Seven years after the documentary film Blackfish inspired a backlash against Seaworld and the condition of the orcas in its care, the gates of Seaworld are still open. Earlier this year, Seaworld announced they will be starting killer whale shows once again, but with a new focus.
In 2016, the theme park stopped all captivity breeding and decided to temporarily stop all shows. These shows will simply be educational sessions about the orcas, instead of the tricks and dances they were forced to do beforehand. SeaWorld claims their intention is to help bring awareness to the maltreatment of marine life, and a positive change to future mammals.
The documentary film Blackfish, released in 2013, showed Orcas suffering in captivity. While in the ocean, orcas range over thousands of kilometres, at SeaWold, they are kept in small tanks. Much like other animals whose instincts lead them to travel by nature, in zoos and theme parks they appear to suffer mentally and physically. Many deaths — including over 62 whales and two people — have happened within the popular theme park.
Former CEO Joel Manby announced in 2016 that Seaworld was working in transition to close all theatrical orca shows by the end of 2019, in California, Texas, and Florida — SeaWorld’s only three locations. Despite this claim of ending the shows by 2019, SeaWorld is still working on the task after closing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seaworld opened in San Diego in 1959. With rides and aquatic life, it billed itself as every child’s dream. Similar aquatic theme parks started to open after that, all around America.
In 1965, hunters killed a mother orca who was alongside a young calf. Refusing to leave its mother’s side, this little orca, later named Shamu, was dragged away and sold to Seaworld of San Diego.
The life of Shamu was documented in Blackfish, which also covered some of the deaths due in marine life enclosures all over the globe.
One incident happened in 1971, when trainer Annette Eckis fell off the whale’s back. Shamu proceeded to grab hold of her leg and not let go. Another trainer had to use a large pole to pry the jaws of the whale open. After the situation, Shamu was retired from all whale shows, and Eckis sued the park.
That same year, Shamu died at just 9 years old. In the wild, orcas often live 50 to 80 years. It was said that she died from blood poisoning and a uterine infection.
Seaworld trainers felt a bond with some of these whales. Training with them everyday, they built a trust between them and the whales. The attacks come without warning. There have been a handful of tragic incidents at the parks in the past. One of the most famous stories was Dawn Brancheau.
Dawn Brancheau passed away in 2010 at just 40 years old. The experienced trainer was tragically killed in a SeaWorld show by the largest killer whale in all SeaWorld parks, named Tilikum. Although the theme park came out and explained that her death was caused by the whale pulling on her hair, a video taken seconds before the attack shows her arms and legs in close contact with the animal. Witnesses also claimed that the trainer was not pulled in by her hair.
Life in captivity for orcas is drastically different than the lifestyle in the wild. Their physical and emotional health is completely shifted. Killer whales are born and raised in pods, and they form a community within their pod. All these orcas grow old and migrate together, and swim up to 160 miles per day. With their living conditions, they aren’t even swimming ⅓ of this in a day.
When an orca is born and raised in captivity, alone in a tank for its entire life, it already changes the overall way they grow up and develop. LSI (loss of structural integrity) happens rarely ever in the wild. This is when the dorsal fin of the whale loses its original strength and causes it to flop to the side, or bend. It is said that around 1% of the wild population experiences this. In captivity, 100% of male orcas experience dorsal fin collapse. The main reason they say this is happening so frequently is a mix of the unnatural exposure of sunlight & water pressure, as well as the depths of the tanks.
The average maximum lifespan for a male orca is 50-60 years. The females can live a maximum of 80-100 or more years. In Seaworld, their average lifespan for each orca was 14 years. The aquarium’s oldest killer whale was Kayla, a 30 year old female orca, who was said to have died from unknown causes. The shortest living was Baby Shamu II, who passed at just 11 days old due to a heart defect. With these statistics, they still are drastically below the average.
To this day, there have been 0 reported injuries to humans by killer whales in the wild.