Student Situation: Why Are SeaWorld Taking So Long To Free Their Orcas?

(Originally published on The Student Situation)

Only a few, long years overdue, SeaWorld have finally announced that they are ending their orca shows. Not immediately, as one would assume – especially after their falling profit margins and shed load of online abuse, but in 2017. Why they can’t take major steps throughout the rest of 2016, which still has a good few months left, is beyond me, but the news that they will stop treating their whales with this level of disrespect and ending their shows is a huge bonus. Even if it isn’t happening for another year.

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock since 2014 (or perhaps in a minuscule whale enclosure) you’ll probably have seen Blackfish. The documentary rose to fame on Netflix in 2013, and follows the life of Tilikum, a whale captured from Iceland and used in shows for the majority of his life. After it swiftly rose in popularity, SeaWorld found its profits dropping faster than you could shout “Free the whales!” but until recently, nothing had been done to actually sort out this problem.

There are plenty of statistics explaining why it’s dangerous to keep orcas in the concrete enclosures found at SeaWorld. For one – the fact that the car parks on site are much larger than the homes for the whales. A fully grown orca can reach up to 32ft and weigh 12,000lbs at most, yet SeaWorld’s ones have lived their lives in a space around 100ft long and 50ft wide. An orca living in the wild swims about 100 miles a day, and would have to lap their enclosure over 1000 times daily to reach the same distance.


This photo (credit: The Express) shows the contrast at San Diego of the size of the car park compared to the enclosure size for the whales. The green dot next to the arrow on the photo is the whales’ home. What’s arguably most ironic, is that their natural home in the wild is only a quarter of a mile to the right.

There has been so much research into the difference between whales living in the wild to those trained and kept at SeaWorld. For one, the lifespan of free orcas is anything from 50 years to over 100 for some females. At SeaWorld, the average age of death for a whale is 13 years.

Another statistic – dorsal fins (the top fin) is known to collapse on a sad or stressed orca. Tilikum, as well as other whales kept at SeaWorld, has an entirely collapsed dorsal fin. There are only a few records of whales in the open sea ever having partially collapsed dorsal fins. Surely this should suggest that SeaWorld are doing something very wrong?

Blackfish focuses around Tilikum’s life, and has a special emphasis on his killings – three humans. Orcas are usually very sociable, happy creatures, and there has never been a record of an orca killing a human at sea. Orcas are incredibly intelligent, which is why they are so frequently used in this type of environment, but it also means that their killings are particularly violent and cold hearted. It is no surprise that after being taken away from his family and bullied in his enclosure by two female orcas from an entirely different family, Tilikum was forced to become violent. The first attack, at Sealand (before he was bought by SeaWorld) happened to trainer Keltie Byrne, who fell into the pool and was ultimately drowned. The now fierce nature of the orcas meant it took other trainers over two hours to recover her body.

The second attack, after SeaWorld bought Tilikum, happened to Daniel P. Dukes in 1999, and the matter remains a confusion as to its specifics.

The third, to Tilikum’s favourite trainer Dawn Brancheau, happened in 2010. Tilikum scalped and dismembered Brancheau’s body before breaking some of her bones and eventually drowning her too.

Tilikum is still a performing orca, although safety guidelines stop trainers from directly interacting with him. There have been over 600 pages of incident reports regarding trainers with orcas at SeaWorld, so it is both surprising and depressing that they have continued their shows this far.

A spokesperson for SeaWorld told the Express: “The killer whale habitat at SeaWorld San Diego (which is more than the green part that is highlighted in the photograph) is one of the largest marine mammal habitats ever constructed – with millions of gallons of continually filtered and chilled seawater.

“I should note also that animal care in U.S. zoological facilities like SeaWorld is strictly regulated by the federal government.

“We are fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has said that SeaWorld is, “meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organization in the world.”

SeaWorld have also pointed out that even though they are stopping their orca shows, the whales will never be released back into the wild again. For the 11 whales they own, some have been born in captivity and only the oldest have any memory of the wild. The long years they’ve spent in their enclosures means that they are now unfit to return to ‘normal’ life – due to the harsh conditions, lack of life skills and loneliness. Orcas are very family orientated, and spend their lives in groups of two to 15. Some even stay with their mothers their entire lives. Releasing an orca into the wild on its own is a sure way to increasing its sadness, so, regrettably, staying in their enclosures is most likely the safest, albeit saddest, option.

Orcas given this sort of treatment do have the option to live in ‘sea pens’ – cordoned off areas of the sea surrounded by netting. This would mean the orcas would get more freedom and space, however the lack of facilities currently open mean that this is a very restricted option. The cost of building enough new pens could reach $5 million per pen, so the most feasible option is still, to remain in their current enclosures.

Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust, said: “We can put a man on the moon, surely we can move an animal out of a concrete life?” but it is yet to be decided if we will or not. 

Published by Georgie

I’m a branded content editor, freelance writer (NCTJ, BJTC, PPA) and digital marketing manager currently based in Bali, Indonesia.

One thought on “Student Situation: Why Are SeaWorld Taking So Long To Free Their Orcas?

  1. Love Ingrid Visser and just wish Seaworld would at least show willing by letting her on board to help with some sort of plan for rehab and release with the few Orca that are suitable.


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