SeaWorld Refutes New Film That Exposes the Cruel Treatment of Captive Whales

The new documentary ‘Blackfish’ reveals the innerworkings of the multi-billion dollar seapark industry.

killer whales
Captive whales have been driven to disturbing and destructive behavior. (Photo: John Warden/Getty Images)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

SeaWorld has unleashed a bitter attack on the new documentary Blackfish, accusing the filmmakers of being “shamelessly dishonest,” and filling the movie with serious inaccuracies.

As someone who has followed the saga of Tilikum and deceased trainer Dawn Brancheau for years, I was happy to rebut SeaWorld’s various grievances. The inaccuracies, it turns out, are found in spokesman Fred Jacob’s “Dear Film Critic” letter, which was sent out today:

I’m writing to you on behalf of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. You may be aware of a documentary called “Blackfish” that purports to expose SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales (or orcas) and the “truth” behind the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following. Although “Blackfish” is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate. As the late scholar and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted: "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts."

The film’s most egregious and untrue allegations include: The insinuation that SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild. In fact, SeaWorld hasn’t collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80% of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities.

First of all, an “insinuation” is not an accusation, and Blackfish does not make this claim. It is worth pointing out, however, that the wild orca Morgan, who was rescued in waters off the Netherlands a few years back, now lives at Loro Parque, Spain; in its SEC filing there, SeaWorld claimed her as one of their own whales, just as they own the other orcas in the park.

The assertion that killer whales in the wild live more than twice as long as those living at SeaWorld. While research suggests that some wild killer whales can live as long as 60 or 70 years, their average lifespan is nowhere near that. Nor is it true that killer whales in captivity live only 25 to 35 years.

Because we’ve been studying killer whales at places like SeaWorld for only 40 years or so, we don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s.

The research completed to date does not “suggest” average life expectancies and maximum lifespans; it methodically and scientifically documents them, at least among resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.

As I reported in Death at SeaWorld: “The average life expectancy for female orcas in the wild has been estimated at 45 to 50 years, with a maximum lifespan of about 90,” and, “the average life expectancy for a wild orca male is approximately 30 years, with an estimated maximum lifespan of about 60.”

There is zero evidence to date to even suggest that captive killer whales live anywhere near as long as those in the ocean. Many orcas at SeaWorld have died in their teens, 20s, and often younger. This rate of death is extremely high, and much higher than what is found in the wild, as I wrote in the book:

Because many killer whales died in the first year of life, Small and DeMaster analyzed annual survival data for non-calves—in both captivity and the wild—over the period 1988-1992. Statistics on captive animals came from the Marine Mammal Inventory Report and wild survival data came from the landmark paper that Peter Olesiuk, Mike Bigg and their colleagues published on resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest.

“Survival of the wild population… based on approximately 250 non-calves, was significantly higher than our estimates for non-calf captive whales,” Small and DeMaster wrote. They had found an annual survival rate of 0.938 among killer whales in captivity, meaning that 93.8% of the population survived from year to year. Among the wild whales, the ASR was 0.976 – 97.6% of those whales survived each year. That might not seem like much of a difference, but if looked at inversely, the distinction was glaring. If 93.8% of the captive whales survived from year to year, then 6.2% of them died. By contrast, just 2.4% of the free ranging whales died from year to year. The evidence, when laid out this way, could not have been clearer. The annual mortality rate among non-calf captive killer whales was more than two and a half times higher (6.2% vs 2.4%) than the rate among non-calf whales swimming in the ocean.

The implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word “bullying” is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale.

Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.

First of all, in the open sea, if an orca does not want to be raked, rammed or bitten, the animal has an infinite variety of escape routes, in all three dimensions. Not so at SeaWorld, where they can be and sometimes are repeatedly attacked and harassed by more dominant whales, usually females.

I have never heard of a seriously injurious fight between killer whales in the ocean. But in captivity, I reported on incidents which, to my mind, amount to “bullying” and aggression that goes well beyond simple skin-raking:

  • The most shocking orca death took place on August 21, 1989. It involved Corky II and Kandu V, an Icelandic female about 14 years of age. (In 1987, a witness reported that Kandu violently collided into Corky, leaving a three-foot-gash along Corky’s stomach.)  Kandu had been resting with her one-year-old calf Orkid, along with Corky. Corky had shown intense interest in the calf, something that agitated Kandu intensely. Though younger and smaller than the 25-year-old Corky, Kandu had exerted dominance over her from the beginning. On this day, she began to engage in a ''normal, socially-induced act of aggression to assert her dominance over Corky,'' according to a veterinarian at SeaWorld. It wasn’t normal. Kandu slammed her head into Corky so violently it severed a major artery in her upper jaw. Blood flooded the back pool and a 10-foot geyser of crimson spouted from Kandu’s blowhole. Over the next 45 minutes Kandu bled to death as SeaWorld staff and the audience looked on in helpless distress.
  • In January 1987, SeaWorld Florida acquired another male from Canada’s Marineland Ontario—a large and moody male named Kanduke, the only transient whale in the collection. The mammal-eating Pacific whale and Kotar, a fish-eating Icelandic whale, did not get along at all. One day they got into a fierce altercation. The two males repeatedly beached themselves on the slide-out and made loud crying noises. At the peak of the battle, Kotar bit Kanduke’s penis, severely wounding it, which left a four-inch scar. That attack got Kotar banished to San Antonio in 1988.
  • The orcas were becoming increasingly aggressive with each other. One time Nootka chased a tank mate into the module and ended up smashing her head on the metal side. Blood ran from her blowhole, but “no veterinarians were called until the next day, demonstrating negligence on the part of SeaLand,” Walters alleged.
  • The three killer whales were “housed from 1730 hrs until 0800 hrs the following day in what is called the ‘module,’” Walters wrote. Lights were kept off all night and no form of stimulation was provided. The tight space “leads to conflict between the whales, which have no options for avoiding confrontations. Often the whales’ skin shows teeth marks from aggressive action between the three, which are not just superficial tooth rakes.”

The accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales. 

It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare. And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.

Several SeaWorld calves have been rejected by their mother—an unnatural occurrence as far as we know—including Victoria, at Loro Parque, who just died at 10 months of age.

Victoria’s mother, Kohana, who also rejected a son, had been bred with her (Kohana’s) own uncle. In a number of other cases, mothers have tried to drown their calves, something that would be almost unthinkable in the wild.

As for separating families, it is endemic at SeaWorld, as whales are flown around the country, and overseas, like UPS packages. I cover this issue so extensively in the book. Wild orcas stay together for life and do not reach adulthood until their late teens.

Thus, I would ask SeaWorld, what does any of the following have to do with “long-term health and welfare” of the orcas sent to Spain?

The four young whales in the loan—two males and two females— had led lives that could best be described as “interrupted.” There was Kohana, three-and-a-half years old. When she was just shy of two, Kohana was taken from her mother Kasatka and sent to Orlando. Eighteen months after that, she was on her way to the Canary Islands.

The other female, Skyla, was born in Orlando to Kalina and Tilikum, but at just two years of age was dispatched to Spain.

Then Tekoa was born to the neurotic Taima, who showed aggressive tendencies toward him. In April 2004, SeaWorld sent Tekoa to live in San Antonio, before he was flown to Tenerife in 2006.

Keto, 10, was born in Orlando but proved to be a rowdy and somewhat unpredictable calf. Before he was four, Keto was sent to San Diego, where he spent just 10 months before being transferred to San Antonio. Five years later, he was on the plane to Spain.

To read the rest of David Kirby's rebuttal to SeaWorld's statements, visit his website, Death at SeaWorld.

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