Hear that sound? That’s the call, click, and whistle of orcas celebrating the end of SeaWorld’s controversial orca-breeding program. Free Willy… indeed. And it’s about time. On March 17, The Hollywood Reporter announced that the change would go into effect immediately at theme parks around the country. “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” said Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s Entertainment, Inc.’s president and chief executive officer. Of course, that’s a public relations way of saying that government scrutiny of captive breeding and the public outcry sparked by the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, forced SeaWorld to make a change. Society’s understanding of orcas evolved because Blackfish exposed SeaWorld’s cover-ups and lies.
Blackfish triggered a sea-world-of-hurt for the famous marine theme park. While the Disneyfied operation looks friendly and enticing to the uneducated tourist, a magical place where kids can pet and feed bottlenose dolphins, Blackfish exposed its dark underbelly. In the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell discussed how governments enlisted and debased language to dress lies up as truth. SeaWorld had been dressing lies up as truth and deliberately misinforming the public for decades. For orcas in captivity, SeaWorld is a place where happiness tanks. For trainers and performers, it’s a place where a 12,500-pound whale might scalp, dismember and drown you because of its frustration with confinement. Here are 10 things SeaWorld wants you to forget.
10. Orcas Suffer in SeaWorld’s Cramped Tanks
Whales and dolphins swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. Instead of creating a network of coastal sanctuaries where marine animals can live and swim freely, SeaWorld houses them in cramped tanks the size of a bathtub. The unnatural living conditions have caused orcas to exhibit a wide range of abnormal behaviors, from chewing on metal grates until their teeth are worn down to floating listlessly for hours at a time. SeaWorld’s tanks and pools prohibit orcas from swimming, communicating, and interacting with other orcas. The frustration and stress of living in captivity has led to over 600 pages of incident reports documenting dangerous orca behavior at SeaWorld.
9. SeaWorld Attendance Plummeted
Since the release of Blackfish in 2013, SeaWorld attendance has plummeted. No amount of PR gimmickry and spin-doctored damage control could fix the SeaWorld brand after Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s controversial film. Musical artists such as Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Cheap Trick, 38 Special, and The Beach Boys cancelled concerts at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens. British Airways, Southwest Airlines, and Virgin America dropped their partnerships with the theme park. And if that wasn’t enough, toy brand Mattel announced it would no longer make a SeaWorld trainer Barbie. Attendance numbers at SeaWorld dropped 13 percent in the first three months of 2014, resulting in over $15.9 million in losses.
8. OSHA Cited SeaWorld San Diego… Twice
In April 2015, Cal/OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety inspectors issued SeaWorld San Diego four citations and a $25,770 fine. The citations criticized SeaWorld for failing to evaluate workplace hazards and train employees how to safely interact with killer whales. The citations were allegedly not prompted by “any workplace incident, accident, or injury,” but were the result of an anonymous complaint. The park plans to appeal. It isn’t the first time SeaWorld San Diego has been cited by Cal/OSHA. In 2007, after a trainer was dragged to the bottom of the Shamu pool, an OSHA report stated “that it was only a matter of time before a trainer is killed by an orca.” SeaWorld San Diego disputed the finding.
7. SeaWorld Instructs its Employees to Lie
SeaWorld knowingly puts whales and trainers in danger and then lies about it to tourists. The bottom line is simple: SeaWorld is a zoo, not a sanctuary for marine animals. The trainers are performers, not marine biologists, and the pimply teenager giving you an “educational” tour of the sea lion display could just as easily be working the night shift at McDonalds. SeaWorld is about ticket sales and attendance; it’s about making money. Do SeaWorld’s employees know they’re being lied to? Who knows. What matters is that SeaWorld spins a false narrative and their employees’ job is to sell that narrative to the public.
6. SeaWorld Protests are Widespread
Animal rights protests are nothing new. Whether they’re protesting the fur coats that models wear on runways at big-name fashion houses or tossing Molotov cocktails at animal testing laboratories, there are extremists somewhere doing something that make you roll your eyes and say, “Oh, for PETA’s sake.” SeaWorld, however, has been attacked by a generation of young protesters, not extreme activists; kids who at one time probably had a stuffed animal Shamu have taken to Twitter with hashtags like #downwithSeaWorld and #emptythetanks. In 2013, 12-year old Rose McCoy was arrested after she hopped a barricade at the Rose Parade to protest SeaWorld’s T-Day float.
5. SeaWorld Had a Failed Nationwide Marketing Campaign
SeaWorld attempted to stop the backlash and public outcry caused by Blackfish with a revamped nationwide marketing campaign. The park cut ticket prices and embarked on a $10 million marketing blitz that included Youtube posts, open letters to newspapers, and videos of its veterinarians caring for orca calves. The park even launched an “Ask SeaWorld” Twitter campaign; however, unhappy with the tone of the questions people were asking, SeaWorld blocked several Twitter users. All in all, SeaWorld’s marketing campaign was a failure. The public didn’t buy it. It takes more than cute pictures of orca calves and social media to revamp a dying brand, and no amount of spin, whitewash, and propaganda could force viewers to un-see what they saw in Blackfish.
4. SeaWorld Uses Black Zinc Oxide as Cover Up
From doses of Valium to quell anxiety to teeth cleaning to prevent infection from gnawing on the metal bars in tanks, SeaWorld trainers employ all sorts of tricks to make captive orcas look healthier than they are. Former SeaWorld employees have reported that black zinc oxide is used on orcas; it’s applied as a form of sunscreen because orcas in captivity spend most of their time floating on the surface of the water with little shade. However, it’s also used to paint over existing burns and blisters. “Black zinc oxide is used for aesthetic reasons,” said Jeffrey Ventre, a former orca trainer. “It’s a way to paint over burns –usually on the dorsal surface of the animal.”
3. Collapsed Dorsal Fins Are Unnatural
Wild orcas swim and travel far, and always in deep water. Water pressure keeps their dorsal fins straight, erect, and healthy. All captive male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins. Most scientists agree that orcas in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins because they don’t swim very far and eat an unnatural diet. Repetitive, circular swimming in a cramped tank or pool causes irreversible structural damage to the fin. Stress, exhaustion, dehydration, and low blood pressure can also cause dorsal fins to bend. Only about 1% of wild orcas exhibit fin collapse, and it’s typically the result of old age, a collision or injury suffered from an altercation with another whale, or an oil spill.
2. SeaWorld’s Trainers Are in Danger
According to corporate incident reports there have been over 100 trainer injuries at SeaWorld, from minor bruising and biting to internal bleeding and death. After the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau (pictured) the park changed its rules and safety measures. High flying “rocket hops” are now banned and trainers must wrap ponytails in a bun. Critics insist the changes are just for show and that the real problem is how the orcas are treated at SeaWorld. “They’re certainly masking the issue that the whales are really bored,” said John Jett, a former trainer. “You deprive them of all the social stimulation, environmental stimulation and expect them to do well. You know, it seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.”
1. Tilikum Killed Three People
Measuring 22 feet and weighing over 12,500 pounds, Tilikum is the largest orca in captivity. The bull orca was captured near Iceland in 1983; he was two years old when a “cowboy poacher” tore him away from his family. In the Chinook jargon of the Pacific Northwest the name Tilikum means “friends,” but the orca that’s sired 21 calves for SeaWorld’s breeding program (54 percent of the orcas at SeaWorld have Tilikum’s genes) is anything but friendly. In thirty-three years of captivity Tilikum has been linked to three violent deaths, two trainers, Keltie Byrne and Dawn Brancheau, and a man who fall into a pool while trespassing at SeaWorld Orlando. Experts believe the stress and frustration of captivity led to Tilikum’s aggressive behavior.