Changing Planet

Are You Kidding? Larger Tanks Won’t Cut it for Killer Whales

Once again Sea World is missing the point. The aquatic entertainment enterprise just doesn’t seem to give up despite documentaries like Blackfish and a growing public awareness that keeping cetaceans in captivity is cruel and morally wrong. Even Wall Street is turning its back on the company. Now, with a new and grandiose multi-million dollar plan for expanding their killer whale tanks, Sea World is taking the “logical” next step to resurrect itself.

In this opress release image released by SeaWorld Entertainment this week, the depicts a state-of-the-art, innovative home for its animals, [that] "will offer park guests unique and inspiring killer whale encounters for generations to come."  The first of the new environments will be built at SeaWorld San Diego where the killer whale environment is planned to have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility. With a planned maximum depth of 50 feet, the surface area of nearly 1.5 acres will span more than 350 feet in length. The company also pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research.
In this press release image released by SeaWorld Entertainment last week, the company depicts a state-of-the-art, innovative home for its animals, that “will offer park guests unique and inspiring killer whale encounters for generations to come.” The first of the new environments will be built at SeaWorld San Diego where the killer whale environment is planned to have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility. With a planned maximum depth of 50 feet, the surface area of nearly 1.5 acres will span more than 350 feet in length.
So you may be wondering what’s wrong with this new and purportedly humane expansion project? Plain and simple: these large brained, socially complex creatures need a lot more than doubling the size of a pool to flourish. Even if this new project called Blue World will be fitted out with “stimulating” orca-gadgets in all Sea World theme parks, killer whales need the ocean to live, not some new “water treadmill”. They need to be left alone in nature where they belong and, if that is not possible anymore, they must be relocated to protected, spacious netted-off oceanic sanctuaries.

Will Sea World’s larger tanks be an improvement over the current ones? Of course they will. The same way a bigger prison cell is an upgrade from being kept in solitary confinement. But this is not the point. Larger, plusher artificial tanks are not even close to addressing the spatial requirements of these animals.

Just think for a moment about how orcas live in the wild. These top predators can travel up to 100 miles a day in the ocean environment and resident killer whales have been clocked traveling at speeds of over 20km/hr [12 mph]. Ranging widely is an integral part of their existence and is essential to maintaining their physical and mental health. In the oceans, there are populations with stable matrilineal family-related groups and strong social bonds; females have a high level of care for their offspring, not unlike a human mother with her child. In the oceans, they socialize and communicate with their companions; they can collaborate to catch prey using ingenious techniques. They transfer information from one generation to the next.  Like us, they have a form of culture.

I can’t begin to list all the reasons why it is wrong to confine these animals to a tank, no matter how architecturally well designed it may be. I summarized some of the reasons in a recent post. I pointed out not only why, based on what we know about these creatures today, captivity is unacceptable for dolphins, but also why observing dolphins in a concrete box is not a good educational lesson for anyone, especially a child. In tanks orcas can’t thrive. They are impaired both psychologically and physically. They have aberrant behaviors never observed in nature. They are different animals altogether. Where is the educational lesson here?

Perhaps Sea World should take example from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which is currently considering the closure of all programs with dolphins in captivity by relocating these animals to sea pens. Perhaps Sea World should reflect on the proposed legislation attempting to ban killer whale shows and prohibiting the keeping of orcas in captivity in California. These are signs that something is changing, that there is a pressure from a more informed, educated public. People are finally realizing that enclosing orcas in tanks, even if tanks are bigger, is wrong.

Also, lets stop kidding ourselves. Sea World’s design of new, expensive tanks for its three theme parks, starting with San Diego, is not in the best interest of the whales. As Jacques Cousteau once said, “There’s about as much educational benefit studying dolphins [and whales] in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary. Keeping whales in captivity is more likely about enabling audiences to see the animals up-close which, of course, brings in more money and may help amp up future breeding programs. Being free, or at least living in an oceanic sanctuary, would be more in the interest of the whales.

Using logic and compassion wouldn’t be the worst idea in this situation.

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008; paperback 2010). She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

  • Bill Wright

    How about we run an experiment: lock up the Board of Directors, Management and Trainers of Sea World, each of them individually held in their own solitary confinement walled prison-like cell, and feed them the exact same meal every day, and make them do tricks to entertain us. Let’s see how long they last.

  • Nature Enthusiast

    This is a very interesting article, but why didn’t you say why it is bad for them? I read a lot of opinions stated, but since you are an expert, I rather expected an explanation as to why you are against it. My other statement is, how would a netted sanctuary be an upgrade for them? First of all, that would interfere with their migration, wouldn’t it? And secondly, it is a poor protection from whalers. If they are willing to shoot the whales, then they would be willing to cut the nets to get to them. I will say this, if they are to be kept in captivity, let it be the size of a bay with enrichment and a natural environment. I am on the fence about places like Sea World. I think that places like them are a good way to educate the people about cetaceans, since most of us never achieve a degree in marine biology. This is because if they can see a real living creature to associate with the facts they will care about it more than something that is abstract. This is why zoos are great for teaching children to care about the environment. At the same time, I am concerned that places that put on shows may be more concerned about showmanship and money. Case in point, having the trainers get into the water and riding them by holding their dorsal fin. When I was a kid I thought that this was a fun thing to see, but then I took Oceanography and learned that this was not terribly fair to the animal; that it could actually be harmful to them. Honestly, I think it is important for those responsible for the animals in captivity to be able to handle the animals in a safe and respectful manner, trying to avoid triggering stressors. The problem is, there is a very thin line between showmanship and theraputic training. I think that they should not ask the animals to do anything that would be out of the natural for their kind. Orcas are incredibly dangerous animals, as are dolphins. People see them and think ‘what a beautiful and cute creature’, forgetting that there’s a very real dark side to nature. It is very easy to see our own dark side, because we are very self aware, but we [those of us in the 1st world] are very far removed from the actual need to hunt and so often forget that animals are not typically the safe placid creatures of our imaginations. This means we tend to project our civility and motives on the animals we see, forgetting that they are indeed predators. This is a dangerous mistake. Don’t you think? Any rate, I do appreciate your time, and consideration of my questions.

  • Michael S

    Great article. The next step taken must be to stop their breeding programs at SW. The Orca that are healthy enough need to be set free where they were taken from and the others need to be taken care of…. it would be amazing for Tily, Morgan and Lolita to hear their native language in the wild from their home pods.

  • Marlene Hillock

    I’m on the fence about the whole thing. However for recue purposes to help injured mammals I think is a good thing. To try and train them like pets is a bad thing. Help them and release them. A help and release program would go over a lot better than long term captivity. It is cruel! We need need researches to monitor marine life. Money is the root of all evil! these places will make more money and create more funding if they take a different approach.

  • Bob

    How about all the dog owners in this country? They lock their pets up everyday while they are at work. Then they feed them the same horsemeat meal everyday and make them fetch sticks. How are they any different?

    And while we are at it, lets eliminate the zoos too.

  • RJ Rosendahl

    Glad to read that some people reading this are actually smart enough to do some of their own research instead of simply jumping on a misinformed bandwagon. There’s hope for our country yet. Don’t get me wrong whether you agree or disagree with what’s being discussed is fine but do your own research and don’t be the lemmings easily led of the cliff. For those who like to look at both sides of an argument before jumping in head first, here’s some more information. One thing that is constantly stated is that animals CAN travel 100 miles a day. It doesn’t mean they DO. Animals are constantly on the move looking for food, looking for opportunities to breed, looking for shelter, and avoiding an ever increasing public intrusion. These things are already provided for them in human care. How do you know the average distance one whale swims in a given day? How do you know how much the average whale at Sea World swims in a day? you probably don’t because you haven’t done your research in a scientifically appropriate manner. That could be said for several hundreds of people that are solely emotionally attached to this issue. You may be correct in saying that animals in human care don’t swim as much. I don’t know of any solid research that has tracked this so I can’t honestly and responsibly say either way but if they don’t maybe it’s because they don’t HAVE to. Animals are exercised every day through behavioral training. not only does this stimulate them physically but it also stimulates them mentally as well. Your attempt to coerce appreciation from readers by discussing their social structure is again poorly written. Animals in human care demonstrate this same degree of matrilineal cohesion. Animals learn from one another through observational learning even hunting. Sea World San Diego has witnessed killer whales hunting seagulls and teaching other animals similar practices. This culture that is cultivated at Sea World may be different but it is a culture none the less whether you choose to recognize it or not. Also for those of you who don’t know about NAIB the organization is indeed looking at possibly relocating the animals. However you may not know that the summit they called consisted primarily of anti-cap individuals and organizations. There was one researcher there to advocate for the the animals to continue to be housed where they are allowing for continued research. What the NAIB BoD is doing is horribly naive and irresponsible. They are not acting in the interest of animal health, welfare, and science. They are acting in response to emotion and to a minority opinion of an under-educated and overly exploited public. (For those of you responsible enough to do your own research please don’t include yourself in that last statement). The problem with articles like these is that they are not informational they are emotional. People continue to say watch Blachfish as if that makes you an informed individual. That’s not research and that’s not making any individual capable of engaging in responsible dialogue and debate. Like any other movie out there it is EDITED to elicit emotion. There are countless lies of omission that the average person wouldn’t know but then again why would the creators of this film care it’s not about educating people responsibly it’s about making people see what they want them to see whether it’s truthful or not. Again I am not here to tell you what is right or wrong or what your decision should be but I am here to tell everyone to be informed and ask questions. Don’t just take something at face value. Don’t just consider now. Consider the future and beyond. Our actions today will affect the future. In the time it’s taken me to write this killer whales and countless other marine animals have died from our our garbage, from our toxic poisoning of the oceans and from our neglect. The southern residents are at a critical level and in decline. The waters are dirty the availability of fish is low and animals are not thriving in their ocean environment. With animals on the decline how would it be responsible to relocate otherwise healthy animals to an environment they don’t know and that can’t sustain them?

  • RJ Rosendahl

    Also stating that Sea World should stop taking these animals out of their natural environments is naive and it’s already illegal. Perhaps you should research the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act). Sea World doesn’t just take animals from the wild. In the past this was a legal practice. Now it is not except for extreme circumstances. In any case, everyone should get educated and NO I don’t mean watch Blackfish.

  • Dr. Lori Marino

    Dear RJ Rosendahl – You seem like an intelligent person – so why are you making statements that are so obviously uninformed and scripted by the captivity industry? I’ll make one point: the idea that orcas would prefer to be in captivity because they don’t HAVE TO travel for food, etc. shows a complete lack of understanding of who orcas are as animals and how their evolutionary history adapted them to traveling and being challenged by their environment – both of which are taken away in captivity. The SeaWorld argument that the orcas are better off “in human care” is an old public relations ploy that goes something like this: Make people think there is a big bad scary world out there in order to justify exploitation and confinement. Please tell me you see through this antic. Finally, I see you’ve mentioned the Southern Residents. Did you know that one of the reasons why they are in trouble is because SeaWorld decimated that population by capturing most of the young females and their children? That is something SeaWorld doesn’t tell the public. I wonder why not? — Dr. Lori Marino, marine mammal researcher for 25 years and expert in captivity issues.

  • Dear RJ Rosendahl – As a scientist and the author of this post, I agree with you on one point: people should do their own research on this subject. I believe it’s important to have an informed public for the future well being of these animals. There are a lot of scientific studies supporting the views expressed in my article that anyone can check.

  • Laura Graham

    I would like more credible references in some of these comments. Especially by those who claim to be a ‘researcher’. If you have published peer-reviewed research in the area that is being debated that provides support for your viewpoint then provide the link.

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