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SeaWorld Rescues…For Profit

Due to Blackfish backlash, SeaWorld has put new emphasis on their 22,000 animals rescued. While their rescues are certainly commendable, rescuing sea turtles and manatees has nothing to do with the issue of killer whales, and other cetaceans, in captivity.

In 2010, SeaWorld submitted a permit request to import a pilot whale, Argo, from Japan. Argo reportedly had been stranded alive in Japan, but many are skeptical that the stranding was an intentional part of the drive in Taiji. A group of organizations including Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Animal Welfare Institute, Human Society of the US, and Earth Island Institute submitted a comment co-written by Courtney Vail and Naomi Rose in opposition of the permit.

As part of the comment, they state:

Given the cultural and commercial history in Japan of capturing delphinid cetaceans in drive hunts, both for slaughter and alive for sale to public display facilities, it is difficult not to speculate that this animal was intentionally stranded by local entrepreneurs. This possibility becomes even more difficult to dismiss when considering the fact that pilot whales tend to strand en masse rather than singly.

In 2004, the male pilot whale was reportedly obtained by Kamogawa SeaWorld at the request of local authorities from Moriya Beach. We note from the supplemental information that NMFS requested details regarding the capture operation despite Sea World’s indication in its application that this is irrelevant. We believe that this question is very relevant, considering most facilities in Japan acquire their dolphins from drive hunts. The minimal documentation provided by the applicant regarding the stranding event does not alleviate our concerns that the animal was intentionally stranded in a drive.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, there is no information regarding the stranding itself, including descriptions of any assessments taken of the health and status of the animal or subsequent efforts that were undertaken to return this animal to the water over the short or long term. There is no description of any rehabilitation efforts prior to release attempts. If no such efforts were made and no good reason can be provided for their omission, then from a policy perspective, NMFS should not implicitly condone a poorly handled stranding response through the approval of this trade unless the animal is in desperate medical need or in an inadequate facility, which is not the case for this application.

Ultimately, Argo’s permit was approved and he continues to live at SeaWorld San Diego to this day. Given the lack of information in this “standing”, the status remains questionable.

In September 2012, the marine mammal community was devastated when a pod of 22 pilot whales beached themselves in Ft. Pierce, Florida. After a day-long effort by state and national officials, 5 calves (2 calves and 3 juveniles) were transported to Harbor Branch Research Institute for rehabilitation. The others were either euthanized or died of natural causes, Allison Garrett of NOAA’s fisheries service told Huffington Post.

Candace Calloway Whiting, a former marine mammal trainer, had the insight early on that the future was bleak for these rescued pilot whales. In her report at the time, she states:

“The young whales were transported to Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Institute for rehabilitation, where they will doubtless get top notch care….but chances are high that these whales will never see the ocean again. We need to find better ways to help stranded whales and dolphins than the current practice of saving only the ones destined for a life of captivity and research.”

After stabilizing at Harbor Branch for a few days, the four remaining pilot whales were transported to SeaWorld Orlando in the middle of the night. One died the night before the transport. Candace reports again:

“People are seriously questioning the decision making that went into the whole rescue operation (22 pilot whales beached themselves on Saturday near Avalon Beach in Florida, more on this can be found here), when most of the whales were euthanized while four juveniles and a still nursing calf were taken to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. In other words, the mothers and families of these whales were euthanized while the young were kept.”

It does seem rather suspicious that only the young, and needy, ones were kept alive. Candace goes on to say:

“SeaWorld has another opportunity here to reinvent itself into an organization that really is about education, rescue and rehabilitation. We’ll see.”

In a report by the Palm Beach Post, in 1986 three calves from a stranded pod in Cape Cod were rehabilitated and released. These three were satellite tagged and reportedly joined up with a new pod. You can read more about them in this article by Space Today. It can be done!

Another of these rescued babies died soon after transport to SeaWorld leaving only three, along with Fredi. Fredi was moved to SeaWorld on July 23, 2011 after a stranding in Key Largo. She is a young female who was also determined to be dependent and unable to be released, according to CBS Miami.

These pilot whales have continued to be in the spotlight after a video went viral last July when one became stuck on the slide-out area for 20 minutes before getting assistance from the trainers at SeaWorld. David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, talked with Carlo DeLeonibus about the video he captured in an article for TakePart (video included). Carlo had brought his daughter, Cat, to the park that day. Cat was inspired to become a dolphin trainer until witnessing this struggle. She has since changed her career plans and will not be returning to SeaWorld.

The pilot whales spend most of their time huddled up and bobbing in the back pool of Dolphin Stadium, but more recently SeaWorld has decided to “celebrate” their rescue by training them. Here is their propaganda introducing the shows…

SeaWorld’s rescues and releases should be commended, but would they have rescued these pilot whales if they had been releasable? The advocacy community has been questioning SeaWorld’s silence in the past few days over the horrific 250 bottlenose dolphins corralled in the cove of Taiji. The story has received international pressure, yet SeaWorld’s rescue team has remained quiet. These are the facts. You can decide for yourself.

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