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What Is SeaWorld Trying To Hide By Painting Their Orcas Black?

<p>Flickr: Josh Hallett</p>

There are lots of tricks of the trade that SeaWorld trainers and veterinarians use to ensure the relative health of their animals, from administering regular doses of Valium to teeth cleanings to prevent infection where their teeth have worn away from gnawing on the concrete bars in their tanks.

One of the lesser known of these tricks involves sunscreen -- and not just any sunscreen. Black zinc oxide is applied over the black area of the whales' skin, both to prevent sunburns and to cover up the marks of existing burns. Three former SeaWorld trainers that The Dodo spoke to had personally applied black zinc oxide to the orcas, while another had witnessed it being done. All of them noted that the animal's skin was usually burned or blistering before application.

"Zinc oxide is a way to paint over burns -- like a mechanical coat -- usually on dorsal surface of the animal." said Jeffrey Ventre, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld's Orlando park. "It's also for aesthetic reasons, to hide blistering peeling skin."

Carol Ray, a former trainer who also worked at the Orlando park, said that when she applied the substance to a male orca, burnt layers of his skin would peel off in her hands.

As it turns out, sunburns are a product of captivity for orca whales. Here are four reasons why orcas at SeaWorld require sunblock, unlike their wild counterparts:

1. Their water is crystal clear.

While ocean water contains tiny particulates in the water column that block the sun, tank water doesn't. In fact, it's filtered so well that it's basically clear -- that way guests can see the entire animal when looking through an above-water viewing glass.

2. They are more exposed to the sun.

Captive orcas spend a lot more time above the water's surface than wild ones do, leaving them even more vulnerable to the sun's rays. It's been shown that captive orcas spend hours "logging" or resting at the surface of the water, longer than wild ones exhibit the behavior. They also spend more time jumping out of the water and up on platforms where trainers can inspect them, unlike their wild counterparts.

"It's safe to say that animals out here swimming probably spend close to 85 to 90 percent of time below the surface of water," Ventre said. "Those ones [at marine parks] are just exposed, baking in the sun all day."

3. The water isn't deep enough.

Wild orcas usually dive to depths of 328 feet, and can go as deep as 850, by SeaWorld's own calculations. Diving helps them get out of the sun, and shades their skin from UV rays. But SeaWorld's tanks are far shallower than orcas need them to be -- the deepest tank is 40 feet deep -- not even twice as deep as Tilikum, one of the park's most famous whales, is long.

4. They aren't afforded enough shade.

Captive orcas at SeaWorld parks get little -- if any -- respite from the heat. There is no shade structure in any of the five pools at their San Diego location, and only a limited shade structure in two of the four pools at the San Antonio park. This photo, provided by former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove, who also applied sunscreen to orcas, shows the lack of shade in startling clarity.

While it's helpful that trainers protect their animals from the sun, the practice brings a sharp point to mind -- if the animals weren't held in tanks, they wouldn't need sunblock. As the backlash -- both legal and political -- against SeaWorld's orca breeding program grows stronger, that point is clearer than ever.

SeaWorld hasn't responded to a request for comment.