Why Is SeaWorld Allowing Its Killer Whales to Live in Crumbling Pools?

Rusted beams, chipping concrete, and more decaying infrastructure at SeaWorld Orlando.

What lies beyond the front entrance to SeaWorld Orlando? (Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Packs of decade-old medical sutures. Rust and cement chips in the dolphin nursery. Flooring and concrete mesh chipping away at Shamu Stadium. Eroded paint exposing rough concrete edges in the orca “slide-out.”

Is SeaWorld going to seed? No, it’s just another day at America’s favorite marine mammal entertainment park.

Last December, agents from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspected SeaWorld Orlando and found a number of problems that could potentially put the animals’ health and lives at risk.

SeaWorld and the government played down the citations as routine and hardly noteworthy. But to many critics, it is precisely because such disrepair is routine that cetacean captivity becomes even more untenable.

In the diminutive concrete tank known as the dolphin nursery pool, where mothers and infants swim within earshot of an adjacent rattling roller coaster, “painted concrete & concrete patches” were found around the rim that, “have separated and are loose, are no longer durable, and are not in good repair.” Several small cracks were also found.

“The dolphins in this pool can potentially have contact with these patched areas which might create a health risk,” the report said, especially if concrete chips were ingested, “or if they become abrasive to the dolphin’s skin.” The patchy areas were not conducive to cleaning and disinfecting as well.

Meanwhile, two overhead metal beams were rusty, which could cause peeling and flaking that, “can also create a potential health hazard,” if chips fall in the water, though it’s not known if that occurred.

At Shamu Stadium, inspectors found “several small areas of flooring that the trainers walk on behind the big screen (that) is not durable, and is loose, worn and chipped away, exposing the underlying porous concrete. This inspector easily dislodged a piece of this floor coating/concrete with his shoe. The loose pieces of flooring, if dislodged, can easily fall into the water and create a health risk if they should become injected” (sic).

There were also problems in one of the slide-out areas, where “Shamu” (the stage name for SeaWorld orcas) hauls out of the water, back arched and flukes up in a pose that would be grotesque in the wild. The area had “worn paint exposing the underlying concrete matrix,” the report said. “These areas are also not in good repair, do no facilitate cleaning and disinfection, and can potentially cause a health risk to these whales.”

The feds ordered SeaWorld to fix the problems by March 1, 2013, “to protect the whales and dolphins from injury.” They also said to dispose of medical sutures that had expired nearly a decade earlier. Their use was “inappropriate,” and SeaWorld was told to “establish an effective procedure” to ensure expired sutures are discarded.

The report was only recently made public, and a copy was obtained by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Staff attorney Jared Goodman told TakePart that PETA filed a complaint at USDA in December, after a girl was bitten by a dolphin at the feeding pool, and that is what prompted the inspection, though USDA listed it as “routine.”

Either way, “According to the inspector’s notes, SeaWorld was evasive when asked about past dolphin bites and refused to provide information on them, but ultimately wasn't cited for the biting incident,” Goodman said. But the expired sutures and tank disrepair were “discovered and cited during the inspection” and “jeopardize the orcas' and other dolphins' safety and are further evidence of SeaWorld's repeated disregard for federal laws meant to protect animal welfare.”

According to Goodman, “Decrepit tanks are only the beginning of the cruelty at SeaWorld. From housing incompatible animals together and intense boredom and aggression, causing orcas to gnaw on the metal gates and concrete tanks and damage their teeth, to forcible insemination, the blaring music during its tawdry shows, and roller coasters overhead, SeaWorld is an unnatural and devastating environment.”

Last year at SeaWorld San Diego, APHIS investigators concluded that a ghastly wound sustained by the orca Nakai was caused by something “in the pool environment.” And, Goodman said, “concrete tanks at SeaWorld San Antonio appear to have caused two recent bloody dolphin injuries.”

SeaWorld and USDA seemed to think the problems were no big deal and repaired in a timely fashion.

“All the items noted by APHIS during their most recent routine inspection have been resolved and the matter is now closed,” SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs told TakePart. “The safety of guests and staff and the health and welfare of SeaWorld’s animals are our highest priorities. The items listed by APHIS in their report of December 3 posed no safety or health risk to our staff, guests or animals.”

USDA spokesman David Sack said his agency “doesn’t have any reason to believe that the expired sutures were being used by the facility.” He added that, “Most dolphins won't ingest concrete, but if one did, the concrete would need to be removed. The amount of concrete ingested would also play a factor. Same goes with killer whales. As I'm sure you understand, I can't speculate on exact outcomes from hypothetical ingestions.”

As for Nakai, “Again, I can't speculate on that,” Sacks said. “I can, however, say that our inspector found no areas of the pools that were in need of repair," in San Diego. But, he added, “We will continue to make routine, unannounced inspections to make sure that SeaWorld is adhering to all pertinent Animal Welfare Act regulations—including those that cover the physical facilities such as pools.”

It’s true that we can’t speculate on “hypothetical ingestions,” but it’s plausible that some animals did ingest concrete, rust chips, or flooring. They have certainly eaten more exotic items, like floats and toys. In Death at SeaWorld, I discuss orcas at Loro Parque, Spain, who peeled away and ate strips of pool lining. When I was at the dolphin pool in Orlando once, someone dropped a phone in the water. By the time staff was alerted, it was nowhere to be seen. More than 15 minutes passed before someone suited up and went in to search. I don’t know if the toxic piece of electronics was ever found.

When marine mammals ingest foreign objects, such as crumbling pieces of their habitat, they can get sick and even die.

“Mortality in marine parks and zoos due to foreign body ingestion is well documented in the literature,” said a 1990 report co-authored by James Coe, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “At Marineland of the Pacific, numerous cetaceans died as a result of ingestion of foreign material,” the report said. One dolphin died after ingesting a piece of plastic. “Approximately one-half of the forestomach lining and submucosa had eroded away,” the report said, “with necrotic tissue and inflammation extending deep into the musculature of the stomach wall.”

Captive marine mammals “have abundant time to investigate, manipulate, damage or destroy vulnerable elements within their facilities,” notes the textbook Wild Mammals in Captivity. And when they eat the wrong thing, consequences can be dire. “Any ingested foreign body must be manually removed from the forestomach,” the book said. Induced vomiting might kill the animal via blockage, suffocation and pressure on the heart and trachea.

Crumbling pools and manual removal of foreign objects from animals do not happen every day, of course. But they do happen. And because peeling concrete and flooring is considered nothing but “routine” by industry and regulators alike, activists are convinced there is simply no “acceptable” artificial habitat for wild marine mammals.

“I’m stunned that SeaWorld can claim they give their animals the ‘best care in the world’ when their living conditions are literally falling apart,” Alex Lewis of the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke told Take Part.

Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation agreed. “The chronic and perpetual decay of these facilities underscores the extreme costs and risks to both the animals, and the facilities themselves,” she said.

“No captive environment will ever be adequate for whales and dolphins, and the peeling paint, expired medications, and decrepit tanks belie the futile attempts of these facilities to hide the true face of captivity from the public,” Vail added. “The captive infrastructure is costly to maintain, but as the concrete walls continue to crumble, these costs do not compare to the ultimate cost to these animals: their quality of life, and their freedom.”

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