11 min read

SeaWorld Publishes 'Study' On Orcas. It's Totally Wrong.

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SeaWorld's up to its old deceptive tactics - and the lies are just as big.

SeaWorld recently published a paper, written by three of its own employees and a Minnesota Zoo employee, claiming that its orcas were surviving as long as wild populations.

Not everyone's buying it, including Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. The Dodo spoke with Rose, a globally recognized orca expert, about why SeaWorld's research doesn't hold water.

Here are some of the reasons why SeaWorld's claims - including its assertion that captive whales live an average of 41.6 years - are wrong.

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Their methodology is flawed

SeaWorld claims in its paper that the average life expectancy of all its whales is 41.6 years, and 47.7 for its captive-born whales. But those numbers - the numbers that have been picked up by the media - aren't quite right. Need proof?

Of all the whales ever held at SeaWorld, only one has lived past 40. Most haven't lived past 25. The oldest whale currently living at SeaWorld is around 50; the next-oldest is only around 38.

"Those are completely fictitious numbers," Rose said of SeaWorld's average life span claims. "They have no basis in reality."

Simply put, SeaWorld's math is off (bear with us - it's technical - and feel free to skip to the next section if you don't want to wade into the math).

SeaWorld used a measurement called annual survivorship rate (ASR) of the populations they looked at to calculate the average life spans cited in the study. But in order for this method to work, the ASR has to be stable over time and across age classes so the results are representative of the population's overall survival rate, Rose said.

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But SeaWorld's survival rate has been changing - the quality of care is better now than it was several decades ago, for example - and some of the age groups have different ASRs. Rose also said that the company "cherry-picked" data from the last 15 years to calculate the average longevity, which didn't help. The resulting average life spans are simply invalid, she added.

SeaWorld used several wild populations including the southern residents, an endangered group of orcas living off the coast of Washington state, to calculate wild life spans. But the southern resident population is hardly stable, and the ASRs of the other wild populations have been changing as well. So the calculations the use in the paper are totally off.

And on the basis of those calculations, the paper looks to revise the estimated life span down to 60 to 70 years for wild female orcas and 50 to 60 years for males, claiming that 97 percent of orcas don't survive to age 50 in the ocean.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the average, not maximum, life expectancy of a female orca is 50 years, with a maximum longevity of up to 100 years.

"They want them to have a maximum life span of 50-60 years, because that's how long [their oldest whale] Corky's lived," Rose said.

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They left out some important information

SeaWorld compares its captive orca population to three wild populations: the northern and southern residents of the eastern North Pacific and the southern Alaska residents. But the company neglects to mention that the southern residents are endangered - in part thanks to SeaWorld.

"That's bizarre," Rose said of the omission. "That's inappropriate."

In the 1970s, SeaWorld and other marine centers targeted the southern residents as a source of captive whales. "The industry removed an entire generation of whales," Rose said. "An entire generation. They took all the 3- to 4-year-olds over the course of 10 years."

SeaWorld and the other groups took up to 50 orcas from the southern resident population of around 120, Rose said. The females in the group began to breed as quickly as possible to replace the numbers, but the group faced a second population drop years later when the stolen babies would have come to sexual maturity.

Even now, Rose explained, the population is still one third smaller than it used to be because the group is facing a number of other threats including contaminants and food shortages.

So, that wild population that SeaWorld boasts so proudly of outdoing? It's actually a crippled, endangered population that's struggling to find food and has been fighting for decades to bounce back from the damage inflicted by SeaWorld.

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They ignore well-known facts

Putting math aside for a moment, SeaWorld also doesn't seem to know much about orcas, either.

One of the wonderful things about orca society is that females have a post-reproductive life span. While most animals finish reproducing around the end of their lives, orcas are one of only three known species of mammals where the females will live on after the end of fertility - the other two are pilot whales and humans - because their lives help offspring survive and reproduce in turn.

Orca matriarchs play an important role in the orca community. They often live with and look out for their adult children until the day they die. They know the best food sources. They even teach sexual mores to the young males.

In the paper's discussion, Robeck et al. disregard this fact. "However, reproductive and actuarial senescence is common in mammalian species studied to date ... and it therefore should not be considered an unexpected finding in killer whales," they write.

The reason they make this point? Admitting that female orcas have a life span after reproduction would mean admitting that female orcas can live into their 60s, 70s and 80s and even beyond, Rose said. The ironic part is that SeaWorld's oldest orca Corky 2, the 50-year-old-whale, hit menopause over a decade ago and continues to survive, disproving their claim.

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And Rose said there's something egregious about SeaWorld blatantly flaunting known biological facts - especially since the lead author is a specialist in reproductive biology.

"They actually challenge several established premises," she added. "It is 100 percent wrong."

So SeaWorld's orcas aren't routinely living into their 40s, at least not at the moment, and the actual life span of wild orcas is, as usual, longer than SeaWorld claims.

But in twisting the facts SeaWorld misses the point. Even if captive orcas lived as long as wild whales, four decades in a tiny tank can hardly count as a full life.

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