Meet the Scientist Who Is Standing Up to SeaWorld to Save Orcas From Captivity

Dr. Ingrid Visser has dedicated her life to improving the welfare of killer whales.

Ingrid Visser assisting at a 1997 killer whale stranding in Mangawhai, Northland, New Zealand. (Photo: Terry Hardie/Orca Research Trust)

Apr 7, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

As activists turn up the heat against marine parks that keep killer whales in captivity, Ingrid Visser is helping fan the flames.

The marine biologist has dedicated her life to studying, rescuing, filming, and even swimming with killer whales. Her scientific work advances knowledge that helps killer whales in the wild, but Visser has also done battle with companies such as SeaWorld that keep the animals in tanks. Her efforts include founding New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust and helping to establish the World Cetacean Alliance and Dolphinaria Free Europe.

Visser established the world’s first photo-identification catalog of whale pods in New Zealand and Antarctic waters. She has worked on a couple of documentaries about the animals and assisted in several rescues of stranded whales. She's even written a children’s book about one of them.

“I’ve been interested in orca ever since I was a kid,” Visser said in an email. (She considers the Latin name for killer whales, “orca,” to be both singular and plural.) “I started researching them in 1992 and started my Ph.D. not long after that.”

As a child, Visser was told that the only place to work with orcas was the marine park chain SeaWorld. “But even as a youngster, I knew that SeaWorld wasn’t the answer,” she said. Today, her ongoing skirmishes against SeaWorld and other marine parks are well known among both activists and industry executives.

So it may be particularly galling to Visser that SeaWorld has used her research to bolster its claims that killer whales are healthy in captivity. She has urged SeaWorld to correct how it represents her work.

“Anyone can make a difference by spreading the word,” Visser said of cetaceans in captivity. “And the message is simple: Don’t buy a ticket.”

Visser has been involved in the fight to release Lolita, a killer whale captured in Washington state 45 years ago and sent to Miami Seaquarium, where she still resides. U.S. wildlife officials recently gave federal endangered species protections to Lolita, because she was born among an endangered population of wild killer whales. But this legal status has no direct impact on her captivity or the conditions in which she’s being kept at Miami Seaquarium, which Visser terms horrifying.

“Fifty-six orca currently are held in 14 parks throughout the world. At least 160 have died in captivity or during captures,” she said. “Although these parks claim to be doing much for conservation, the little that they might do doesn’t justify or balance what they are doing to the orca and dolphins currently held.”

Visser has also worked to win the release of Morgan, a young female killer whale captured in the Netherlands in 2010. SeaWorld now owns Morgan and keeps her at the Loro Parque facility in Spain's Canary Islands.

“Despite a court case to have her put into a sea sanctuary for rehabilitation, she was shipped to Loro Parque,” Visser said. “I have visited her there a number of times and documented the extreme abuse she has received, from bites to bullying and outright attacks. We are currently talking with lawyers to look into how we can legally assist her.”

Visser hopes to reunite Morgan with her family but would accept having her transferred to a sanctuary, “rather than the barren concrete tanks she is currently held in, where she has to perform tricks in order to get her food,” she said.

Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said Visser’s efforts had been key to raising awareness of this whale’s situation. “Morgan would have fallen between the bureaucratic, regulatory cracks—which are far too numerous and wide—if it weren’t for Ingrid,” Rose said in an email.

For all her activism, media appearances, and nonprofit work, Visser spends most of her time on and under the ocean. Her underwater videography is captivating.

Killer whales “spend less than 10 percent of their lives at the surface,” Visser said. “It makes sense to enter their world to be able to view them better and understand their behavior.” Visser said she is never fearful of being in the water with the whales but does “give them the full respect that they deserve as large apex predators, and I have a special permit to conduct this research.”

Visser’s lifelong dedication to the science and welfare of killer whales shows no signs of abating.

“Ingrid is one of those rare individuals who is literally consumed with her focused passion for orcas,” Courtney Vail, campaigns and program manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in an email. “She’s a wonderful ally in our collective fight to secure protections and a better future for orcas in the wild, and in captivity.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction April 8, 2015: An earlier version of this article missated the ownership of the Loro Parque zoo. It is privately owned by its founder, Wolfgang Kiessling.

Correction April 8, 2015: An earlier version of this story misstated how a killer whale named Morgan ended up in captivity. She was spotted 2010 in the North Sea off the Netherlands, captured due to her emaciated and dehydrated condition, and rehabilitated at Dolphinarium Harderwijk before being moved to Loro Parque.