Orcas off the Aleutian Islands. Photo by Robert Pittman of NOAA

By John Hargrove and Sara Wan

The recent California Coastal Commission decision to ban SeaWorld’s ability to continue to breed captive orcas has been met by SeaWorld with both a threat of litigation against the commission and the absurd pronouncement that banning breeding is cruel because it does not allow the orcas to have “sex” and engage in “what comes naturally.”

The commission’s decision and its effects are complex and need to be viewed in the larger context of what captivity of orcas means and what the Coastal Commission’s decision means in the long run for orcas.

Orcas are large, highly intelligent social animals. There are a number of different types of orcas, referred to as ecotypes. Some call them races and some sources have documented at least 20 distinct ecotypes differentiated by location, where they live, pod size, diet (fish vs. mammals and sharks and skates).

All of them, however, live in a matriarchal society, with offspring staying with their mothers for their entire lives. Orcas do not belong in captivity. When orcas are captured, not only do they require extraordinary veterinary care to keep them alive, some of which is pretty gruesome, including frequent heavy medication, but it also destroys their social bonds.

John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface.” Image via publisher

SeaWorld contends that these whales have a fundamental right to breed, and depriving them of that right is cruel and inhumane. However, captive breeding is not “natural.” SeaWorld uses artificial insemination for some of the breeding, and thus forces who mates with whom and when. The orcas don’t get that choice.

A whale, Unna, in the Texas park has been separated from the males for the duration of her cycle every six weeks to prevent pregnancy for many years. So their contention that banning breeding would force them to permanently separate males from females is total nonsense.

SeaWorld keeps track of the females’ cycles and separates and moves around the orcas whenever it is convenient for their purposes. SeaWorld ignores science and consciously uses the sperm of whales who would never interact or breed together in the wild.

There is nothing natural about the process and there is nothing cruel about preventing breeding. There is nothing beneficial to the orcas about forcing them to breed in the manner that they do.

SeaWorld’s CEO stated that these whales have a fundamental right to breed. SeaWorld has never before stated that the whales had any rights. They have always classified them only as assets and property. The only thing beneficial in the breeding program is to SeaWorld’s bottom line — the real reason they wish the breeding to continue.

The basis for that “expansion” and new tank was never about giving the whales a better life; it was always about being able to breed more orcas, reputed to be worth $15 million to $20 million each.

It is interesting to note SeaWorld is concerned about their so-called “sex” lives, but SeaWorld cares nothing about what else they do to keep orcas from doing what comes naturally. And by saying the whales have this “right,” they are being clearly selective to only the “rights” that add to SeaWorld’s bottom line.

At SeaWorld, whales can swim in a straight line at most 180 feet, and that’s in the front show pool. In the wild, they swim up to 138 miles per day. SeaWorld keeps whales who can reach 23-30 feet in length from diving below 36 feet (their deepest pool) and often the whales are forced to stay for hours in an 8-foot-deep pool, when in nature they dive hundreds of feet.

SeaWorld keeps orcas from hunting for live fish, marine mammals or other prey. There is nothing natural about how these whales live in captivity and there is absolutely no concern about their “rights.”

Due to the confinement and horrific sterility of their habitat, the whales excessively regurgitate, self-mutilate, show stereotypical bored behavior patterns (such as floating motionless at the surface for hours or staring at a concrete wall as has been recently documented).

They also obsessively wear down their teeth and fracture them by biting gates and the ledges of pools from frustration, causing trainers to manually drill the teeth with a metal drill bit but with absolutely no anesthetic. Once this is done, they invasively irrigate the drilled teeth with a metal catheter and high-powered machine with a hydrogen peroxide solution two to three times per day.

All of the orcas have damaged teeth; approximately 50 percent are so damaged they have drilled multiple teeth on those whales. Many of the whales are heavily medicated for ailments ranging from infections to chronic ulcers. Some whales live on medication every day of their life.

More important to the question regarding the commission’s decision is the fact that the Coastal Act actually provides the basis for the commission’s action, particularly as it relates to the ban on breeding, and not just because it is cruel.

Breeding orcas in captivity actually requires that wild orcas be captured, not necessarily by SeaWorld, but by someone. Even if you don’t buy the argument that captive orcas are still marine resources even in captivity, the capture of orcas from the wild adversely affects California’s coastal resources (orcas) and captive breeding requires the capture of orcas to provide a new genetic line to prevent inbreeding problems.

SeaWorld promises not to take orcas from the wild. Easy to get around. They did not promise to not house or use the genetic material from the offspring of newly captured orcas, which creates the market for those offspring and therefore their wild caught parents.

Now the Coastal Commission has rightly said no and Congressman Adam Schiff has introduced a federal bill, known as the ORCA Act, which will phase out the display of captive killer whales. Federal legislation would prohibit breeding, wild capture, import and export of the species. Will SeaWorld see the handwriting on the wall as the California Coastal Commission did? We hope so.

The Coastal Commission’s decision to allow the expansion of the tanks while placing conditions on the project so that the use of orcas would be phased out was the wisest course of action.

Congressman Schiff’s bill is just another warning that SeaWorld needs to change its business plan and come into the 21st century. It might even become profitable if it did so. Antagonizing the bulk of your potential customers is no way to win friends or rebuild a business.

John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” is a former SeaWorld orca trainer. Sara Wan is a former chairwoman of the California Coastal Commission.

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