It’s now commonly believed that if SeaWorld’s well-publicized troubles are not in its past, at least that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The truth is, however, that SeaWorld still has quite a ways to go before anyone who cares about the well being of people or animals can visit one of its parks in good conscience. There are at least four good reasons why you should never visit SeaWorld:
1. Orcas Are Still Suffering in Captivity
The 2013 documentary film Blackfish raised the public’s consciousness about SeaWorld’s treatment of its captive orcas (also known as “killer whales”), and the company’s efforts to contain the subsequent PR disaster culminated in an important concession: they have agreed to put an end to the demeaning, circus-style orca performances they have been running since 1966.
What SeaWorld has not agreed to do, however, is empty its orca tanks. They aren’t sending their captive whales to any kind of sanctuary or refuge, nor are they planning to stop exhibiting them for the amusement of the public. They’re just going to put a stop to the shows in which the whales are made to perform certain kinds of tricks.
This is a problem because killer whales suffer in captivity, and their suffering is caused by their captivity. In the wild, orcas swim in the boundless expanse of the ocean—which is why they can be found in all five of the world’s oceans, from one side of the globe to the other. Their tanks at SeaWorld may seem pretty big at first glance, but when you take a moment to consider the size of these animals compared to the space in which they have to live, it quickly becomes evident that the equivalent for you or me would be living in a prison cell.
What Causes Killer Whales to Suffer in Captivity
Among other problems, captive orcas chronically suffer painful sunburns. This is because their tanks are at most forty feet deep, which is not nearly deep enough to screen out the sun’s harmful UV rays. If these sunburns are severe enough to be visible to the public, they are covered with black zinc oxide.
The stress of captivity also incites aggressive behavior toward trainers and other orcas; this behavior is often addressed by drugging the animals.
Finally, orcas can suffer from a condition known as dorsal fin collapse. You may have seen photos of this—killer whales whose normally tall, imposing dorsal fins appear to be soft and floppy, bending and curling over the animal’s back. Scientists and veterinarians are not in complete agreement about why this happens, but it happens to only 1–5 percent of orcas in the wild … and to all males and many females in captivity. Many scientists suspect it is caused by lowered blood pressure due to reduced levels of activity—that is, they get less exercise because they live in tiny (for them) little tanks.
SeaWorld’s Orca Breeding Program Is Sick and Cruel
In the wild, orcas mate with partners of their own choosing, but in captivity they are bred in a decidedly less romantic fashion. Sperm is taken from males (via a method perhaps best not described here) and used to impregnate females who are often as young as nine years old—much younger than orcas’ natural breeding age of about fifteen. To make matters worse, it is not unusual for the whales’ “partners” to be closely related—one whale named Katina has even been bred with her own sons.
2. It’s Not Just Killer Whales—Other Animals Also Suffer at SeaWorld
Orcas are not the only creatures that suffer in captivity at SeaWorld. Beluga whales—beloved by visitors for their smiling faces—also do poorly. Like orcas, beluga whales are bred in captivity, and they fare even worse than their black-and-white cousins. Beluga babies born in captivity have a 65 percent mortality rate, and those that survive into adulthood tend to live no more than thirty years, while a beluga in the wild can expect to live sixty years or more. According to PETA, to date at least fifty-eight beluga whales have died in SeaWorld’s custody.
Nor are the world’s penguins safe from SeaWorld’s depredations. According to New Zealand’s NZ Herald, in 2011 the company mounted an Antarctic expedition during which they took ten emperor penguin chicks from their nests at an age when the chicks are almost completely dependent on their parents. These chicks were then subjected to the stress of a long flight to California, where they will live out the remainder of their lives in an alien environment, forever separated from the familiar surroundings of their colony.
3. It’s a Terrible Place to Work
Some of SeaWorld’s labor practices are disgraceful. First of all, the orca shows—for reasons that must by now be obvious—are dangerous. The trainers—who are just entertainers, not marine biologists or otherwise formally educated professionals—honestly love the work they do, but that work is more dangerous than many of them realize, and terrible tragedies can happen. The most famous example of this is the well-publicized 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged underwater and drowned by a whale named Tilikum … who has been responsible for two other fatalities. Tilikum was of course made more famous a few years later, as the focus of the movie Blackfish.
While Ms. Brancheau’s death is the best known of these types of incidents, there have been others. A whale named Kasatka attempted to bite trainers during shows in 1993 and 1999. Despite this record of aggressive behavior, Kasatka continued to perform, and in November of 2006 he dragged a trainer underwater during a show, in the process inflicting puncture wounds on both of the trainer’s feet and tearing a ligament in his left foot.
The levels of chorine in the tanks at SeaWorld are also potentially harmful to trainers’ health (not to mention the health of the animals living in the tanks!), but despite this occupational hazard the company has lobbied for legislation that would allow it to deny health benefits to its employees—in violation of the Affordable Care Act.
4. It’s Expensive
If none of the foregoing ethical concerns are sufficient to motivate you to stay away from SeaWorld, consider the cost—to your own wallet. Admission to the park costs $70 to $90, depending on what day of the week you choose to visit, and if you bring your family that’s two or three hundred dollars out the window even before you eat. Sandwiches range from $7.95 to $12 and more. Kid’s meals are in the somewhat more reasonable $6 range, but on top of that your child will need a drink, which is another two or three dollars.
Costs continue to mount after that. It makes no sense to travel all that way and spend all that money on admission and then not take advantage of any of the extra attractions available at the park—after all, you can spend just so much time looking at fish in tanks. So you may want to have a “dolphin encounter” for $50, or perhaps a “dolphin interaction,” which starts at $250! “Interactions” and “encounters” with belugas and penguins are similarly priced. Heaven help you if, on top of that, your kids want to go on any of the rides. And then, before you leave, your spouse may insist on hitting the gift shop, where you can find such absurd things as penguin-foot slippers for $24.95!
Adding all that up, a conservative estimate puts the cost of a single day at SeaWorld at $300–$400 per person at least, and that’s if you worry about penny-pinching more than having fun (and you’re a local resident who doesn’t have to buy a plane ticket).
What else could you do with that money? You could buy twenty or thirty movie tickets, or round-trip airfare from New York to Los Angeles. You could go skydiving. You could buy a used motorcycle, or a handsome, well-tailored suit. You could treat yourself and your spouse to dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in town. You could buy five or six tickets to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And you could feel better about any of these purchases than you would feel about enriching the executives at SeaWorld.