By Angelica Calo
Are you a college student looking to go on a vacation in Orlando with your friends? There are beautiful beaches, sunny skies, and fun attractions—amusement parks galore! There is Disneyworld, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld. What more could you want? When choosing a perfect vacation, you always want to make a plan of activities beforehand, and let’s face it, money is a major factor in these decisions. Disneyworld and Universal are both crowded and overpriced! Why not go to SeaWorld instead? It is cheaper yet still popular, and has amusement park rides, food, games and many animals like the infamous killer whale! Sounds fun right? Well, if you are thinking about SeaWorld, you might want to rethink that decision.
Now, I know what you’re thinking—why? It’ll be so much fun! Well, it may be fun for you, but it might not be as fun for the animals inside. In a recent study on captive orca dental health, biologists have found that, “In total, 713 of the 1127 (63.3%) teeth (mandibular and maxillary teeth combined) evaluated for coronal wear exhibited varying degrees of the pathology; 142 of 1116 (12.7%) teeth exhibited fractures; 234 of 1154 (20.3%) teeth were worn to or below the gum line; 158 of 1056 (15%) teeth were positive for bore holes; and 22 of 1130 (2%) teeth were missing (Jett et. Al)”. Now let’s break that down so we have a better understanding: Scientists observed the mandibular and maxillary teeth by looking at dental images of 29 captive orca owned by SeaWorld. Each tooth was scored for coronal wear, wear at or below the gum line and bore holes, as well as looking for fractured and missing teeth. They found that all of the whales had teeth damage, but the majority had coronal wear (Jett et. al). What do teeth have to do with anything you may ask? Well, the scientists believe that the wear and tear on the teeth are caused by oral stereotypies, such as chewing on concrete walls. Dr Lori Marino, a neuroscientist, says that this action is heavily influenced by psychological stress. In short, the orca are chewing on concrete due to their environment in captivity and this in turn is causing problems with their dental health.
If that is not enough, scientists have also found that that mortality rates in captivity are extremely high. In the wild, orcas generally live 50-70 years, sometimes even 100! In captivity, most orcas do not make it beyond 20 years of age. According to the US National Marine Mammal Inventory, and USDA Inspection Reports show that “between 1971 and 2017, there have been 35 documented orca deaths at SeaWorld facilities alone (Kielty, 2011; Robeck et al., 2015; Aiello and Moses, 2016; Rose and Parsons, 2019)”(Marino et. al.). When causes of death were available, the most commonly implicated conditions were viral, bacterial and fungal infections, gastrointestinal disease, and trauma (Jett and Ventre, 2012)”(Marino et. al.). It was also found that another common cause of death of captive orcas was gastrointestinal ulceration. “Gastric ulceration is often caused by prolonged stress, as well as being associated with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (Nomura et al., 1994)”(Marino et. al.). Although it is possible for wild orca to contract similar diseases, it is a lot less common and abundant then it is in captive orca.
In 2013, a documentary was released about SeaWorld, and it featured clips, images, eye- witnesses, and scientists which provided evidence against captivity, while promoting a seaside sanctuary. The documentary, Blackfish, quickly became popular, and has since made a huge impact on the marine park industry’s sales. However, they are still not willing to give up their orcas and have since spoken out against the film stating that it is “propaganda”. Now the question is—is it propaganda? Honestly, it is not; there are many facts proving Blackfish’s claims. However, many people are still supportive of SeaWorld and their decisions.
Since the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld has ended their orca breeding program and has changed their shows to be less entertainment based, and more “educational”. Some may argue that they have changed, and it is still okay to go. SeaWorld does conservation work too, so they must be a good business to support! But what does that do for the orcas? Great! They are no longer forced to breed unnaturally and no longer have to do unrealistic tricks! However, that does not change a thing. They are still held captive in a concrete tank with no mental stimulation, exposed to the harsh Florida sun and infections, they are still dying prematurely, and have no choice but to live their life in a small tank suffering from boredom and depression.
SeaWorld has refused to give up their whales because they believe they won’t survive in the wild. Which is true, the captive bred orcas cannot survive without human care. The wild caught orcas have been held captive for so long, they would not either. However, their mental capacities are amazing, and they have wonderful memories. The wild caught orcas can be acclimated and possibly released back into the wild and to go to their families who are still alive! This must be done before it is too late! It has been done before and can be done again. Even for the whales who cannot be released, the goal is to give them a more natural and stimulating life.
This is an amazing opportunity for communities to learn natural orca behavior and provide a better life for all captive cetaceans. Recently, The Whale Sanctuary Project has selected a seaside sanctuary site for captive orcas and cetaceans to retire. They would be in the ocean yet separated to where they still have that human care. They can swim 100 miles a day like they would naturally, rather than in circles in a tank. They will also have the mental stimulation of living in the ocean and can even learn to hunt. Still thinking about SeaWorld? Maybe Disneyworld is the better choice. After all, it is the happiest place on earth!
Bekhof, Mark. “The Harmful Effects of Captivity on Orcas.” Psychology Today, 26 Jun. 2019,
Blackfish. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, performances by John Hargrove, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Ken Balcomb, Mark Simmons, Carol Ray, John Jett, Jeffrey Ventre, and Lori Marino. 2013.
Jett, John, et al. “Tooth damage in captive orcas (Orcinus orca).” Archives of Oral Biology. Vol. 84, December 2017, pp. 151-160. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003996917303138#sec0010
Marino, Lori, et al. “The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca).” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Jan.- Jun. 2019. Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787819300164?via%3Dihub.