At a press conference held in San Diego on April 27th, animal welfare organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for SeaWorld to finance a new project to build sea sanctuaries for the company’s remaining captive orcas. PETA’s call comes after the entertainment giant announced in March that it would cease its captive orca breeding program, making the current generation of orcas at its San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando parks the last.
SeaWorld’s historic announcement was triggered by an 84 percent fall in the company’s profits, caused in large part by a change in public attitudes toward orca captivity after the release of 2013 documentary Blackfish. While the decision to bring their captive-breeding program to an end was undoubtedly spurred by financial motives rather than ethical ones, conservationists around the world rejoiced in the company’s apparent change of heart. For organizations like PETA, however, the thought that the park’s existing orcas would remain in captivity for the rest of their lives was a bitter pill to swallow.
PETA-affiliated marine-mammal neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino is one of many experts to have spoken out against the conditions in which the park’s remaining orcas are kept, saying that artificial environments “cannot provide the complexity these animals need to survive.” In other words, the small enclosures that these whales call home are such a far cry from their natural environment that they are put under considerable stress, both physically and mentally. However, most marine scientists acknowledge that releasing the remaining orcas directly into the wild is not a viable option.
Of the 23 orcas currently held at SeaWorld facilities in the United States, 18 were bred in captivity. SeaWorld last captured orcas from the wild almost 40 years ago, so even those that have experienced life outside an aquarium have spent the majority of their lives in captivity. As a result, the SeaWorld whales have either never learned or likely forgotten the skills they need to survive in the wild. They have become dependent on their trainers for food, and many are either too physically or mentally scarred to be able to adapt to freedom.
Sea Sanctuaries for Captive Orcas
According to PETA, enclosed areas located in a natural cove or bay would provide the most humane solution for this final generation of captive orcas. Known as sea sanctuaries, there are currently no such facilities large enough to house the SeaWorld orcas, but at the press conference on April 27th, a panel of PETA-led experts announced that a formal project for building the sanctuaries is now underway. The organization’s senior vice president of communications Lisa Lange suggested that SeaWorld should foot the bill, saying “SeaWorld has the opportunity to be part of the solution — or part of the problem.”
PETA is not the only organization advocating sea sanctuaries for captive orcas. International non-profit Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) writes on their website that the whales should be allowed to “live out the remainder of their lives in a safe enclosure…where their health and welfare needs are taken care of, they can display more natural behavior, they do not have to perform shows, and public observation is only from a distance.” In the sea sanctuaries, the whales would have the space to swim and socialize in a more natural way, while still benefiting from some human care.
It is not yet clear where the proposed sanctuaries will be located, how many there will be, or how large they will be. In terms of expense, estimates suggest that each pen could cost as much as $5 million to build. As large as this figure is, it pales in comparison with the $100 million budgeted by SeaWorld for their proposed Blue World project, which was supposed to see an expansion to existing orca tanks. The idea was scrapped after the company announced its decision to end the captive-breeding program altogether.
At the press conference, President of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau commented that SeaWorld should see the sea sanctuary project as a business opportunity, which would allow them to win back the favor of a public that is increasingly anti-orca captivity. Cousteau suggested that the park could use live video feeds and social media to keep guests interested in the whales even after their relocation to the sanctuaries. By allowing SeaWorld to stay in business while giving the orcas a taste of freedom, Cousteau calls the sanctuaries a “win-win” situation.
At the moment, SeaWorld does not share Cousteau’s optimism. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, CEO Joel Manby criticized the sanctuary project, saying that it would expose the captive orcas to new threats, including pollution, oil slicks and hurricanes. He summarizes “you’re trading new risks for what benefit? That they might have a few more square feet to swim? And who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to take the risk?” PETA may have a long way to go before convincing SeaWorld to fund the sanctuaries, but as the initial decision to end the breeding program proves, nothing is impossible.