SeaWorld’s “Blue World” project a mask for more orca breeding



Photo Courtesy: su neko (flickr)

If you haven’t seen “Blackfish,” the heavily awarded documentary depicting the lives of orcas in captivity, I would recommend taking the time to watch it on Netflix. It’s an extremely moving documentary filled with compelling information, showing the tragic life of a captive orca. Here are some key takeaway points from watching, supported by some independent follow up research as well.

First of all, every pod of orcas essentially speaks a different language. When orca pods are artificially assembled at parks like SeaWorld, the orcas can’t communicate with each other. Consequentially, they’re forced to build hierarchies using aggressive behavior, often harming each other both physically and psychologically.

Secondly, orcas have an enlarged limbic lobe in their brains, indicating high functioning emotional capacities. Orcas’ limbic lobes are larger in proportion to their brain than human limbic lobes. There’s evidence suggesting that orcas feel a whole range of emotions deeply — frustration, grief, anger, joy, etc. When a mother orca’s calf is taken away and moved to another park, she feels very real grief. Mothers and their offspring stay together for life in the wild.

They’re also extremely intelligent mammals that swim up to a hundred miles a day in the wild, the equivalent of 1,400 circles in a SeaWorld tank. The lack of stimulation causes these mammals to slip into a type of psychosis. Overwhelming facts chip away at the defenses for orca captivity (mainly that seeing orcas inspires visitors to care more about marine conservation) and once one conducts the research, the message becomes clear: Orcas have no place in a tank at SeaWorld or in any kind of captivity in general.

Since “Blackfish” came out, SeaWorld’s shares have plummeted and its sales have decreased considerably. In an attempt to repair its image, the marine theme park introduced the Blue World Project. The Blue World Project proposes the demolition of existing orca tanks and the construction of larger ones. The new tanks would be three times the size of the old ones, with 1.5 acres of surface area and 50 feet of depth. They will have new features, like a fast water current that the orcas could swim against. SeaWorld claims that this new environment will improve the lives of its orcas, offering a more stimulating and authentic environment.

However, a couple of problems stand out to me right away. SeaWorld would never advertise the real reason it craves more space in the tanks: to accommodate more forcible breeding. It wants to increase the size of its orca collection and needs more room to do so. Also, while much better than the existing tanks, the proposed tanks would still be entirely too small and unstimulating for the orcas. The depth of the tank would only be a little over twice as long as an orca (not nearly the “ocean-like depths” described), and 1.5 acres sounds ridiculous in comparison to an open ocean. My backyard at home is a little over an acre and I often feel bad that my 50-pound dog has such limited space to run around.

Taking this information into account, the California Coastal Commission made a groundbreaking ruling when SeaWorld came to them for approval of the project. The Commission approved the project, but with conditions attached. SeaWorld could move ahead with the project on the condition that it ends captive forcible breeding and accept new regulations on the moving and selling of orcas. This would mean that once the orcas currently living at SeaWorld San Diego die, there would be no more orcas at SeaWorld. The new regulation would also mean that SeaWorld San Diego couldn’t move orcas from other parks into its park or buy new orcas for its collection.

Naturally, SeaWorld was infuriated by the ruling and responded by saying it would “pursue legal action.” It believes that the Commission doesn’t have the power to impose such a ban and while it’s unclear at this time what the next step will be, the park will surely put up a fight.

However, if SeaWorld were to cancel plans to create a better environment for its orcas now, its image would be further damaged. The public would lose trust in the company, as its true intentions would come to light. I don’t think the Commission overstepped its bounds — I think that the ruling was brave and necessary. The conditions were fair and SeaWorld needs to stop expecting all of its wishes to come true now that the public sees them for the greedy, unethical company it is. Hopefully, this ruling will be the first step of many in making orca captivity obsolete.