). According to the table, it looks like calves aren’t separated until they’re at least a year old.

Still, I am a bit flustered on this one point. It’s impossible to find any impartial information on calf-mother separations at SeaWorld. All we have is a bunch of sites calling SeaWorld cruel for separating mothers from calves, and SeaWorld categorically denying that they do this, even though they clearly do.

In the wild, killer whales do live in long-term pods, though there is also evidence that “loner” or “social butterfly” orcas will sometimes leave their pods and hook up with others. This means an individual killer whale may spend its entire life with its “immediate family.”

While I am leaving myself open to the possibility that a mother and her calf can be separated at some point without causing permanent trauma, I do feel like SeaWorld needs to be a bit more transparent on this issue. Certainly better than “we do not separate mothers from calves.”

In their defense, SeaWorld does explain that if a mother rejects her calf, they will be separated. And there are also times when individual killer whales (not necessarily mother and calf) may need to be separated for social reasons.

And hey, that all makes sense to me.

We the public just need a little more of that. I hope SeaWorld can do a better job of communicating their reasons for moving killer whales around, even if the reason is, “Well, Dave’s mommy doesn’t really seem to like him.”

It may not make SeaWorld look good, but let’s face it, they already look pretty bad to a bunch of people. And in this case, the evidence does lean heavily towards killer whales forming strong bonds to related family members.

Both Sides Of The Coin

And there you have it. As you can see, the issue isn’t so black-or-white, and it’s not so immediately clear that captivity is automatically harmful to the killer whales. In fact, some of the strongest evidence cited by those who oppose captivity is turning out to be inconclusive. It’s only through anthropomorphism that we start drawing conclusions about their supposed plight.

Now that we’ve addressed the concerns about what makes SeaWorld “bad,” let’s take a closer look at the “good” that SeaWorld does:

1. Rescue and Rehabilitation

Despite the skeptics’ claims that it’s all just a big facade, we can only judge SeaWorld by their actions, not by their alleged ulterior motives.

When SeaWorld rescues 24,000 injured marine animals, that’s a tangible contribution to animal welfare. And in light of the fact that government funding for marine mammal rescue has been slashed in recent years, that makes SeaWorld’s rescue efforts all the more important, yeah?

Note: Yes, these rescue numbers are taken from a pro-SeaWorld site. No, I didn’t count them myself (look, I only have 10 fingers and 10 toes). But no, I haven’t seen anyone dispute these numbers, so that’s why I’m sharing them here.

Detractors believe that SeaWorld also uses its rescue and rehabilitation program to “weasel” its way into capturing more wild animals for display in the park. What they don’t realize is that every single marine mammal in the ocean is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

No one can just go out there and capture more animals under the pretense of rescuing them. This includes SeaWorld. Any rescued animal that is ultimately kept at SeaWorld must be deemed “not releasable” under the guidelines of the MMPA.

Here’s the most recent story of a dolphin rescue. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t have a happy ending.

Okay, okay, but this one does.

I don’t think anyone can argue with SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

2. Conservation

Via the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, SeaWorld contributed $1.2 million to wildlife projects worldwide in 2013.

We can’t dispute this one either, can we?

Okay, good. This post is already way too long as is.

3. Scientific Research

Opponents point out that SeaWorld’s actual contributions to the academic world are fairly sparse: around 10% of its annual $5 million budget devoted to research, producing 26 papers between from 2012 to 2013, with only seven orca-related publications since 2010.

Within the context of an academic institution, this is far from impressive.

But whatever. In my 6.5 years as a microbiologist, I published exactly zero peer-reviewed papers, finishing up with a single measly 140-page dissertation. SeaWorld blows me away here, so who am I to say that their science sucks?

4. Entertainment

Okay, now we get to the money-making side of SeaWorld. The less extreme within the anti-captivity camp still advocate that, even if we don’t immediately return the killer whales to the ocean, we should abolish shows immediately. They’re exploitative, and they serve no educational purpose whatsoever.

For my response, let’s start by punting away the two lowest-hanging fruit:

First off, if you’re one of those people who believe that the killer whales at SeaWorld are forced to do tricks for the public, and that this causes the rage to slowly build up until they snap and attack a trainer, let’s get one thing perfectly straight:

When you’re a 10,000-pound animal, no one forces you to do anything. At best, the trainers can only give suggestions to the killer whales, and then it’s up the killer whales whether or not they want to listen to these suggestions.

Secondly, the killer whales are never deprived of food as punishment. They may not get a reward fish immediately, but at the end of the day, they’re going to get all the fish they need.

At the risk of committing my own act of anthropomorphism, it’s more likely that shows are actually “play time” for the killer whales. They get to swim around and splash people and watch them scream. It may be a big spectacle for us. But it might be just as big a spectacle for them.

Note: The “play time” line comes from an interview with Bridgette Pirtle, who was featured in Blackfish. I purposely chose this interview and source to remove as much question about bias as I could. The reality is that we can’t prove that shows are in fact play time for the killer whales. All we can conclude is that they do participate in shows of their own accord, and they never seem to tire of doing so. That last part is pretty key to me.

Here’s a study on bottlenose dolphins that concludes that shows and interaction programs can in fact be enriching for the animals. So yes, there is even scientific evidence that the animals do actually “enjoy” performing in shows.

For these reasons, I contend that SeaWorld’s entertainment programs can actually benefit both the guests and the animals.

5. Education

As far as being educational, I understand that SeaWorld is a business, and a business has to make money. Let’s be honest, if SeaWorld focuses on education alone, that would probably kill their business even more quickly than any anti-captivity activist ever could. People want to be entertained. They want to be wowed. If we can sneak in a few educational blurbs in there while entertaining them? That’s all we can ask for.

As a former teacher, I think it’s a little self-righteous to argue that SeaWorld needs to focus only on education. Any trained educator will tell you that’s an idealistic, but utterly preposterous goal. You don’t teach by cramming information into people’s brains. You teach by entertaining them and sneaking that information into their ear holes while their guard is down. It really is kind of sneaky like that.

For these reasons, I argue that SeaWorld is pretty damned good at education. How do I know? Because there’s an entire department dedicated to doing this.

Besides, studies like this one and this one support the notion that SeaWorld’s programs do provide educational value to guests. A newfound awareness and appreciation for marine life following a visit to SeaWorld may not be an easy thing to measure, but I certainly believe it’s a worthwhile cause, however intangible the results may be.

6. Animal Care

At this point in time, there are quite a few ex-SeaWorld trainers who have come out against SeaWorld’s practices. While I won’t dispute their claims, I also find it revealing that the most egregious stories are from the 90s or even earlier — that is, almost 20 years ago.

Look, there’s no denying. When marine parks first sprung up in the 1960s, people had no idea what they were doing. They went out into the ocean, and they captured wild killer whales in brutal ways. And when these killer whales were brought back, no one had any clue how to properly take care of them. Many of them didn’t live long in captivity.

In the 50 years since, however, both the environments and the animal care techniques have vastly improved. And SeaWorld hasn’t captured a killer whale from the wild in over 30 years now. If you ever spend a day at SeaWorld and just watch the daily routine of the killer whales, you’ll understand immediately that they are well taken care of. They don’t just float around all day. There are training sessions, play sessions, shows, and even relationship sessions, where trainers spend time with individual animals and form bonds with them. All of these contribute to maintaining both the physical and mental health of the killer whales at SeaWorld.

Through these animals in captivity, we also learn a great deal about their physical and behavioral traits. To me, it’s telling when a wildlife biologist points out in an interview that his group took advice from SeaWorld veterinarians. I’d say that’s pretty good evidence that SeaWorld is contributing something to scientific research, no?

Furthermore, SeaWorld is constantly improving their habitats. Their latest plan, called the Blue World Project, will double the current size of its habitat in San Diego, expanding it to almost 1.5 acres, with a total water volume of 10 million gallons. In response to concerns about swimming distance, they are also developing a water treadmill.

water treadmill

Nope, I can’t take credit for this one. Source

Of course, the environment will still be artificial. Hey, I get that. But as the evidence I pointed out previously shows, this doesn’t mean the killer whales can’t thrive in it.

Either way, to call SeaWorld out for questionable practices from over two decades ago just seems a bit… well, harsh. Man, I’d hate to be judged for the crap I pulled 20 years ago. Wouldn’t you?

Whoa, did I actually just anthropomorphize the entirety of SeaWorld?

Not-So-Secret Agendas

I’ve spent pretty much the past year accumulating resources for this post. This is what I realize now:

Many opponents of keeping killer whales in captivity want them removed from SeaWorld. Immediately. If SeaWorld goes bankrupt or closes, that would be a huge victory for them.

Every attempt by SeaWorld to improve their habitat conditions, every rescue of a stranded animal, every contribution to conservation — these are all met with skepticism or outright disdain.

See how articles like this one use a combination of the misinformation I referenced above and general dismissal of the good SeaWorld does, along with the sketchiest accusation I’ve seen yet (no, SeaWorld was not involved in the Russian capture of orcas for the last Winter Olympics). These people want the killer whales gone. There’s no room for negotiation here.

So let’s discuss their solutions for what to do with the captive killer whales, and then we’ll see how that would pan out….

Dangerous Solutions

First off, no one is going to deny that the pools at SeaWorld are artificial environments. Furthermore, no one is going to argue that the welfare of the killer whales was properly considered when people started bringing them into captivity 50 years ago.

At the same time, we can’t go back in time and change what was done in the past. So the question becomes, what should SeaWorld do with their killer whales now?

Some people want to return them to the ocean or place them in sea pens. The ocean is where they came from, after all. That’s where they belong.

Hey, do you know what else we’ve done in the past that was probably not a good idea?


So why is no one arguing that we should ship all the black people back to Africa? That’s where they came from, right? That’s where they belong.

(Wait. Maybe I shouldn’t keep tugging at this thread. I can think of a whole lotta of people who would probably love this hypothetical “solution” I just drummed up.)

The analogy may seem ridiculous, but the point holds. We’re talking about animals that have been at SeaWorld for decades, most of them for their entire lives.

Curious what happens when you do release captive animals back into the ocean? A group of scientists attempted just that back in 1991, following the closure of a marine park in Australia. Even after a year of rehabilitation to get them used to life on their own, the dolphins showed little interest in leaving their enclosure, and several struggled once they did get out into the open seas. In the words of one of the scientists involved:

While the intuitive appeal of an animal’s living in the wild has been used to encourage support for such releases, I believe that the results of our study show just how circumspect we must be. It is not the case that an animal’s welfare is automatically increased, especially not in the early period post-release. Unless there is virtual certainty of success (including adequate funding and technology, selection of appropriate candidates and a careful plan for rehabilitation and post-release monitoring) it might be best that the animal remains in captivity. Source

In another incident, with even worse results, two captive dolphins named Luther and Buck were released to the wild by activists in 1996. These were wild-caught dolphins that had been in captivity for 10 years. What happened to them following their release (warning, graphic images) is a grim reminder that the ocean isn’t all lollipops and rainbows for the animals:

The day after the dolphins were released, Luther appeared in a congested Key West marina with deep lacerations, approaching people, and begging for food. Buck, found two weeks after his release over 40 miles away, had similar deep lacerations and was emaciated. Source

Then of course, there’s the story of Keiko (the killer whale you may know as Free Willy), who was released into the wild, but never was able to integrate with other killer whales and continued to depend on humans for food and care for the rest of his life. The researchers sum it up pretty succinctly:

While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well-being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so. Source

As the evidence shows, the odds are clearly not in the favor of the captive animals when we release them back into the ocean. Furthermore, they often don’t even show any interest in swimming out into the wild.

No, if we remove the killer whales from SeaWorld and stick them back in the ocean, we’re not doing it for the animals. We’re doing it to stroke our own sense of self-righteousness.

An Immodest Proposal

Make no mistake. If your agenda is to shut down SeaWorld outright, or to rid the world of all captive killer whales, they will end up in a worse environment.

If you view SeaWorld as your enemy, if you cheered at the news of the layoffs, maybe it’s time to consider the saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Knowing that closing the park will have catastrophic results for the animals, isn’t it better to support SeaWorld, at least tacitly, and then put pressure on them to keep improving their habitats? Arguably, many of SeaWorld’s practices are only in place today because of pressure from animal rights advocates.

At the same time, much of the appreciation we have for marine mammals today arose because of SeaWorld in the first place.

Maybe the two sides need to oppose and depend on each other at the same time. Maybe we need both anti- and pro-captivity people in the world, to balance each other out. And when the oceans will truly be in danger is when one side becomes too powerful.

The most rational dissenting solution I came across takes us to Naomi Rose once again. She proposes that killer whales in captivity be phased out over the next few decades. While I still support SeaWorld and captivity in general, I am willing to disagree respectfully with her proposal. It gives me a different perspective to consider. If she were ever to read this, I hope she can consider my perspective, too.

I think this one quote by Todd Robeck, head of SeaWorld’s breeding program, sums up the relationship pretty well:

Absolutely. Absolutely Dr. Rose [dedicates her life], too. She’s as passionate as I am. We just have a difference of opinion, okay? Everybody that works at SeaWorld is the advocate of an animal that is part of their family, and these animals are doing well. And I can guarantee you, if they weren’t doing well, you would have a mass exodus of veterinarians, animal trainers, activists… they would be with Dr. Rose, but they’re not. Source

It would seem then, that as polar opposite as the pro-SeaWorld and anti-SeaWorld people may be, we actually have more in common than we realize.

To that end, I would argue that the worthwhile discussion isn’t whether or not to shut down SeaWorld, or even whether or not the killer whales should be released.

The worthwhile argument is what SeaWorld can do to make sure the artificial environment they provide for the killer whales is as physically and mentally stimulating as it can be, and that their policies and practices do consider the animals’ welfare first and foremost.

What can we all do to make sure we are, in our own ways, respecting the oceans and the life they hold?

Where I Stand

The fact that SeaWorld contributes to an awareness of the oceans and promotes conservation and respect for all marine animals can’t be disputed. No one would argue that their rescue and rehabilitation program isn’t a worthwhile cause.

On the flip side, the killer whales kept at SeaWorld are clearly in an environment that is a poor substitute for the oceans. However, whether their physical or mental health is adversely affected is questionable. It’s a poor substitute for the oceans, but do they actually need a perfect substitute?

There simply isn’t enough evidence either way. Despite popular belief, the killer whales show few — if any — overt signs of stress in their captive environment.

As such, after weighing both sides of the issue, I’ve come to this conclusion:

The tangible benefits of SeaWorld keeping killer whales in captivity outweigh the potential drawbacks. I believe there can be greater transparency and accountability on SeaWorld’s end, to assure the public that they are in fact concerned about their killer whales’ welfare. But for now, I support their killer whale program. Even just comparing the habitats they have today to the ones they had 20 years ago shows that they are constantly improving their environments.

I am therefore in support of SeaWorld’s endeavors. Yes, they’re making a profit, but I believe it’s a worthy profit for them to make.


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  • Due to the length of some of the comments on this post, I have moved the comment thread to a separate page. If you have something to say about SeaWorld or killer whales in captivity, please click the link above, and you’ll be able to leave your comment there.