The groundbreaking documentary, Blackfishchanged how the public would perceive marine mammal captivity forever. Once people were made aware of how captivity impacts both the mental and physical well-being of marine animals like dolphins and orca whales, they began to question their patronage of marine parks – and many started to advocate for the release of these incredibly dynamic animals.

While the idea of releasing all the captive dolphins and orcas back into the ocean is the hope for many, unfortunately, it’s not a tangible reality. Wild-captured dolphins and whales tend to lose their sharp survival skills after decades of being hand-fed frozen fish, especially those that were caught at a young age. Additionally, animals born into captivity have no knowledge of how to hunt or socialize with others in a wild setting. Releasing these animals could more harmful than beneficial. Of course, this is not to say that certain eligible animals cannot be rehabilitated and retaught how to thrive in the oceans.

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During a speech last month, Dr. Ingrid Visser released a rough blueprint for a cetacean sanctuary for captive orcas. While the plans are still in the very early stages of development, they’re also promising. The proposition of retiring captive orcas to sea pens and rehabilitating viable release candidates is nothing new, but not ever to such a degree.

It’s important though that we emphasize this project is in the very early stages of development. While a team has been scouting out a number of locations for the sanctuary, including an area in British Columbia, no plans are set.

Unfortunately, these exciting new plans have been met by critics who are making any and every attempt to discredit all of the qualified and renowned scientists, conservationists, veterinarians and engineers working to improve the welfare of captive marine mammals. SeaWorld has made attempts to “improve” the welfare of the animals in their care by expanding their tanks, but the question remains: What is really the best solution for the animals?

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The New “Blue World”

traumatic experiences orcas know all too wellGordon2448/Wikimedia Commons

Rather than consider the possibility of rehabilitation and release (lest they lose a dime from orca performances), SeaWorld unveiled a 300 million dollar plan to completely redesign and expand their orca habitat in an effort to assuage concerns over the animals’ wellbeing. The project that they’re calling “Blue World” is expected to provide the whales with a more natural environment.

Understandably, the announcement of this new plan was met with much contempt from activists and conservationists alike who saw the plan more as a band-aid than an actual solution to the suffering of captive animals.

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SeaWorld’s first park in San Diego opened their doors to the public in 1964 and in the past 50 years, we’ve seen minimal improvements to the orca habitats in captivity, specifically the amount of space they’re allotted. The advancements we’ve made in our understanding of marine mammals and our knowledge of animal husbandry in the past 50 years have justified the questions raised regarding their welfare in captivity. However, SeaWorld remains steadfast in their claims that providing more room for orcas will drastically improve their quality of life. But really, when you take an animal from the ocean and put them in a fishbowl, can you expect that upgrading them to a kiddie pool will suffice?

The motives behind the park’s decision are perfectly highlighted in the quote provided on SeaWorld’s website about their plans:

“[T]he 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, surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and spanning more than 350 feet in length, the new environment will also have views exceeding 40 feet in height, providing guests with the world’s largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales.”

Again, it seems that this new habitat is designed to increase guest’s viewing experience – and potentially, lead to more ticket sales – not benefit the whales themselves.

The welfare of the animals at SeaWorld parks is, and has always been, secondary to the profit the company stands to make. The public has never before overwhelmingly questioned the welfare of the animals in their care, and because of that, the park had no reason to orchestrate a multi-million dollar reconstruction. In so doing, however, they are not responding to the actual needs of these wild animals, but rather fabricating elaborate plans to make it seem as if they are.

The Debate on Sea Pens

SeaWorld has consistently dismissed any and all ideas suggesting captive whales should be retired to sea pens. Years ago, after the death of Keiko, it became their selling point. Depending on who you ask, the release of Keiko was either a complete failure or a complete success. Strangely enough, whenever SeaWorld is questioned regarding the dozens of whales they’ve lost at incredibly young ages or from seemingly preventable diseases, they insist that learning what whales need in captivity is a matter of trial and error.

While this may be true, it’s clear now more than ever that captive whales are not thriving, they’re suffering. Why else would SeaWorld, and other marine parks, feed their animals psychoactive drugs or attempt to cover up an orca’s self-inflicted wounds?

So, now that we know how SeaWorld has responded and what their plans are to “improve” life for captive animals, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Dr. Visser’s proposed sanctuary:

Pros

Potential for Release

Whales that are deemed viable release candidates may be rehabilitated and released. Of course, this would be decided by a highly qualified team and would depend on the age, sex and health of the animal. And, potentially, whether or not the orca’s family could be located.

No More Tricks

The orcas won’t be required to perform tricks but instead will receive enrichment and stimulation through a natural environment. The whales will be rehabilitated and ultimately able to swim, play and hunt as their wild counterparts do out in the open ocean.

No Captive Breeding

These facilities will be in place to care for the remaining whales in captivity. The public will be able to visit the sanctuary and see the animals in their natural habitat, but none of the whales will be bred. In short, once the remaining whales pass on, it will be the last of orca captivity.

Of course, the sanctuary could very well remain open and continue to educate the public and act as a rehabilitation center for other marine mammals. However, as with most wild animal sanctuaries, their ultimate goal would be not to have any animals in their care, as that would signify that animal captivity (and abuse) of any kind has ended.

Education

Education will focus on the past, present and future of the animals. The public will learn how detrimental captivity has been to the orcas and how to preserve those remaining in the wild.

Cons

Cost of Animal Care

SeaWorld can provide care for their animals in part because of ticket sales. In a similar vein, the cost of caring for the orcas at Dr. Visser’s sanctuary would also have to be covered by a fee. The difference, however, is that the animals in the sanctuary would not be forced to perform tricks nor would they be available for interactions with guests. Many animal sanctuaries offer tours to the public to help fund their costs, but they always do so with the utmost care and never sacrifice the animals’ well-being for profit.

Will the Animals Get Sick?

Some fear that exposing a captive orca to the open ocean will make them susceptible to foreign illnesses and pollution that they were “safe” from in captivity. This is certainly a possibility, but there would be veterinarians available, as they are at SeaWorld. While water quality is of the highest concern regarding potential release to sea pens, it needs to be said that orcas in captivity get sick all the time. SeaWorld has lost dozens of whales in their care from pneumonia, influenza, encephalitis, fungal infection, heart failure … just to name a few. This is in spite of the quality of care they provide, which they insist is the best in the world. 

What’s Next?

There was a time when SeaWorld parks could’ve changed their business model to appease the public and benefit the animals they hold in captivity. They could have incorporated what they’ve learned over the years into their education instead of ignoring their mistakes. The parks could have begun to phase out their spectacle shows and taken steps towards moving eligible animals to sea pens, or even ending their captive breeding programs. However, none of these possibilities have yet to come to a fore for the company.

Rather than building a million dollar facility that would marginally improve life for animals, SeaWorld could use that money to back the creation of sanctuaries like the one Dr. Visser imagines. The reality is that the days where people are willing to pay to witness the suffering of highly intelligent and social animals are numbered. We need to be able to provide for the animals that have been forced to sacrifice their life in the wild for the sake of our entertainment and attempt to right the wrongs of our past. No animal should have to suffer for the sake of our amusement. 

Lead image source: Putneypics/ Flickr