We first visited Sea World Orlando, Florida during our honeymoon when Hector and I, with very limited funds (read that: we were broke!), went on a driving tour of Florida.
So I have a history with Sea World. And I’ve visited many aquariums and had good experiences there. Most recently, I saw “Winter”, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and learned firsthand of the great story of her rescue and rehabilitation.
As a child I also visited the Miami Seaquarium, which is currently at the center of a “Liberate Lolita” campaign. Much of the wonder that I have about marine life was born there. And I know that the Seaquarium, as does Sea World, also performs a lot of rescues. In fact, a neighbor of ours in Miami was a volunteer who spent nights feeding manatee calves whose mothers had been killed by boats and also helped injured manatees and dolphins there.
So we planned to visit Sea World San Diego during our stay and purchased a Sea World Fun Card, which allows you to visit for the rest of 2014 for the price of a one-day ticket.
During our three visits, we attended all of the shows but one, and visited all of the exhibits. Here’s what we saw:
One Ocean – the killer whale show which is the primary source of the current controversy. These enormous whales do amazing feats. And the show’s voiceover is all about the importance of our seas and marine environment.
A large portion of the show was devoted to absolutely soaking the first many rows of seats. First by the whales doing some impressive belly flops.
Then by spraying huge amounts of water with their tails.
A different kind of show was Madagascar Live: Operation Vacation! – with costumed characters from the movie Madagascar. Totally one for the little kids. And Hector was right at home.
We also visited some nicely done exhibits that get you up close to the sea life.
Dolphin Point – where dolphins swim around and can be viewed up close.
Tide Pool – with sea stars and urchins that people can touch.
Penguin Encounter – different types of penguins.
Wild Arctic – with beluga whales and walruses. The unique and beautiful belugas were very interesting to see up close having only recently seen them in the wild up in Quebec.
Other displays included sea lions, stingrays, turtles, flamingoes and sharks.
The park was really interesting and lots of fun. And the shows were very entertaining while always conveying the message of the importance of the oceans. And there is no denying children’s fascination with the animals.
This educational angle is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of such facilities. As oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once said, “we protect what we love”. But when the pilot whales swam out during the Blue Horizons show, Hector and I looked at each other and realized that we’d both teared up. It’s because we saw pilot whales in the wild so recently – last summer in Nova Scotia. They are extremely social animals that travel in very large pods and we just didn’t expect to see them “performing” in captivity.
But this wasn’t the same as my first visit to the circus as an adult. My stepmother had loved the circus as a child and Hector and I took her to the circus in her later years. It was a different time back then, and she was still caught up in those childhood memories. But for me that circus visit was the last. I just couldn’t see a positive side to the animals being there.
That was not the case for Sea World. All of the areas seemed well kept, staffed by obviously caring people eager to share their knowledge and I observed that the marine mammals had enrichment opportunities in the form of toys and interactions. But visiting Sea World was a catalyst for my wanting to learn more about the current controversy and about mammals in captivity.
And I can’t in good conscience end this post without sharing some of that information.
As many already know, in 2010, Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer at Sea World, was killed by a whale named Tillikum after a show. In 2013, the documentary “Blackfish”, focusing on Tillikum and Sea World’s treatment of killer whales was released. Sea World countered with this statement. There have been many accusations and counter-accusations.
In 2014, Dawn Brancheau’s family made a public statement saying the documentary was not Dawn’s story, that they were not affiliated with the documentary, and that the family did not see the documentary until after its release. They said that Ms. Brancheau loved the whales, and wouldn’t have worked at Sea World if she felt they were being mistreated.
After Dawn Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Sea World and placed restrictions on how humans interact with the whales, specifically mandating that they stay out of the water. Sea World appealed, but their appeal was just recently denied.
Some of the issues around whales in captivity include the violent practice of capturing them, improper breeding practices, that they are too large for their enclosures and that these intelligent animals with complex social structures in the wild should not be held in captivity.
I was curious as to how most of the mammals in Sea World were obtained and found this website from an organization that maintains a database of the mammals from many marine aquariums around the world.
According to the database, in Sea World San Diego, all three adult belugas (there is one baby), three of nine orcas, two of its three pilot whales, and seven of 42 dolphins were captured between the mid-1960s up to 1990. Most of the others were born in captivity (a few were stranded). They continue to be bred in captivity.
And although the terrible practice of capturing whales continues in Japan, the last import permit issued in the U.S. was 20 years ago. That practice still needs to be stopped.
There is an argument that the captured whales could be candidates for release (if they can be trained to feed in the wild) as discussed here. Others argue they should be placed in sea pens along with those born in captivity, because it’s been too long since all of these whales have been in the wild.
In March of this year, a member of the California Assembly introduced a bill, nicknamed the Blackfish bill, that would ban the import, export and breeding of orcas and require Sea World San Diego to move its killer whales out of tanks into larger sea pens. A month later, the bill was tabled for further study, which is projected to take about a year.
The fact that Sea World does good work and provides opportunities for people to see and learn about marine animals that they might never have a chance to see otherwise should not be ignored. But that doesn’t mean that they can do no wrong.
We enjoyed our visits to this beautiful and educational facility although we remain conflicted about the ethical issues involved in keeping high intellect creatures in captivity.
Clearly, the fact that so much attention has been brought to the treatment of the whales, the safety of the trainers that interact with them and even whether the whales should be bred or held in captivity and trained as “entertainers” is a positive step for the whales and those who care deeply for them.