May 23, 2016
By Michael Kundu
Photo at right: Visitors at the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada, watch Bjossa, an orca that died in 2001 after being transferred to San Diego’s SeaWorld. Photo by Michael Kundu
Last March, SeaWorld announced an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to end its captive orca whale breeding programs. Joel Manby, SeaWorld CEO said that the company will instead move in a new direction, focusing on rescue operations and providing a home for non-orca species, like seals and sea lions.
The news, even as it took SeaWorld’s own whale trainers and veterinarians by surprise, was widely celebrated by anti-captivity activists, including Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish, who characterized it as a ‘game-changer’ for all captive orcas.
Questions still remain about whether the decision was made for ethical reasons, or due to the economic impact and negative publicity SeaWorld has received over the last decade. SeaWorld’s stock declined almost 50 percent since Blackfish first aired in spring 2013, and the park’s attendance is dropping about 4 percent annually.
The move suggests that SeaWorld may be evolving socially. The evidence is well-established that orcas are unsuitable for captivity, and are stressed to the point of suicide and even killing their trainers.
Correspondingly, the veterinarian health knowledge of whale physiology accrued through captivity is significant.
“A lot of what we know about killer whale health has come out of SeaWorld’s research,” says Heidi Harley, a comparative psychologist in Sarasota, Florida.
Some scientists also question whether it was a good decision by SeaWorld’s to stop orca breeding in captivity.
“It’s likely to increase the number of whales captured to meet a growing demand in China, Russia and the Middle East,” says researcher David Bain. “A better decision would have been for SeaWorld to continue breeding, and transferring matrilines (descendants from a female ancestor) to new facilities until a global ban on captures or new construction is put in place.”
It’s estimated that there are still currently 58 captive orcas displayed in China, Russia, Spain, France, Argentina, Canada, the U.S. and Japan. SeaWorld says it will keep its existing animals until they die, which may still be decades away.
Bob McLaughlin of Washington-based orca advocacy group Project SeaWolf, said it “remains to be seen if SeaWorld will still import whales from other marine parks overseas, or if they intend to eliminate whales from their shows altogether.”
It should be noted that SeaWorld does not own Lolita, a Northwest orca captured in 1970 from the L-Pod in Puget Sound near Whidbey Island and currently held at the independent Miami Seaquarium in Florida.
Recent deaths have diminished the collective population of the Northwest’s Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW), to an estimated 84 resident whales.
Advocates have long pushed for SeaWorld and other marine animal parks to cooperate with researchers to take concrete, science-based steps to improve rehabilitation and release of captive whales back into areas where their genetic diversity may help stave off extirpation, or extinction.
“If progressive conservation science is the true motivator here, SeaWorld would be working with biologists to attempt to release some captive orcas back into sea pens, or back into the wild,” said Bob McLaughlin.
Canadian photojournalist Michael Kundu specializes in marine wildlife conservation and environmental issues. He currently lives in Lake Stevens, Washington
Michael Kundu’s original article, “Bringing Lolita Home,” was published in the Spring 2015 edition of OutdoorsNW magazine. Read the online version here: www.outdoorsnw.com/2015/bringing-lolita-home