On March 17, 2016, SeaWorld made a paradigm-shifting announcement. The company will end its captive breeding program for orcas. This policy will extend to all its parks, existing and planned, domestic and abroad. The orcas currently held by SeaWorld will be the last orcas held by SeaWorld.1
AWI has been working for decades to end the display of these magnificent ocean-roaming cetaceans. All cetaceans suffer when confined in dolphinariums, but orcas, in particular—given their sheer size—suffer grievously. Their ground-down and broken teeth, collapsed dorsal fins, and truncated lives are testament to this.
SeaWorld’s announcement represents a massive step forward on what has hopefully become a much shorter road to ending the global business of displaying performing orcas. The influence of this decision on the nine facilities other than SeaWorld currently holding orcas can only be guessed at for now, but is likely to be substantial. SeaWorld owns half of the entire world’s “collection” of captive orcas—the other 28 are held in facilities in Argentina, Canada, China, France, Japan, Russia, and Spain.
SeaWorld didn’t start the commercial exploitation of orcas, but it built a brand with them. The first SeaWorld park opened in 1964 in San Diego, California, and one year later added orcas—including the iconic Shamu—to its roster of animal attractions. Shamu was a real whale, but she only lived for six years at SeaWorld San Diego. Her name survived her and for years camouflaged the many deaths at what eventually became four parks (a park in Ohio closed in 2001).
For four and a half decades, the supremacy of SeaWorld’s business model—wowing the crowds with the amazing acrobatics of the whales and the mesmerizing bond with their trainers, demonstrated by water dances they performed together four times daily in Shamu Stadium—was uncontested. SeaWorld captured orcas from the wild off Washington state and later Iceland, and eventually began successfully breeding them in 1985, when Kalina, the first “Baby Shamu,” was born.
What the crowd didn’t know was that more than 35 orcas have died at SeaWorld over the years, most long before reaching middle age, with none ever growing old. Kalina herself, after being taken as a toddler and moved from park to park for years before finally being returned to her mother, died when she was only 25 years old. (Free-ranging orca females live to 50, on average, and can reach 80 or 90 years of age.) SeaWorld improved its orca care, but only to a point—over time, orcas did better but were never able to survive well or thrive in captivity. Despite the work of organizations like AWI, SeaWorld managed to maintain the façade of “killer whale as sea panda” with policymakers and the public for years.
Then, on February 24, 2010, Tilikum—a massive male orca—killed his long-time trainer, Dawn Brancheau.
Tilikum was involved in the deaths of two other people in his decades-long career in show biz. Together with two female orcas, he drowned part-time trainer Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old competitive swimmer, on February 20, 1991, in front of a horrified group of people who had just watched the show at Sealand in Victoria, British Columbia. Soon after this incident, SeaWorld bought Tilikum for his reproductive potential, as well as the two females (who have long since died). Sealand then closed down.
In the early morning of July 7, 1999, 27-year-old Daniel Dukes was found dead, draped over Tilikum’s back. Dukes was covered in pre- and post-mortem scrapes and bruises, suggesting that Tilikum had done the same to Dukes as he had to Byrne—dragged him around the tank, playing with him like a toy and preventing his escape, until he drowned. Dukes had no signs of blunt trauma or hypothermia; all the forensic evidence suggested he had deliberately entered Tilikum’s enclosure after the park had closed for the night and had been drowned by Tilikum’s overzealous play behavior.
But 19 years after the death of Keltie Byrne, a third death proved one too many for the world. Tilikum, again in front of horrified visitors, dragged Brancheau into his tank and mauled her to death. This was different from the previous incidents. This time, Tilikum inflicted significant blunt trauma. This was aggression or frustration, taken out on the comparatively fragile body of a human being.
Afterwards, the public learned that only nine weeks earlier, another SeaWorld whale—a young male unrelated to Tilikum named Keto—had also violently killed his trainer in Spain, where he was on loan with three other SeaWorld whales. Astonishingly, this death had not been reported outside of Spain, but the death of Brancheau, so soon after, shook the news loose.
From that point forward, the days of maintaining orcas in captivity became numbered. In April 2010, the US Congress held an oversight hearing to discuss issues surrounding captive orcas. In August 2010, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited SeaWorld in the death of Brancheau; court proceedings based on SeaWorld’s challenge of that citation began the next year (and ended November 2013 with the citation upheld).
In July 2012, David Kirby published Death at SeaWorld, a detailed account of the suffering faced by captive orcas. Then, in July 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released. The film focused on Tilikum’s grim history and the experiences of several former orca trainers. It had a profound impact on the public’s perception of performing orcas. Almost overnight these animals went from being seen as happy and carefree to abused and neurotic.
Attendance at marine theme parks, especially SeaWorld, declined. State and federal bills banning orca display were introduced. Celebrities spoke out against holding orcas in captivity, corporate partners and sponsors decamped. The “Blackfish effect” was a tangible phenomenon, causing an eventual 50 percent drop in SeaWorld’s stock price. In the end, SeaWorld was faced with two options—evolve or die.
Fortunately for the many animals under SeaWorld’s care, the company chose the former. AWI looks forward to its continued progress toward a more humane future.
1SeaWorld has 28 orcas. One of them is pregnant, having been bred before the policy went into place.