Did you know that in 1983, SeaWorld attempted to capture 100 of Alaska’s killer whales? SeaWorld had been barred from capturing in Washington and British Columbia, so they looked farther north to acquire more killer whales for their parks. They had received a permit from NMFS to temporarily capture 100 whales in Alaskan waters to obtain blood samples, extract teeth, and take weight/length measurements. While 90 whales would be released, 10 would be kept and shipped off to their parks in California, Florida, and at the time, Ohio.
Naturally, this did not sit well with Alaskans. The proposed area of the captures, Prince William Sound, is an important region for the local resident killer whales and people feared captures could deplete the population and cause remaining whales to become scared of humans. The Tlingit people, who revere killer whales, branded the captures as cruel and exploitative. Some fishermen and environmentalists threatened to interfere with any of SeaWorld’s capture operations. Coincidentally, SeaWorld failed to file an environmental impact statement prior to issuance of their permit—several groups, including the Sierra Club, challenged the permit in court on this basis. Their permit was voided by a federal judge in 1985 and SeaWorld was not allowed to conduct the proposed captures.
Knowing that the whales I study and love could have been subjected to cruel procedures or confined to tanks to splash tourists in Florida sends a shiver up my spine. The removal of even one female whale would have had profound impacts on the pods—a productive female can leave as many as 15 descendants over 3 generations. Had even a few of these whales been captured, I might not have had the privilege to view the whales I see today! I am extremely grateful Alaskans stood up to SeaWorld and prevented them from disrupting Alaska’s wild whale populations.
One topic I have been pondering lately is the issue of captive killer whales intentionally stranding themselves on slide-outs in marine parks. It’s often cited as an abnormal, stereotypical, and or/dangerous behavior by those against captivity and viewed as normal by those in favor of it. Typical online debates around this issue usually go the following way:
1. Video or photo of a captive killer whale intentionally stranding on a slide-out is posted.
2. Somebody claims the behavior is unnatural and dangerous.
3. Another person refutes this, citing populations of killer whales in the wild that use intentional stranding as a hunting method.
4. Someone points out captive killer whales are not from these populations, therefore, it is not natural and a sign of abnormal behavior in captivity.
I do not support killer whale captivity myself, and I used to believe with certainty that intentional stranding by captive killer whales was absolutely evidence that captivity altered their normal behaviors. Over the course of my marine biology degree, I’ve had the opportunity to study killer whales, both through the literature and with personal observations in the wild. One thing I’ve learned is that their behavior is often far more complex than we think and when it comes to judging whether or not a behavior is “abnormal” in captivity, a lot more scrutiny and critical thought is required than is typically given. I think the topic of intentional stranding is one of those things that may require a closer look.
In the Wild
In the wild, two populations of killer whales are known to intentionally strand on beaches: the killer whales around Punta Norte in Argentina and those in the Crozet Islands.
Female killer whale stranding to catch a southern elephant seal in Punta Norte. Photo: Wildlife Trails.
In Argentina, both adult males, adult females, and juveniles will intentionally strand on the sloping beaches in order to capture southern elephant seals and South American sea lion pups. In some cases, stranded adults have been observed capturing sea lions and then “flinging” them over to stranded juveniles, apparently in an attempt to teach them how to hunt.
In the Crozet Island, two forms of intentional stranding have been documented, one that involves strand hunting for elephant seals and another known as “social stranding play,” in which adult females, calves, and juveniles intentionally strand themselves in non-hunting contexts. This stranding play behavior may occur in adult females as a way to further refine their hunting techniques, or it may be for social purposes, such as establishing social standings/dominance within a group. In contrast to Punta Norte, male killer whales do not strand-hunt in the Crozet Islands, likely due to their large size and high risk of becoming stuck.
Slide-outs are raised platforms within killer whale tanks, typically covered in a shallow amount of water. They are frequently used in shows and for husbandry activities that require whales to be out of the water for a procedure, such as taking urine samples.
Katina on a slide-out in SeaWorld Orlando. Photo: The Dolphin Project
Captive killer whales have been observed to intentionally strand themselves on slide-outs outside of husbandry or show contexts. In the video below, Makani, a juvenile male, voluntarily strands himself on a slide-out:
When videos like this are posted online, they are often met with backlash. One of the most common arguments is that stranding in captive killer whales is entirely “unnatural” because no captive killer whale originates from either the Punta Norte or Crozet Island populations. Usually, this is followed by the assertion that their bodies are not adapted to be out of the water on slide-outs. However, we must think critically about this. There is currently no evidence that either the Punta Norte or Crozet Island killer whales are more physiologically adapted to stranding than any other killer whales, including captive ones. I see no reason why it would be more dangerous for a captive killer whale to intentionally strand than a wild killer whale.
It seems strand hunting and stranding play techniques are cultural. Culture, which is defined as “information or behavior—shared within a community—which is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning,” is very prevalent in killer whale populations around the world. The strand hunting techniques in wild killer whales are likely not instinctual––rather, they are probably cultural and learned as calves, passed down from mother to offspring and learned from observation or direct teaching. There does not seem to be any reason other populations of killer whales could not learn to display similar hunting techniques if provided the right environment, including captive killer whales.
I don’t think many people consider that captive killer whales are likely capable of cultural learning as well. While they live in a radically different environment than wild whales, they are still killer whales with the same brains and learning capabilities. Perhaps strand hunting in wild killer whales got its start when an intrepid individual hastily and successfully chased and captured a sea lion on a beach. Perhaps it shared this information with its conspecifics, and the behavior spread throughout the population, eventually morphing into play behavior (or perhaps the other way around?). In captivity, this behavior started with a human trainer teaching the whales how to slide-out, and the whales subsequently have taught other whales to do so. At this point, many people will say “But it’s unnatural!”, but from what I have watched in some videos, it is not so fundamentally different than what is occurring in wild killer whale populations. In the video below, Wikie, an adult female, is seen pushing her son Keijo onto a slide-out and is accompanied by her other son, Moana:
“I also observed, in calm sea conditions, female A3
pushing her calf, A5, with her head to strand it. She then
stranded farther onshore, in front of her calf, so that she could
assist it in returning to deep water. The adult females were
always observed returning to the water from the shore at the side
of the calf, apparently to help it roll back into the water.”
Here, Wikie does not strand on the slide-out with Keijo, rather, she waits in the water for him to return before pushing him back up. Some have interpreted her behavior as malicious, as trying to permanently strand him to kill him. I do not see an aggressive, infanticidal animal in this video: I see a mother teaching her calf how to strand on a slide-out, which seems strengthened by the fact her mother, Sharkan, was known to do this to her as well.
I think perhaps this is what occurs with intentional stranding in captive killer whales as well. That said, there are some instances where stranding on the slide-outs may have negative implications, such as if it becomes a repetitive behavior or when an animal gets stuck.
It is important to view the behavior of captive killer whales through a critical lens and understand the contexts and the roots of the behavior before we jump the conclusion of “it’s unnatural, so it must be bad.” Killer whales are amazingly complex and intelligent––what plays out in the wild may also be occurring in captivity, just in a very different way.
I have no idea how people can defend LP or SW with a straight face. Or how anyone links to a Loro Parque document expecting to be taken seriously.
Whale develops extensive lesions.
Strange skin colors.
‘diatoms, like Arctic orcas.’
‘accident/don’t know/orcas fight all the time in the wild (links to a paper about the Southern Residents. Which explicitly says the opposite.)’
Tooth issues, extensively documented.
‘it happens all the time in the wild (/ignores all details of this phenomenon)’
Pictures of Morgan’s tooth fractured.
‘no broken teeth.’
‘FAKE NEWS, ULTRA WHARRGARBL, PETA’
Okay. Sure. Great.
Fun thing I was also told at Seaworld: educator mentioned 5% Norwegian and 35% NZ orcas with collapsed (!) fins, then led into “only 8% of humans worldwide have blue eyes, so more dorsal fins are bent than people have blue eyes!”
Yes. Because that is how math works.
Don’t expect me to take you seriously if you defend this kind of misleading trash. You can’t claim to champion education if you do.
I really don’t know where to start in talking about SW. I largely went on an information-gathering mission to provide both comparisons/contrasts to similar local attractions (San Diego Zoo and Birch Aquarium) and just to see what Seaworld actually presents to its guests; I took pictures and video to support these observations.
I was heavily focused on what was presented regarding the orcas. I participated in every available activity to avoid claims that abc information was actually presented in xyz activity I didn’t do. I watched 6 instances of “Orca Encounter”, went on the “Killer Whales Up Close” tour, and did the “Dine With” thing.
The latter two I filmed in their entirety. I recorded the audio from several of the Orca shows (it didn’t really vary). I took pictures of every educational tidbit available. As mentioned in the other post, there was only a single mention of the Southern Residents. Anywhere.
Orca conservation messaging is basically nonexistent. Here’s a view of where the UWV, dining area, its associated pool, and the signage all resides:
If you’re down there, it looks like this:
There’s 3 double-sided signs with general (and..a little questionable) killer whale information.
Nothing about the southern residents. To the left side of the UWV is a small screen playing slow-motion clips of wild whales, with occasional information mirrored from the surrounding items.
What is scattered everywhere: ParkToPlanet, X# of rescues for Y# of years, and Seaworld Cares messaging. I was expecting some stripe of this… but literally every recycling bin had ‘Seaworld Cares’ on it. They also prominently displayed their ‘accreditations’ near the orca and beluga exhibits.
Seaworld VERY aggressively markets its beluga and dolphin encounters. The signs are large (here’s an egregious example) and common in the associated areas. Educational signage about dolphins was largely about training/interactions; I didn’t see any educational signage at all for the belugas except a list of their names and short bios.
There was more educational signage/conservation messaging for the sea otters (which I never saw out?) than for any of the cetaceans.
The cetacean tanks all look substantially smaller in person than in pictures. I was able to figure out “Keet’s Corner” fairly quickly because … well, Keet was in it. The trainers describe him as “lazy.”
The dolphin show was devoid of information. This was the only sign near it. Do the pilot whales ever get to come out of that one tiny tank? I never saw them anywhere else, and they weren’t in the show.
I’m not really a theme park person (read: I don’t like thrill rides. So no, I didn’t go on any of them.) This was definitively a theme park; I’m not just saying that Because Seaworld, I’m saying that because the nonstop decor and earsplitting din doesn’t let you take much else away from it. Even on a quieter day, the rumble of rides and their accompanying screams could be heard from many places. The park also has either really loud pop music or big, sweeping orchestral music playing almost everywhere.
My opinion of the place came out of my experiences as substantially worse, not better or even unchanged. I felt I was being as open and observational as possible. If anyone wants to see more imagery or discuss any point in further detail I’d be happy to. I sort of want to show people all atypical angles of the thing so you can get a good idea of what’s going on without having to go there.
I’ll save my marketing observations for later/a different post(s), but yhea.
He was one of the very few transient orca captured for marine parks, transient orcas diet mainly consists of other marine mammals and they spend 90% of their day foraging for such meals. So they were not ideal candidates for parks. Previous transient captures (Chimo/Scarjaw) spent many days unfed due to the confusing change in offered food.
Kanduke was captured on August 16th 1975 along with his pod mate Nootka 3 – His mother Innis (T7) is still alive. The above article mentions six whales caught but only 4 captured- i cannot find any further mention of the other 2 orca.
He spent time in marineland’s back pool (Where Junior died) before performing there which he did until 1987 when he was bought by Sea World – where he fathered 2 calves, whom later gave him 3 grandchildren.
Kanduke was described as very moody- so he did not often perform, spending his days in the back pools. It is not known if he ever met his own daughters as staff were worried he did not know his own strength because of how big and bulky he was.
Kanduke died September 20th 1990 of a disease that is non-exsistant in the wild orca population as it is caused by a mosquito bite. (St. Louis encephalitis) The captive orca behaviour of ‘logging’ puts orca’s at risk for this disease.
btw when zoo folks are upset because of Seaworld Business Things it’s like…
dudes. why. do you think. people have a problem with Seaworld?
The business things don’t live off in their own separate land. They are very much a part of the company and also direct what it ultimately does. It doesn’t matter who’s running it or why or for how many jellybeans. The issues live almost entirely in the intersection between “it actually being a theme park business” and “it parading around as a zoo/aquarium.” Do not ignore that. Do not congratulate
If a zoo started spending huge chunks of money on rides, Sesame Street, and flashy, substanceless commercials (instead of its animals) I’d be mad at it too.
Probably the worst part is how the SRKW are dying off as we speak, and Seaworld (as the amazing conservation and research center that it is) has done almost nothing in the scheme of 1) the money they make, 2) the audience they have and could influence/educate, and 3) how little time the SRKW have until the population is too small/inbred to feasibly save
I’d still be angry at their use of funds even if the SRKW were stable, because they could be an amazing and influential center for the betterment of so many animals, including other endangered species/populations!! But they aren’t. Honestly I’m /so angry/ over it because I’m /so sad/ at the wasted potential, and how Seaworld praises itself while the animals they built their success on are wasting away while small organizations and people with limited resources struggle to make any difference
Holiday giant Thomas Cook is to axe all trips to theme parks where killer whales are kept captive – including top attractions SeaWorld and Loro Parque. Britain’s biggest tour operator made the decision following customer feedback and animal welfare evidence. SeaWorld in Florida and Loro Parque in Tenerife attract huge numbers of UK tourists. Thomas Cook sells over 10,000 day trips a year to SeaWorld and has sold 40,000 tickets to Loro Parque this year.
However, both venues have been slammed by animal welfare campaigners and a host of celebrities. Thomas Cook will stop offering tickets to either park or including them in its holidays from next summer. Thomas Cook chief Peter Fankhauser said: “We have engaged with a range of animal welfare specialists and taken account of the scientific evidence they have provided.
“We have also taken feedback from our customers, more than 90 per cent of whom said it was important their holiday company takes animal welfare seriously. That led us to the decision.”