Published May 5, 2017, by Katherine Sullivan. Last updated June 11, 2020.
Blackfish shined a spotlight on the violent capture of orcas and their cruel imprisonment at SeaWorld, but it’s important to remember that orcas aren’t the only cetaceans suffering at SeaWorld and in another marine parks around the country, where they’re forcibly bred, confined to cramped tanks, forced to perform, and often die prematurely.
PETA and our supporters have campaigned hard against SeaWorld, and for years, we’ve scored victories for whales, dolphins, and other animals.
In 2016, for example, in response to mounting criticism, SeaWorld ended its sordid orca-breeding program. In 2020, after a months-long PETA campaign, the company agreed to stop trainers from standing on dolphins’ faces and backs in demeaning circus-style shows. SeaWorld seems intent on being dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing what’s right for animals, which is why we’re keeping the pressure on.
Our latest campaign: demanding that the abusement park stop breeding whales and dolphins and move its long-suffering captive marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries.
We aren’t letting SeaWorld forget that when its facilities across the country reopen as COVID-19 lockdowns end, public disdain for the practice of exploiting animals for entertainment will continue to pummel its bottom line. Our advice to the company: Stop breeding whales and dolphins, some of whom are drugged before they’re forcibly bred. During its June 10 annual meeting, we urged the marine park to accept the offer we made it last month: a quarter of a million dollars to help build a seaside sanctuary for the whales, orcas, and other dolphins it holds captive. And, of course, we made an in-person splash during a protest, urging people to steer clear of SeaWorld parks until it does right by animals.
SeaWorld continues its forcible breeding of whales and dolphins—but that’s not all. Here are six ways dolphins and whales are still suffering at SeaWorld:
1. Unsuitable Living Conditions
Animals at SeaWorld are often housed either in isolation or in incompatible groups. They’re frequently shipped to and from various parks or aquariums and relocated to different tanks. These inconsistent and unnatural housing situations can result in injuries and stress. One example of this is the story of Nanuq, a beluga whale who was held captive at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida.
In the wild, belugas live together in small groups known as pods. They are social animals and communicate with each other using a language of clicks, whistles, and clangs. But in 1990, when Nanuq was just 6 years old, he was torn away from his pod and home waters in Manitoba, Canada.
The Vancouver Aquarium owned him, but much like a piece of equipment, he was “on loan” to SeaWorld for profit. The sensitive, intelligent whale was shipped five times among various SeaWorld parks, where he was used for breeding and to entertain visitors at the parks’ “Beluga Interaction Program.”
According to The Globe and Mail, “[S]emen was collected from Vancouver Aquarium beluga Nanuq 42 times and subsequently used for 10 insemination attempts with seven females. This resulted in two pregnancies, one of which was twin calves.”
Nanuq died in March 2015 while being treated by SeaWorld veterinarians for an infection from a jaw injury that he had sustained during an “interaction” with two other whales.
While animals in the wild can swim away from aggressive encounters, being confined to cramped tanks at SeaWorld makes escape impossible.
Four years ago, facing mounting criticism from PETA, scientists, and the public over its poor treatment of captive orcas, SeaWorld announced that it would end its orca-breeding program. Yet the company has continued to breed bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins—orcas’ smaller cousins—and crowd about 140 of them into just seven cramped, concrete tanks.
According to information from former SeaWorld trainer and whistleblower John Hargrove, male dolphins at SeaWorld are masturbated in a similar way to orcas. In the video below, SeaWorld “Killer Whale Trainer” Brian Rokeach can be seen holding a plastic bag while grabbing and masturbating an orca’s genitals during a “semen collection.”
According to a report from SeaWorld Vice President of Theriogenology Todd Robeck, staff members artificially inseminate bottlenose dolphins trapped at the company’s parks. To do so, they first drug the unwilling female dolphin with diazepam—a drug with sedative effects—and take her out of the water so that she’s unable to fight back. They then shove cameras and tubes filled with semen into her uterus.
Past tragedies have taught us that SeaWorld’s breeding practices lead to heartbreaking stories of separation and, sometimes, even death. A case in point is Ruby, a beluga whale who was repeatedly impregnated while at SeaWorld, even after she attacked and killed her first calf in 2008. (In nature, beluga whale babies are extremely dependent on their mothers and typically nurse for up to two years.) She became pregnant again in 2010, giving birth to a female calf named Pearl. SeaWorld feigned surprise when she once again turned on her offspring, rejecting her. A former SeaWorld diver claimed that staff had anticipated that Ruby would reject the baby, even increasing her dose of Valium in an attempt to keep her calm. She became pregnant again in 2012. Although it was reported that the conception was natural, given her history, SeaWorld should have prevented it. Ruby miscarried her third pregnancy, and after her kidneys shut down, she died in 2014.
Martha’s story is equally tragic. She’s a beluga whale who was captured from the wild and repeatedly impregnated while at SeaWorld. Of the five calves she gave birth to at the abusement park, four are dead, and the fifth was taken from her and has been shipped to multiple locations around the country.
3. Unnatural Tricks
In late 2018, a PETA Foundation veterinarian observed dolphins at all SeaWorld parks in the U.S. and found that animals had open wounds and extensive scarring on their faces and bodies. Prior to SeaWorld changing its policy in 2020 because of public outrage, trainers would use them as surfboards, standing on their faces and backs for meaningless stunts. In their ocean homes, dolphins use tools to find their food—a technique they teach their young. But these dolphins used as “surfboards” were forced to perform in exchange for dead fish multiple times per day before raucous crowds and while being subjected to disorienting, amplified music, a constant aural assault that’s likely a cause of chronic stress. During these circus tricks, the dolphins’ lower jaws, which are highly sensitive and crucial to their hearing, would bear nearly the full weight of the trainers.
Stunts like these are inherently cruel, but other tricks that dolphins at SeaWorld are still forced to perform have also proved fatal to animals.
In 2008, Sharky—a captive dolphin at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove in Orlando—was fatally injured while performing an aerial trick. He collided in midair with another dolphin and subsequently died.
In 2012, at SeaWorld’s San Antonio facility, two dolphins performing a jumping trick crashed, ejecting one from the tank onto the concrete walkway below. The dolphin lay bleeding and helpless as guests looked on.
In 2013, during a show at SeaWorld Orlando, a pilot whale became stuck on a ledge and struggled to get back into the water. SeaWorld trainers failed to assist the distressed animal, and the whale struggled for 25 minutes or more while the audience looked on in horror. The disturbing incident was captured on video by Carlo De Leonibus, who had taken his daughter, Cat, to the park to celebrate her 11th birthday.
Cat, who had previously considered pursuing a career as a dolphin trainer, told TakePart that she would never work for SeaWorld after witnessing the traumatic event.
4. Other Human Interaction
Interacting with humans in other ways can be extremely hazardous to dolphins’ health as well.
In 2014, Dr. Heather Rally, a veterinarian, visited SeaWorld San Diego to observe the park’s marine mammals. She observed signs of apparent skin pathology in dolphins housed in SeaWorld’s petting pool and scarring likely caused by heightened aggression as well as excessive exposure to sunlight and terrestrial pathogens. Among the abnormal conditions that could contribute to skin disease in these animals are stress-induced immune suppression and constant exposure to organisms found on human hands. “I observed several training sessions with guests, and guests were never instructed to wash their hands before interacting with the dolphins,” she reported.
Some SeaWorld parks, including SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove in Orlando, even advertise one-on-one dolphin encounters. While swimming with the dolphins, guests are encouraged to grab their dorsal fins and go for a ride. Although most people have good intentions when they go on excursions or visit parks that allow them to swim with animals, these encounters are dangerous for both the animals and the human participants and support cruelty to dolphins.
5. Captivity Bites—Literally
Dolphins aren’t the only ones sustaining injuries as a result of these unnatural environments and interactions.
In 2014, a dolphin at SeaWorld San Antonio’s Dolphin Cove latched onto the hand and wrist of a 9-year-old girl so tightly that the child’s mother was unable to free her and a SeaWorld employee had to intervene.
— PETA (@peta) February 27, 2014
In 2012, 8-year-old Jillian Thomas was feeding fish to a dolphin at SeaWorld Orlando’s Dolphin Cove. When she picked up the paper carton used to hold the fish, a dolphin lunged to grab it, biting her hand in the process. The girl sustained puncture wounds, and the animal may have ingested the entire carton.
A similar incident occurred there in 2006, when a dolphin’s mouth had to be pried open to free a 7-year-old boy’s hand. It was the second time in three weeks that a child had been bitten at the attraction.
Deprived of their families, social lives, and freedom, these smart, sensitive animals grow increasingly frustrated, contributing to their likelihood of suddenly exhibiting potentially harmful behavior.
6. Unnatural Deaths—and the Promise of Seaside Sanctuaries
More than 50 whales, more than 40 orcas, and nearly 300 other dolphins have died on SeaWorld’s watch, many of them prematurely.
Although SeaWorld feigns ignorance, the high number of premature and unusual deaths at its parks point to a serious common denominator: captivity.
SeaWorld’s recent focus on rides and events rather than its cruel animal acts prove that it can be viable without animals. But, to be truly successful and no longer regarded as the cruel attraction it is, it needs to be an amusement park without animals.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore is preparing to move dolphins to seaside sanctuaries, the Parliament of Canada banned dolphin captivity, and two belugas in China moved to the first beluga sanctuary in June 2019. It’s past time for SeaWorld to follow suit. PETA is not only urging the company to set in place a firm and rapid plan to release all the animals into seaside sanctuaries, where they’ll be given a semblance of the natural life that they have been denied for so long, but also offering to help it do this.
Learn more about SeaWorld on The PETA Podcast: