SeaWorld's Still Breeding Whales — Just Not Orcas
SeaWorld welcomed the newest addition to its collection on Thursday: a newborn beluga calf born at SeaWorld San Antonio.
The calf was born to mother Luna, a 16-year-old whale who was also born at SeaWorld San Antonio. The father, Imaq, was captured from the wild in 1990 and has since been owned by the Vancouver Aquarium. He has lived at SeaWorld San Antonio since 2011, when he was shipped to the park on a presumed breeding loan.
While SeaWorld made a long-awaited decision to end its orca breeding program in March, the company is still highly focused on breeding beluga whales and dolphins - though some reputable aquariums have long since abandoned breeding the highly intelligent mammals.
Belugas are particularly difficult to keep in captivity; a 2-year-old and and 3-week-old beluga calf died at SeaWorld San Antonio in 2015. Last year, The Dodo spoke with Sarah Fischbeck, a former diver at SeaWorld San Diego, who described the company's breeding program as a sort of puppy mill for beluga whales.
One of her personal favorites, a beluga named Ruby, was continually bred by SeaWorld despite each pregnancy ending in tragedy. One calf, she killed; another pregnancy ended in miscarriage and kidney failure, she noted.
"She was on the surface floating," Fischbeck said. "Her skin was turning yellow."
Ruby was moved to the back tank so guests couldn't see her, Fischbeck said. She died in 2014, after Fischbeck had left the park.
"You can't find Ruby's necropsy anywhere," she said. "I've asked my past coworkers and everyone's really hush-hush about it. No one wants to lose their jobs."
The whales are also drugged with Valium, several former workers have confirmed; Fischbeck said the whales were bored and frustrated with captivity, and would often become aggressive with workers.
And like orcas, belugas have shortened life spans in captivity, even though they're protected from predators and other natural threats.
"Given the known deleterious effect of chronic stress on immune function, it is plausible to argue that captive belugas lead less healthy lives than their wild counterparts, both psychologically and physically, which would explain why, despite protection from natural hazards, they do not live longer in captivity," a group of marine scientists with Whale and Dolphin Conservation wrote in 2012.
In many ways, the plight of SeaWorld's belugas mirrors that of its killer whales. But because belugas haven't been granted the same public cachet that "Blackfish" gave to orcas, SeaWorld has continued its questionable breeding and captive programs largely outside the public eye.
Of course, SeaWorld seems unfazed by this. As recently as last year, SeaWorld was fighting to import several wild-caught belugas from Russia (the company eventually backed down due to public pressure).
And if this latest calf grows up, he or she will likely be joining San Antonio's just-launched Discovery Point attraction, which encourages visitors to swim with belugas and share "hugs, kisses and rubdowns" with the wild animals.
In a statement, SeaWorld touted the birth as "important for not just SeaWorld, but also for researchers and accredited zoological facilities committed to caring for beluga whales and educating the public to better understand and conserve this protected species."
SeaWorld says it cares about helping belugas. If only it showed that same concern toward the animals in its care.