When it comes to the care of their animals, SeaWorld’s website claims:
“Assuring the health and well-being of the animals in our zoological parks is a responsibility our skilled professionals take very seriously. Every animal receives preventative medical care, exercise, play, a nutritious diet, and an environment that is continually changed to include a wide variety of enriching activities.”
Lifespan of orcas
SeaWorld claims that captivity provides orcas with advantages not available to them in the wild: steady supply of food, lack of predators, and constant, first-class medical care.
If this is true, it should equate to orcas living longer in captivity than they do in the wild.
A study by leading orca expert Naomi Rose found that the annual mortality rate of orcas in captivity was roughly 2.5 times higher than that of wild Pacific Northwest orca populations.
Around 200 orcas have been kept in captivity over the last 50 years. Of these numbers:
159 are deceased
54 are currently alive
30 were unsuccessful births
Of the 159 deceased orcas, over 70 were under the age of ten (several just weeks old). It is also worth noting the alarmingly high rate of unsuccessful births in captivity.
In captivity, only two currently living female orcas are older than 40. No captive male has ever lived past the age of 40.
In the wild, the average life expectancy for female orcas is 45 to 50 years (with a maximum lifespan of about 90).
The average life expectancy for a male orca in the wild is approximately 30 years (with an estimated maximum lifespan of about 60).
There is a wild orca in the Pacific Northwest named Granny who is over 100 years old, and is still thriving.
The numbers on orca longevity in captivity verses in the wild, make a strong case against captivity. These statistics are bad for SeaWorld, so they decided to change the facts in their favor.
SeaWorld employees are coached to tell visitors that in the wild, orcas only live 25-35 years and that orcas at SeaWorld live much longer.
SeaWorld’s website takes a different route, blatantly ignoring the numbers by stating that: “No one knows for sure how long killer whales live.”
Medical Causes of Death
Orcas in captivity have died from an alarming range of diseases and conditions.
Malnutrition, liver dysfunction, gastrointestinal disease, skin disease, nutritional disorder, immune system failure, external fungus, intestinal complications, GI tract obstruction, respiratory failure, and heart failure (in a 4 year old calf) are just a few examples of reported causes of death according to the Orca Project Database.
Only one orca, Ramu, was reported to have died of old age. He died in SeaWorld of Florida in 1982; he was 18 years old.
The most common cause of death in captive orcas is infection. A study in 1985 by marine mammal veterinarians, Andrew Greenwood and David Taylor found that 50% of deceased orcas in captivity had died prematurely of bacterial infections.
These types of infections have been linked to the horrific dental problems that orcas suffer in captivity.
At least two captive orca deaths were attributed to West Nile and St. Louis encephalitis viruses, which were transmitted by mosquitoes.
It is estimated that orcas in the wild spend 80% of their time underwater. Orcas in captivity spend 80% of their time floating at the surface due to boredom and lack of anywhere to go.
This makes captive orcas much more susceptible to mosquito bites. These mosquito-transmitted diseases have never been documented as a cause of death in wild orcas.
SeaWorld likes to try to convince people that wild orcas die from a host of diseases and ailments in the “big scary ocean.”
The truth is that the only threat to wild orcas is humans.
Overfishing has caused a decline in their food supply, pollution and devastating oil spills have tainted their waters, and military tests on sonar have been known to kill orcas and cause mass strandings.
SeaWorld not only ignores these problems but they do nothing to help protect endangered wild orca populations from the threats that they face.
In the wild, orcas show little or no tooth wear; a broken or missing tooth is very rare.
Stressed and bored, orcas in captivity gnaw obsessively at the gates and concrete walls of their enclosure; breaking their teeth.
At SeaWorld San Antonio, an orca named Kotar was obsessed with biting and tugging on the metal bars of the gate in his pool.
In 1995, the gate closed down on him, crushing his skull and killing him instantly.
When an orca tooth breaks, the pulp becomes exposed. The tooth becomes an easy place for infection to enter the body.
If you have ever had a root canal, then you know what an uncomfortable and intense procedure it can be. No dentist would ever perform this procedure on a person without serious anesthetic or anesthesia. When a pulpotomy procedure is performed on a captive orca, there is no anesthetic used.
A drill (very similar to the power drill you have at home) bores a hole vertically through the tooth into the jaw to remove the pulp.
After the drilling, the tooth is not filled or capped; so it must be irrigated by trainers several times a day for the rest of the orcas life.
These openings become direct pathways for harmful pathogens to enter the body, causing infections, pneumonia, and damage to internal organs.
Many of the orcas at SeaWorld hate the procedure so much, that they will ignore their trainer’s commands and shake their heads violently.
SeaWorld trainers are forbidden to speak publicly of the pulpotomy procedure.
The high rate of infectious deaths of captive orcas is thought to be directly connected to these dental problems.
Dorsal Fin Collapse
The dorsal fin (the fin located on the back) of a wild male orca can tower out of the water at over six feet high.
In captivity, every single adult orca male (and most females) experience partial to full dorsal fin collapse.
SeaWorld employees are coached to tell visitors that dorsal fin collapse is common in wild orcas as they get older.
Field studies of wild orca populations all over the world have revealed that a drooping dorsal fin occurs in only 1% to 5% of wild male orcas; it is not found in wild females.
In the wild, when an orca spends time on the ocean surface, the waves and currents help keep the dorsal fin erect.
In captivity, orcas spend the majority of their time floating on the surface in pools that have no waves or currents.
Due to boredom, captive orcas will swim in endless circles; always in an either clockwise or counter clockwise direction. Studies have shown that the direction they choose to continually swim in dictates which direction their dorsal fin will droop.
Dehydration is also a probable cause of dorsal fin collapse. Orca dorsal fins are made up of collagen, and studies have shown dehydration to greatly weaken collagen.
In the wild, orcas receive all of the hydration they need through the fresh fish that they eat. In captivity, the diet of frozen, dehydrated fish leaves the animals greatly dehydrated.
Dorsal fin collapse is also thought by many scientists to be linked to illness and injury.
In 1989 during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the bodies of two wild orcas that died from exposure were both found with collapsed dorsal fins.
Diet of the captive orca
SeaWorld often boasts of the “restaurant quality” fish that its captive orcas are fed.
In the wild, an orca can eat three to four percent of its body weight in a single day. For a six ton male, that’s 500 pounds of food per day.
It is important to note that there are two different types of killer whales in the wild; residents and transients.
These two sub-groups are so different that some scientists have suggested that they be classified as two separate species. Among their many differences is their diet.
While residents prefer to eat only specific types of fish, the diet of a transient consists of seals, dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and other whale species.
At SeaWorld, both residents and transients are feed 140-240 pounds of the same fish diet every day.
The “restaurant quality” fish fed to orcas in captivity is actually thawed-out frozen fish that has greatly reduced water content and nutritional value.
Sometimes the fish are injected with tap water with a syringe to increase its water content, usually leaking out by the time it reaches the orcas.
So how do you keep an orca in captivity hydrated? JELL-O of course!
That’s right; some of the whales at SeaWorld are fed up to 80 pounds of it every day in attempts to keep them hydrated.
Trainers are told not to tell guests that it is to hydrate the animals, but that JELL-O is a treat that they love.
Also of note is what is stuffed inside the fish.
Many former trainers have come forward and said that vitamins, antacids, anti-anxiety drugs, and antibiotics were routinely stuffed inside the fish fed to captive orcas.
Maalox and Tagamet are frequently given to captive orcas and dolphins to treat stress-related ulcers.
Studies have found that swim with dolphin programs in particular put tremendous stress emotionally and physically on the animals.
Anti-anxiety drugs like Valium have been given to orcas, even nursing ones (against the orders of veterinarian staff). Captive orcas are loaded up on these kinds of medications to try and curb behavioral and mental problems that might spark questions from park visitors.
Another dietary problem, and product of boredom in orcas in captivity, is the constant regurgitation of their food.
To entertain themselves, orcas in captivity will regurgitate their food and eat it again; they do this repeatedly.
This pastime decreases the amount of nutrition the orcas receive, while damaging stomach acid causes further problems to their teeth and digestive systems.
According to a former SeaWorld trainer, spiny mackerel (a fish with painful spikes) is sometimes mixed into the orcas food to try to discourage this behavior; making eating or regurgitating it extremely painful.
It is also important to note that food is the main motivator of the tricks performed by marine mammals in captivity.
During an aquarium show, trainers are coached to tell you that the animals do the tricks because they genuinely love it.
Former trainers say that the animals are routinely deprived of food when learning new tricks, or when they do not perform a desired behavior.
It has also been revealed that food is withheld from orcas before shows, using hunger to motivate their performances; during which an orca knows it will be fed if its performance pleases their trainers.
In the wild, orcas swim over one hundred miles a day foraging, playing, and socializing.
SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu Stadium has just 33,000 square feet of surface water which translates to 4,000 square feet per whale.
Unfortunately, the orcas are rarely granted access to the Stadium during down time; they are kept in tiny back pools barely big enough to hold them.
The most heartbreakingly small tank can be found at Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita, a live-captured orca from Puget Sound Washington, has lived there for over 40 years.
Lolita is 21 feet long and weighs 7,000 pounds.
Deprived of the company of other orcas, Lolita lives alone in a tank that is only 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep (only 12 feet deep around the edges).
Guidelines set in place by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an operating unit of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), state that a tank for an orca Lolitas size must be a minimum of 48 feet wide in either direction; with a straight line of travel across the middle.
Despite public outcry and numerous formal complaints and appeals by animal rights organizations, Lolita still remains in this tiny tank.
Lolita’s pod (including her Mother) has been located in Puget Sound, and several offers have been made to buy her for release back to her family.
Miami Seaquarium has made it very clear over the years that it wants nothing to do with her release, and has continued to refuse to make her tank regulation size.
Lolita's tiny tank
According to orca expert Dr. Naomi Rose, the infant mortality rate in captivity (“infant” defined as an animal six months of age or younger) is approximately 50%.
These numbers include near- to full-term pregnancies where the calf does not survive birth [stillbirths].
The infant mortality rate in the wild is unknown, so comparisons cannot be drawn. However, with all of the great veterinary care SeaWorld claims to provide, a 50% mortality rate seems extremely high.
A heartbreaking example of this was Gudrun; an orca who died from labor complications at SeaWorld Orlando in 1996.
Because Gudrun was one of the few orcas that did not have a collapsed dorsal fin, SeaWorld loved using her for photo opportunities. Tourists would line up to get a photograph with the pregnant whale when it was made to pose in the dry slide-out area for several minutes at a time.
An orca in the wild would never be found in such a position; unless it was sick, dying, or beached. To stay in such a position out of the water puts a tremendous amount of stress on the massive animal’s internal organs, and in this case, the nearly fully developed calf.
In the book “Death at SeaWorld” by David Kirby, he explains what happened next:
“When Gudrun went into labor, the staff veterinarians could not get a pulse on the unborn calf. It was presumed dead……The dead infant was reportedly pulled out manually by the animal care team. The pain must have been unearthly.
Gudrun began to hemorrhage severely. Her dorsal fin collapsed, probably due to dehydration. She refused to eat and ignored all attempts by people to make contact with her….. On the fourth day, Gudrun finally moved.
She slowly swam over to the gate where her disabled young calf, Nyar, was watching. Nyar had had to be separated from Gudrun after the mother began attacking her daughter. Now Gudrun gently nudged Nyar’s rostrum through the bars, as if to ask for an overdue rapprochement. Gudrun died a few hours later.”
Perhaps one of the most unethical aspects of marine mammal captivity is the way that the orcas are bred.
In the wild, there is no genetic evidence that transient and resident orcas have ever bred. Scientists even suggest that the two sub-groups be classified as entirely different species.
At marine parks like SeaWorld, transient and resident orcas are cross-bred constantly; mixing genes that are supposed to remain separate.
Inbreeding is also common practice at SeaWorld. In 2006, a male orca impregnated his mother; which SeaWorld veterinarians have been quoted as saying is “not considered a problem”.
It is an obvious fact that the inbreeding of any species can cause severe problems; mentally and physically.
Female orcas reach sexual maturity around the age of 15, but at SeaWorld, orcas are forced to breed much earlier.
Katina (another whale at SeaWorld) was forced to breed when she was only 9 years old.
In the wild, female orcas will go 5 years between pregnancies, but often in captivity pregnancies are forced back-to-back.
Many of these pregnancies are achieved through artificial insemination.
SeaWorld’s artificial insemination program is extremely unethical and disturbing.
Male whales are trained to float on their backs while trainers “collect” their sample.
Any responsible breeder, lets say a dog breeder, would never breed an animal that has a history of aggression; let alone a history of killing human beings.
At SeaWorld this is not the case. Tilikum is one of the main breeding whales at SeaWorld. Tilikum has sired 17 pregnancies, and over 50% of SeaWorld orcas have his genes.
Tilikum has killed 3 people while in captivity.
At SeaWorld, orca calves are moved and separated from their mothers often.
SeaWorld knows that a baby orca means a lot of money, and will move them to whichever park can profit the most.
When an orca calf is taken, the mother orcas show signs of severe emotional and mental trauma. They shake violently and emit long-range calls in an attempt to call their baby back.
SeaWorld likes to tell guests that they do not separate calves from their mothers.
The Orca Network has documented that 31 captive orcas calves have been separated from their mothers, and 23 of these separations occurred at SeaWorld Parks.
Born at SeaWorld Orlando, the orca Sumar was separated from his mother when he was just ten months old. Orca calves in the wild nurse from their mothers for 12 months or longer.
Calf rejection is a common problem in captive orcas, and has never been witnessed in the wild. Wild orca calves usually stay with their mothers and family members their entire lives in tight-knit pods of ten to twenty individuals.
SeaWorld also regularly mixes together orcas from different parts of the world in the same enclosure; i.e. a transient orca from Iceland with a resident orca from Washington State.
Some scientists believe that the sounds that orcas use to communicate are very similar to languages, and that each pod has their own language.
These living arrangements would be similar to imprisoning an English speaking American with an Icelandic speaking Icelander in the same cell. Not only would they be unable to communicate, they would have little in common; having come from such different backgrounds and distant parts of the world.
This is a key contributing factor to the aggression of orcas in captivity.
Aggression Between Orcas
In the wild, if orcas have an altercation or trouble getting along, they have the wide open space of the ocean to escape each other and avoid aggressive behavior.
In captivity, orcas are kept together in tight quarters, stressful conditions, and artificial family groups made up by SeaWorld.
These living quarters are designed with optimal profitability in mind. When a hierarchy is established, many dominate orcas will violently attack others to express their dominance. “Raking” is a common occurrence.
An orca can cause deep wounds when it rakes its teeth along the flesh of another whale. Some orcas have been discovered missing whole chunks of flesh from their face and bodies.
The most horrific incident of orca aggression occurred in 1998 at SeaWorld San Diego between orcas Kandu V and Corky II.
Corky showed continual interest in Kandu’s calf, which caused Kandu to display signs of irritation.
In an attempt to assert her dominance, Kandu slammed head-on into Corky, which resulted in a severed artery in Kandu’s jaw.
Kandu bled out, spouting blood from her blow hole for an agonizing 45 minutes. She died as her trainers watched helplessly.
This was not the first incident of aggression between these two whales, but SeaWorld continued to keep them together in the same small pool.