SeaWorld’s Claims About Orca Life Span Just Got Blown To Pieces

<p><a href="">Flickr/Rojer</a></p>
<p><a href="">Flickr/Rojer</a></p>

The data has spoken: Captive orcas - like those at SeaWorld - aren't living as long as they should be.

A new paper published in the journal Marine Mammal Science on Monday found that survival rates were "poor" for the captive orcas in the study when compared with their wild counterparts. Globally the overall median survival estimate was 6.1 years - meaning that 50 percent of orcas died at that age. It also found that the median survival rate for orca whales in U.S. parks was 12 years, higher than those in other countries (4.4 years).

"In regard to the captivity debate, specifically, the survival to age milestones data does undermine recent claims made by SeaWorld that its whales live just as long as killer whales in the wild," Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a co-author of the paper and a former SeaWorld trainer, told The Dodo. "The evidence suggests otherwise."

Flickr/winky | Flickr/winky

Ventre and his co-author, another former SeaWorld trainer named John Jett, pored over data from 201 captive orca whales, 66 who were born in captivity and 135 who were caught from the wild. The data starts in 1961, when orcas were first put in captivity in the U.S., and draws from records from the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, a database run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that catalogues all the marine mammals held in the country. They calculated the annual survival rate (ASR) for captive whales, almost half of whom were held in tanks in the U.S.

Globally, 63 percent of the whales who died in captivity before 2014 had been in captivity for fewer than six years, according to the paper. The researchers point out that these deaths occur despite the fact that the animals are free from predators and other environmental stressors. Only eight of those whales made it past their 30th year in captivity.

The research did show that after 1985, when many orca tanks in the U.S. became large enough to allow mothers to properly nurse their calves, survival rates increased. Still, they write, survival "is remarkably poorer for captive killer whales than for wild whales."

This is no more evident than at marine parks like SeaWorld, which has devoted an entire ad recently to the claim that its captive whales live as long as those in the wild.

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On its website, SeaWorld, which owns all but one of the captive orcas in the U.S., states that "the average life expectancy of southern and northern resident killer whales is about 29 years for females and 17 years for males." These numbers do not match with government estimates for the same population of whales - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that males live on average for 30 years, but can live as long as 50 to 60 years, while females live 50 years but can live as long as 100 years.

With the new data, it's obvious that compared with wild whales, SeaWorld isn't even coming close.