14 min read

SeaWorld's Science: A claim based on what evidence?

Displaying orcas in captivity is good science and great for conservation education -- so say SeaWorld and most of the other facilities displaying cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) around the world. However, there are many who would disagree: researchers who study orcas in the wild, animal welfare advocates... even the founding father of SeaWorld!

In the words of George Millay, the man who opened the entertainment facility that has fallen under hot scrutiny in the Blackfish documentary, "SeaWorld was created strictly as entertainment. We didn't try to wear this false façade of educational significance."

The first SeaWorld park opened in 1964 in San Diego, California (where there is now a proposed bill that, if passed, will make orca shows illegal). They put their first orca on display one year later, only the fourth orca ever captured from the wild and the original 'Shamu'.

It wasn't until fifteen years after that education was introduced to the SeaWorld parks for the first time. A 1989 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the USA meant that they had no choice but to bring in a supplement to their animal circus shows. However, a second amendment in 1994 meant that this entertainment industry could largely self-regulate and this is still the case today.

Educational systems of profit-making marine amusement parks appear fundamentally flawed due to commercial obligations.

Truths are twisted to fit in with the facts of captivity. For example, in the past SeaWorld provided educational material stating that wild orcas live between 25 to 35 years. Today they claim that "no one knows for sure how long killer whales live". However, scientific studies of free-ranging orcas have produced more precise data, estimating females to live on average 50.2 years (80 to 90 years maximum longevity) and males to live on average 29.2 years (50 to 60 years maximum longevity). In other words, orcas have similar lifespans to humans. This data for wild orca life-expectancy is widely accepted in the orca research community, so the question begs to be asked, why will SeaWorld not accept it? Does it have something to do with the greatly reduced median life-expectancy for their captive orcas, which is less than 8.9 years?

In 2006, SeaWorld's 'Ask Shamu Team' stated in an email, "There are some people who claim killer whales live 80, 90 even 100 years old, but it is important to note that such claims are not backed by any scientifically documented evidence as far as we know." That explains it then - they just didn't know about the science that had been published 16 years prior and cited by a further 195 articles. Surely it would be responsible to read everything there is to read about orcas before keeping one? (SeaWorld own the majority of the 54 orcas currently in captivity).

If you browse through the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute publications, only two of their 148 papers listed have anything to do with enhancing our understanding of orcas. And of those two papers, one investigates orca reproduction at SeaWorld and the other study explores aspects of growth in captive orcas. Are these studies applicable to the conservation of wild orcas? Is it likely wild orcas will follow the same growth patterns as they do in the much smaller confines of an artificial, captive environment? And can findings about captive orca reproduction be applied to wild orcas when, for example, orcas in captivity are breeding at a much younger age and a much faster rate than their wild counterparts? SeaWorld's science raises more questions that it gives answers.

What we do know is that in the wild, females become sexually mature at around 12 years of age (just like humans) and they typically produce a calf every five years. In captivity, females are reproducing from as young as 8 years old and are also producing calves more frequently than one every five years.

Loro Parque in Tenerife has five captive-born orcas, all owned by SeaWorld. They also currently have wild-caught Norwegian female orca Morgan. Loro Parque are placing Morgan in the same tank with male SeaWorld-loaned orca Keto, which leaves her at risk of getting pregnant. Morgan is believed to be only 6 to 8 years old.

In 2012, Orca Aware conducted a literature search for SeaWorld killer whale publications and found from the results that SeaWorld have only produced a maximum of 30 orca-related papers in the last 50 years, with only about five further articles having any affiliation with SeaWorld at all. Many of these papers were published pre-1990.

Orcas barely feature in SeaWorld's Research">Conservation & Research (unless pretty pictures of orcas count?). Much of the information available centres around artificial insemination (AI). It is a struggle to see how any AI or captive breeding "tools developed through ex situ [in captivity] research" can be "integrated into in situ [in the wild] population management and conservation strategies," as the SeaWorld mission statement declares. Can you imagine using this orca semen collecting research tool on a wild 22-foot long, 12,000 pound male killer whale out in the open ocean? Or this endoscopy tool being used on SeaWorld orca Keto at Loro Parque? (Keto killed his trainer Alexis Martinez in December 2009, two months before SeaWorld orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010).

So what have researchers at SeaWorld been doing for the last 50 years that they have been holding orcas captive? Perhaps SeaWorld science just isn't easy to find. A zoology student (who had open access to numerous journals through her university institute) wrote to the Ask Shamu Team explaining that she would like to learn more about orcas and asking which journals she would be able to find their publications in.

They responded: "Our research, in general, is not available for people outside the zoological society to read and review. Although we do an extensive amount of research there is little we can directly point you to." It looks like they don't seem to know where SeaWorld keeps their science either!

To put this into some kind of perspective - since 1998 the Orca Research Trust has published at least 22 peer-reviewed papers on orcas. Over the last 10 years, the Far East Russia Orca Project has published 10 papers. Of course, there are some projects or individuals who won't have published so many articles on orcas, but if we were to amalgamate all peer-reviewed studies published by all wild orca researchers over the past four or five decades they have been researching the more than 40 wild orca populations spread throughout the World's oceans, (a slightly larger and less controlled environment than that of the artificial captive environment), studying individuals and groups who spend more than 70 percent of their time underwater, (as opposed to captive orcas who spend more than 70 percent of their time at the water's surface where they find human hands and buckets full of fish), I am sure the worldwide team effort would amount to much more than SeaWorld's average of less than one scientific article per year.

Perhaps the high-flying, fast-moving orca shows that SeaWorld are renowned for have distracted from SeaWorld's science. Performances seem to have taken a precedence over research, but what education do they deliver? With cuddly toys advertised above the heads of apex ocean predators, the credibility of any such education must be called into question. The behaviors orcas are trained to perform are often unnatural and unrepresentative of the species: orcas shaking their heads from side to side while sticking their tongues out, waggling them in the opposite direction; spinning on their sides while half-beached on shallow slide-outs; swimming through the water with humans riding on their backs and hanging off their pectoral fins.

SeaWorld claim to research, to conserve and to educate about orcas but so far, there appears to be very little evidence to suggest this is what they are actually doing, through orca-specific science, applied wild population-based conservation efforts or otherwise. It doesn't appear that during their 50 years SeaWorld have produced science of any particular value to wild orcas and for this, they should be held accountable.

It is a very different experience seeing orcas in a SeaWorld show compared with watching them in wild, open expanses, and perhaps this difference is just too great for there to be any true science at SeaWorld.