Are Parks Like SeaWorld Harming or Helping Killer Whales?
Continued from previous page
But, if orca whales in captivity live shorter and less fulfilling lives than orcas in the wild, could that be worth it in the end? Advocates of keeping the whales in captivity in parks like SeaWorld argue that the educational role the whales serve helps the entire species. SeaWorld audiences not only learn about the whales, they also develop love for them that can translate into behavior to conserve whales in the wild.
The anti-captivity camp counters that SeaWorld provides very little education about wild orcas, instead mostly focusing on the whales’ lives in captivity. For example, trainers explain to tourists what they feed the whales and how they train them instead of educating audiences about how whales hunt or live in family groupings in the wild. Perhaps a focus on wild whales would inspire some tourists to question the practice of keeping them captive.
In some cases, when tricky questions come up – like why some captive whales have collapsed dorsal fins – SeaWorld provides trainers with answers that put any questions about whale captivity to rest. The dorsal fin is the top fin on an orca that prominently sticks out of the water, and in captive whales it is often flopped over like an upside-down U. At a recent “Dine with Shamu” meal at SeaWorld San Diego, a trainer told the audience that all whales are different just like all humans are different; some have collapsed dorsal fins and some have straight ones, both in captivity and in the wild. The park’s Web site says “Neither the shape nor the droop of a whale's dorsal fin are indicators of a killer whale's health or well-being.”
Those who oppose captivity give a different answer to this question. Former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre, now a medical doctor and a critic of SeaWorld, told Wired, “In captivity, 100 percent of all male dorsal fins are collapsed, and most of the females, too. In the wild, it has a prevalence of less than 1 percent and it’s associated with pathology.” While the exact cause of collapsed dorsal fins is unknown, it’s a very obvious physical effect of captivity on the whales, making one question what other less obvious marks captivity has on the whales and casting doubt on the message that captivity is not harmful to the whales’ health.
Another point in the debate is whether parks like SeaWorld make seeing whales more accessible to average people, compared to other options like going on a whale watch. Depending on where one lives, going to SeaWorld and going on a whale watch both require traveling a long distance, either to a coast where whales are sighted or to a city where SeaWorld has a park (Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio). Once there, the cost of a trip to SeaWorld is different at each park, but a family of four would spend between $220 and $324 for admission.
By contrast, a whale watch to see orcas leaving from Seattle costs $184 for the same family, and the ship has a naturalist on board. Of course, going on a whale watch might not even be necessary if one wishes to see whales in the wild. From the San Juan islands, reachable by boat from Seattle, one can see them from the shore for free. “The whales were out there, breaching and spy hopping, and the kids were screaming and squealing in delight, and it was the real deal,” Kirby recalls from his own trip there.
Unfortunately, Kirby’s book lacks depth in describing SeaWorld’s point of view, although he says he did his best to "put SeaWorld's voice back in the book" using public statements and other available information. “Every good story has two sides,” said Kirby. “I didn't know how much [SeaWorld] would cooperate, but I certainly tried to get as much access, as much of their side of the story as I could. For a while they were sort of giving me statements,” until he wrote a formal letter asking to meet their staff, learn their side of the debate, and check their facts. At that point, SeaWorld declined, citing the title of the book as well as Kirby's previous writing and media appearances as reasons why they felt he had no intention of writing a balanced book.