The Problem with SeaWorld: A Spotlight on Animal Captivity

Orca whale performing at SeaWorld show

Most of my childhood memories came from our family visits to amusement parks. Disneyland, Universal, Hershey Park—  you name it. When I was about 5 years old, my parents took me to SeaWorld, and we saw the famous (or should I say infamous) Shamu show. I remember leaving the park that day happy and astounded that I got to see an orca whale up close and personal doing fun tricks and getting the crowd excited by the minute. That was the last good thing I thought about SeaWorld.

Fast-forward to senior year of high school in first period: our class collectively decided to watch the documentary Blackfish, which I had never heard of before. The documentary plays on the screen, and I am instantly intrigued at SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales and other sea mammals. It got too heavy halfway through that I had to excuse myself out of the room because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I heard about the controversy surrounding SeaWorld and their captivity of animals, but I didn’t know it got to the point of extreme torture.

Around the world there are 59 orcas in captivity, and a third of the world’s captured orcas are located in the United States. All but one of those orcas live at SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego.

The brains of orcas are highly developed in the areas of social intelligence, self-awareness, and language. Orcas are created to gather in tight-knit family groups that share a unique culture passed down from one generation to the next. 

When they are captured, orcas are placed in artificial social groups, with a few living alone. Captive-born orcas can also be taken away from their mothers at a young age and can transfer between facilities. The captivity of orcas can create stress for them with the inability to escape conflict from other orcas.

Confinement space is also an issue when looking at orca captivity. Orcas in the wild can dive 100 times deeper than orcas at SeaWorld, considering SeaWorld’s orcas are held in 350 foot-long tanks. Because of this lack of adequate space for swimming, orcas can get stressed and be more susceptible to attacks and aggression on other orcas.

Not only is there a living environment problem for captive orcas at SeaWorld, but being held captive poses health problems. Only 1 percent of all wild orcas have a collapsed dorsal fin, which is a sign that they are either injured or sick. At SeaWorld, all orcas have collapsed dorsal fins. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation says that collapsed dorsal fins of captive orcas are caused by the confinement in space in which they swim in.

These are only a handful of problems with the captivity of orca whales. However, SeaWorld claims that they prioritize conservation of marine mammals and wildlife rescue. In reality, SeaWorld only spends about 3 percent of its profits on conservation efforts. Because of SeaWorld’s continued mistreatment of killer whales and act of countering its allegations, revenue fell from $405 million to $392 million from 2014 to 2015.

Many businesses like JetBlue, Mattel, and Southwest Airlines have cut ties with SeaWorld, yet groups such as the American Automobile Association have yet to do so. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is notable for urging people to take action and speak out against the captivity of orcas at places like SeaWorld. They are also advocating for the transfer of orca whales from the confined tanks to seaside sanctuaries, where they would live in large areas of the ocean.

Animal captivity is a major issue that is still happening to this day, but it is not talked about enough. As a kid, you don’t think too much of it—seeing them in person can seem exciting and fascinating. As an adult, you realize all of the consequences captured animals have to face every day. Animals are displayed at places like SeaWorld for the purpose of entertainment, and not education. For propagation, not preservation. It is up to us to stop animal captivity now, not just for the animals at SeaWorld, but for the animals held captive at circuses, zoos, and anywhere where they feel imprisoned and helpless.