Spinning Whales: New Site Fact-Checks SeaWorld

When 'Blackfish' hit movie screens, SeaWorld responded with its own website. Now animal rights activists are hitting back.

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)

Sep 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The “fact-checking” is now being fact-checked.

That’s the latest in the war of words between SeaWorld and its detractors, who just launched a website that gives point-by-point rebuttals to the beleaguered company’s claims about the well-being of its killer whales.

SeaWorld Fact Check, as it’s called, is designed to “separate verifiable facts from corporate opinions or public relations spin,” according to the site’s introduction.

“This is not an advocacy site. It is a fact-check site, a tool that can be used by advocates but geared toward…anyone who simply wants the facts,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “The debate about captive orcas is misinformed by SeaWorld and is therefore not a legitimate debate at all. This website is an effort to correct that.”

Rose manages the site alongside Dr. Ingrid Visser, founder of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust, and prominent anti-captivity activist and blogger Candace Calloway Whiting.

Anti-captivity activists came up with the idea six months ago after SeaWorld launched its Twitter campaign, #AskSeaWorld. The hashtag allows members of the public to tweet questions to the company, which are then answered on a website called SeaWorld Cares. The project was designed to counter claims made in the documentary Blackfish, which criticizes SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas and alleges the company disregards trainer safety.

The Orca Life Span Argument

SeaWorld Fact Check takes on many of the company’s claims about its operations, including captive-orca longevity. For example, SeaWorld asserts that there is “no significant difference” between the annual survival rates of its captive whales and the survival rates of wild populations.

SeaWorld Fact Check calls that claim a statistical sleight of hand.

“SeaWorld claims that approximately 97 percent of all ‘known-age’ orcas in free-ranging populations die before they reach age 50,” SeaWorld Fact Check says. “By this simple trick of only considering ‘known-age’ orcas, they effectively drop a significant number of individuals out of this calculation.” In fact, killer whales can live 50 to 80 years, according to federal government scientists.

SeaWorld also says recent data prove that the average life span for captive whales is 46 to 48 years. But as the new website points out, the company’s oldest captive-born orca, Orkid, is about to turn 27. According to the site, SeaWorld owns 25 captive-born orcas. About a dozen others have died since the first successful birth in 1985; most of them were much younger than 20.

“It should be clear even to non-mathematicians that an average life span of almost 50 cannot be accurate for a category of whale whose oldest member, living or dead, has yet to reach 30,” the site says.

Mother-Calf Separation Debate

The separation of orca mothers and calves is another highly contentious issue between SeaWorld and its critics. The company says it does not remove young whales from their mothers.

SeaWorld Fact Check takes issue with that assertion.

“SeaWorld has separated numerous mothers and offspring, including one at 10 months, one at 20 months and one at 24 months,” it says. “Other separations have occurred when the offspring were juveniles or adolescents.”

SeaWorld considers mother-calf separation to apply only to newborn killer whales, SeaWorld Fact Check says, but the “mother-newborn” definition is not science-based when it comes to orca pairs. “In a species such as orcas, offspring should be considered ‘calves’ until they are at least 5-10 years of age, the earliest age of separation/dispersal observed in the wild.”

The site challenges SeaWorld’s claims on other issues, including the overall health of its whales, the drugs it uses to treat the animals, and the safety of its trainers. It includes links to scientific papers and other sources to back up its rebuttals.

SeaWorld did not respond to a request for comment, but it may not be able to ignore SeaWorld Fact Check for long.

According to Rose, SeaWorld Fact Check received 8,500 hits in its first five days. One visitor was an editor from the Times of San Diego, who invited the group to submit a rebuttal to an opinion piece it published on Sept. 24 by five SeaWorld trainers on their relationship with orcas in their care.

But orca scientist Andy Foote, a biologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said that it’s difficult to compare captive and wild populations. “There are biases associated with each,” he said. “I think that both sides of the debate over keeping killer whales in captivity tend to emphasize certain aspects to make their case seem stronger."