Life Inside The Tanks

Emily Lively

Since the early 1960s, approximately 166 orca whales have spent much of, if not all, their lives held captive in concrete tanks at sea parks around the globe. Today, sixty orcas still live in captivity worldwide. Twenty-nine were ripped away from their family pods in the wild, while the remaining thirty-one have never known the world outside their tank walls. But regardless of where their lives began, they all suffer the same fate – a never-ending repetitive routine of performing circus tricks for crowds of adoring humans followed by hours upon hours trapped in tiny, cramped tanks with little to do.

The primary home for most of the captive orcas in the United States is one of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.’s three theme parks, located in Florida, Texas, and California. One of the hallmarks of SeaWorld’s marketing strategy historically was referring to all the orcas performing in its shows as “Shamu” – the name given to the park’s first captive orca. The idea was to immortalize Shamu and, by association, all of their captive orcas. However, behind the curtain, there is a stark contrast between the lifespan of wild orcas and those held in captivity. In the wild, male orcas can live up to 50 to 60 years of age, while females can live up to anywhere from 50 to 100 years. In contrast, few captive orcas have lived beyond the age of 30.

A lower survival rate is not the only thing orcas suffer in captivity. Captive orcas are completely reliant on human trainers for food. There are no fish swimming about their tanks for them to feed on when they grow hungry. Trainers rely on food and playtime as positive training reinforcement. As such, even if unintentional, food deprivation is an integral part of a captive orca’s life. If they want to eat, they have to earn it. To earn their fish, they must perform whatever trick or task their human trainer asks of them.

During performances, orcas are regularly kept in “staging areas.” These staging areas are only 8 feet deep, allowing no range of movement for a roughly 8,000 lbs., 20-foot-long marine mammal. With multiple performances a day, captive orcas can find themselves confined without the ability to move in these staging areas for hours each day.

Even when free of the staging areas, the small concrete tanks pale in comparison to the vast expanse of the ocean. In the wild, orcas swim an average of 40 miles per day in varying directions to both hunt and for exercise. In captivity, when not performing, orcas have little to do but swim in circles. Most end up spending much of their day “logging,” meaning they lie motionless in their pools. This extended lack of activity largely contributes to the collapsing of their dorsal fins – a phenomenon rarely, if ever, seen outside of captivity. The tank designs provide little cover from the sun and intense heat, particularly during Florida and Texas summers. Captive orcas often find themselves dehydrated and sunburnt. Former trainers that have spoken out about their time with captive orcas have said the trainers sometimes needed to go as far as to use black zinc oxide to paint over and cover up sunburns on the orcas.

Orcas are highly intelligent animals, with the second largest brain of any animal. In the wild, their days are filled with socialization, stimulation, hunting, and more. Every day is different. In captivity, their days are repetitive and dull. Out of boredom, captive orcas have been known to peel and eat paint off the tank walls and grind their teeth on the metal gates separating their pools. This behavior leads to an increased risk of bacterial infection and the need for painful dental work. Other orcas are seen regurgitating their food to keep busy. Some have been known to bang their head against the tank walls. On some occasions, captive orcas have rammed so fast into a wall it’s resulted in their death. Marine behaviorists and psychologists who have studied these incidents believe the whales were committing suicide.

The release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 provided the public with their first inside look into the lives of orcas held in captivity. Substantial public outcry at the ghastly treatment these marine mammals are subjected to led to dwindling ticket sales for SeaWorld. In response to their declining profits and lost sponsorships, SeaWorld pledged to cease its orca breeding program and begin to phase out its theatrical performance involving their captive orcas. Despite this promise, however, many of the orcas remaining in SeaWorld’s care are still young, with decades left to live, and little has been done since to alleviate the stressors of their captivity. In fact, just a year ago in January 2020, SeaWorld introduced its newest orca whale production, Orca Encounter. While the new orca show is marketed as being more educational, it’s clear the only aspect that’s changed from previous productions is the video footage that plays behind the orcas as they perform their tricks. Nearly eight years after their 2013 “pledge,” captive orcas performing circus tricks for the amusement of parkgoers still clearly remains the focal point of SeaWorld parks.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of orcas remaining in captivity is that they have become so reliant on humans that they would be unable to survive in the wild. This is true. Whales in captivity are not accustomed to hunting for their own food or surviving life in the ocean. So, the question becomes: is there an alternative to life in tanks for these orcas if they cannot be returned to the wild?

One possible alternative is a seaside sanctuary. The Whale Sanctuary Project is attempting to create a sea sanctuary that could allow these orcas to retire from their entertainment park life and live in an environment that more closely resembles their natural habitat. The Project’s mission is to provide “a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.” Humans would still continue to provide some level of care but would be far less essential to the orcas’ daily lives. They would regain a sense of independence in a far more stimulating and natural environment than a concrete tank.

While no solution is perfect, one thing is abundantly clear. For an animal meant to roam the vast expanse of the world’s oceans, life held captive in a 35 ft by 170 ft concrete tank is hardly a life at all.

For more information on the lives of captive orcas, please see:

  • John Hargrove, BENEATH THE SURFACE: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, And The Truth Beyond Blackfish (2015).
  • David Kirby, DEATH AT SEA-WORLD: Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (2012).
  • The Blackfish film, which can be purchased on iTunes here or on Netflix with a subscription.

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