SeaWorld’s Orcas in Captivity

SeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, the second person killed by Tilikum the orca. Courtesy of Ed Schipul.
Charlotte Ehmann
February 17, 2021

According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), an animal protection agency and member of the United Nations Environment Programme, a global climate authority, at least 166 killer whales have been taken into captivity since 1961. America’s SeaWorld theme parks have held dozens of these animals, also known as orcas, and while the company stopped taking more of them into captivity in 1995 and stopped breeding them in 2016, SeaWorld’s three locations currently house twenty orcas. Their years of living under park conditions leave them unlikely to survive a return to the ocean.

In the wild, male orcas can live sixty to seventy years, while females can live to around fifty; some orcas have been documented to live one hundred years. In captivity, females live up to thirty years while males usually live up to twenty years, due to the mental and physical stress they experience. Attractions such as SeaWorld confine these large whales, which can grow up to twenty-six feet long, to relatively small tanks that prevent them from swimming the dozens of miles they can travel each day. 

The company has faced numerous accusations of animal abuse. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cites the 1965 capture of “Shamu” the orca, separated from her mother, who was harpooned nearby. While there were no laws concerning taking orcas into captivity at this time, PETA believes Shamu’s capture was nonetheless immoral. Shamu died at nine years old of a uterine and bloodstream infection. Kasatka, a female orca taken into captivity at age one, lived in SeaWorld’s restrictive tanks for forty years until her death. She participated in performances up to eight times a day and was transported fourteen times within eight years for breeding purposes. 

The infamous story of Tilikum the whale powerfully exemplifies how destructive captivity can be for animals and their caretakers. According to National Geographic, Tikilum, taken near Iceland in 1983 at age two, went to Sealand of the Pacific, a theme park in British Columbia. Before his infamous outlashes, which led to the death of three people, he was a beloved orca described by a former trainer as “very well behaved” and “eager to please.” However, Tilikum’s trainers also reported that early in his career, he was abused by another whale in his tank whose aggression likely stemmed from starvation. As Tilikum lived in a floating net pen, to prevent his escape at night, he was stored with three other orcas in a 20- by 30-foot steel containers and frequently received serious bite wounds from the other whales. 

The effects of Tilikum’s confinement likely led to his increased aggression. In 1991, Tilikum and two other whales drowned part-time trainer Keltie Byrne. When Sealand closed in the aftermath, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, and, in 1999, a man who had illegally stayed in the park overnight died in Tilikum’s pool. It is unclear whether or not the man died of drowning or an attack. Later, in 2010, beloved SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was repeatedly pulled under the surface by Tilikum and drowned. 

Public scrutiny of this tragedy caused many to question the ethics of SeaWorld’s practices. Marine mammal trainer and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry says of captive orcas’ plight, “They’re bored, we literally bore them to death. It’s like you living in the bathroom for your life.” Stories such as Tilikum’s suggest that this boredom may spiral into frustration, depression, anxiety, and, in the words of orca expert Ken Balcomb, “psychotic” behavior. After the 2013 release of Blackfish, a documentary about Tilikum’s life and abuse, the hashtags #FreeTili, #FreeTilikum, and #EndSeaworld flooded social media. Though Tilikum died of a bacterial infection in 2017, his tumultuous life continues to evoke outrage in many who call for the end release of captive orcas and their rehabilitation in seaside sanctuaries. Free-living orcas have never been recorded to kill a human without provocation: captivity seems to prompt the aggression seen with Tilikum.

Today, though SeaWorld no longer breeds orcas, its remaining twenty orcas, along with its many other animals, including dolphins, otters, beluga whales, sharks, penguins, and sea turtles, still face the mental and physical strains of captivity. Debates continue between animal welfare activists, who believe that the captivity of these social, complex animals is unjust, and scientists who emphasize that captivity can provide important opportunities for research. Nevertheless, the freedom of an animal in a tank cannot compare to the freedom of one in the wild with its companions. One way activists suggest improving the circumstances of captive animals is by supporting and visiting the more natural, social atmosphere of seaside sanctuaries rather than marine parks.

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