Having acknowledged that society no longer believes that killer whales thrive in captivity, SeaWorld recently announced an end to its breeding programs, and the captivity of killer whales held at its tourist attractions, albeit through attrition.
While SeaWorld has been applauded for this shift in thinking, it’s obvious that despite their new-found empathy, SeaWorld intends to milk revenue from their killer whales, as much as they can, for as long as possible.
It has been widely proposed that the best and kindest future for captive killer whales is to retire them to seaside sanctuaries.
SeaWorld doesn’t like this idea much. Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, made the inflammatory statement: “If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die.” Even though it has never been suggested, by any knowledgeable advocate, to simply drop them in the ocean and hope for the best.
Less than two weeks after the announcement of an end to breeding, SeaWorld launched an aggressive smear campaign against seaside sanctuaries, calling them “sea cages” and describing them as dangerous environments for killer whales.
I can offer a glimpse into what a sea pen/sanctuary would actually provide for killer whales.
Photo by Steve Huxter
It would seem that SeaWorld has forgotten that Tilikum, Haida II, Nootka IV and Kyuquot, all came from Sealand of the Pacific.
The main pool at Sealand was a floating, netted sea pen that was a mere 100 ft. long, by 70 ft. wide and 35 ft. deep. It was constructed of plastic coated chain link fencing that was suspended from floatation which was topped by decking for the public to watch the shows.
The location was terrible and by no means a sanctuary, as it was placed in the midst of a busy marina. However, the tidal action and currents that flowed through the bay were strong and the water was surprisingly clean and rich with sea life.
The netting allowed all kinds of plant and animal life into the pool and the amount of sea life in the marina was rich. The marina boaters trusted the cleanliness of the water and would catch crab and shrimp off the docks. Even some of the of the SeaWorld trainers who were there to help transition the killer whales before being transferred to SeaWorld, would borrow our shrimp and crab traps and then have a shrimp - crab feast at their apartment.
Harbour seals, river otters, California sea lions, and mink lived or came into the bay to feed. Local wild killer whales sometimes came very close to Sealand and at one time a juvenile grey whale came within 300 yards the whale’s pool.
Photo from Oak Bay Marina
According to Steve, the grey whale and killer whales would swim in between the breakwater and the island.
There was always sea life in the whale pool. Small rock cod, blenny’s, crabs, shrimp, were a staple and at certain times of the year, huge schools of herring minnow would fill the pool.
Haida, Nootka and Tilikum learned to co-operatively, herd the school of herring into a corner and then each, in turn, would dart into the mass of fish and get a mouthful. On one occasion we arrived on stage for a show and Haida chinned up to the stage edge, opened her mouth and spewed about three gallons worth of herring minnow all over the stage.
Seaweed grew on the netting and they would pick it off and play with it, sharing it back and forth. Because bull kelp grew so close by, on occasion we would send our divers outside of the marina and harvest armfuls of the bull kelp and we would put it in the pools for the orcas to play with.
Being on the ocean, it was an easy task to catch fish and we had salmon caught for us and kept alive to be placed in the pool for Haida, Nootka and Tilikum. To say that they were excited and enjoyed the hunt would be an understatement. In fact, their excitement and focus on the chase gave us concern that they might injure themselves in the small confines of the pool so we had to stop putting the live salmon in with them. Afterwards, we supplemented their diet with whole salmon bought from a supplier. They would clean the salmon of meat and then play with the skin.
Yes, Sealand was indeed too small, located in a noisy marina and certainly inappropriate for holding killer whales.
But, it was also a sea pen, and even though it was in a noisy, busy marina, it was filled with sea life and was, most certainly, a more varied and enriching environment than a concrete pool.
Can you imagine what it would be like for those killer whales that grew up in the confines of a concrete tank, to be introduced to a carefully located area that allows them to swim in a straight line for more than a mere couple hundred yards, has natural sea water, waves, and tidal current and is filled with a huge variety of plants and sea life? No monstrous video screens, blaring sound track or fireworks; just peace, quiet, and the vagaries of weather.
A cage is defined as: An enclosure that confines or imprisons.
SeaWorld’s concrete tank versus a seaside sanctuary: which of the two more closely resembles a cage?
Therein lays the irony.