Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Our Comments on the New Orca Encounter at SeaWorld

Despite the corporation's reluctance to say it, SeaWorld's new "Orca Encounter" is just another show, without improvements for the killer whales who are forced to live at Shamu Stadium.

And based on space constraints, broken teeth, two deaths by mosquito, & witnessed aggression, the whales are not thriving despite the statements of SeaWorld's PR team. This includes Jungle Jack Hanna, a board of directors member for their "Conservation Fund." Jack has been shilling for SeaWorld since at least the mid 1990's when some of us at VOTO met him. His recent interview on Good Morning America is linked in the Tweet below: 

The set changes enhance the customers' experience and create different optics; a PR thing. The new set has a larger 140 foot screen, the music has shifted from "pop" to "cinematic," and now the waterfall pumps run for several hours daily. 

Sound can travel through any substance, but not through a vacuum like outer space. In water, due to it being non-compressible, sound has more power (watts) and intensity (watts per square meter or decibels) than it does in air. Thus, waterfall pumps, pneumatic gates, construction noises, roller coasters, & kids pounding on the glass are more intense from the perspective of the orca vs the kid eating popcorn in the stands. Bottom line: The captives are dealing with more noise intensity than ever. A third coaster is reportedly on the way: 

Currently, trainers (now referred to as "behaviorists") are sending orca maneuvers from backstage and also doing most of the feeding there. They've taken the (unnatural) trainer out of the scene. The show producers prefer audience members not-observing whales getting fish-for-tricks. This is a shift compared to previous shows which included "fish teases" and dumping double-handfuls of smelt, herring & the occasional salmon into the posterior oral cavities of the orca.  

In the past shows have focused on the human-whale relationship. Not so much here, although that could change as the show evolves, which they all do. This strategy has the added benefit of not exposing the dental damage in captive Orcinous orca, as seen below in Shouka. It's a shame SeaWorld doesn't share scientific data regarding the quantity and quality of teeth damage seen in captive orcas in their care. 

Shouka's mandibular teeth are worn flat with maxillary teeth impacting into her gums. Photo by Elizabeth, 2017 

In the show, SeaWorld claims they are helping wild whales, a debatable point as they have not lifted a finger or contributed a dime to restore the Southern Resident orca population, the one it decimated for over a decade, until it was kicked out of Washington, as seen here: 

Saving the So. Residents is an opportunity for SeaWorld to come out heroic. They could likely save the very population they drove to the brink of extinction if they made the decision to do so. This orca clan needs help getting more salmon and SeaWorld has a large PR team to spread the word.  

There is just one endangered orca population in the world, the Southern Residents, which included Shamu, Kandu, Winston and about 40 others they removed or killed. Why not step in and get these starving killer whales the Chinook salmon they need? It's an awesome idea and a win-win scenario for SeaWorld, the wild whales, and the public... it would be a huge success. 


The company could start a contemporary "save the whales" campaign, help bring down some deadbeat dams and restore the river systems where Shamu's descendants get their food from. In conjuction with select grocery stores, they could recommend that their guests purchase wild salmon only as fish farms are spreading disease, including salmon leukemia, to wild populations. Unfortunately and instead, SeaWorld is collaborating to build the largest fish farm in the world a few miles offshore from San Diego. It will have negative impacts on local wild fish as per this article: 

The Many Problems With the Proposed Fish Farm in San Diego

Watch SeaWorld's new Orca "Encouter" Here: 

Lastly, despite the PR blitz of happy thriving whales featuring "natural" behaviors, there are no "new behaviors." It's the same series of conditioned tricks;  breaches, slide outs, fast swims, waves, et al, wrapped in a different package. This might fool some people, but does nothing to improve the living conditions of the orcas in SeaWorld's care.  Instead of "Madonna" or "J-Lo" or other popular music, the whales get a high-decibel cinematic soundtrack in addition to  more hours of pump noise. 

While we appreciate the wild orca footage and attempt to educate, the show comes off as an infomercial, promoting a captivity corporation who's core business is the exploitation of marine mammals for profit. 

It's the business model that needs to change: Not the set or the script.  

The whales are still swimming in circles, neurotically grinding & fracturing their teeth, enduring social strife and aggression, living in confined spaces with nowhere to run, and generally living a degraded quality of life.  

Thus far SeaWorld has been unwilling to consider retirement of these captive #Blackfish to ocean sanctuaries. We'd welcome that shift with open arms. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Human & Non-Human Deaths at SeaWorld

On Christmas Eve 2009 the SeaWorld orca Keto killed trainer Alexis Martinez. The two were practicing "stand-on spy-hops" for a show. Keto became frustrated when two high-energy but imperfect stand-ons were not bridged & rewarded by the lead trainer on stage, a supervisor from SeaWorld of California. The frustrated Keto took it out on Alexis, crushing his ribs & driving him to the bottom of the concrete pool. 

60 days later the SeaWorld orca Tilikum brutalized Dawn Brancheau, his third victim; except on this occasion he pulled her from a shallow ledge. All three of Tilikum's victims were dragged into the the water by an arm or leg, based on witness reports, video & forensic evidence. Why waterwork was not halted corporate-wide after Alexis' death remains a mystery, but in this case SeaWorld put profits over safety. 

The human tragedies, also including Keltie Byrne & Daniel Dukes, have been described by journalists including Tim Zimmermann and Elizabeth Batt, and they've also been immortalized in the documentary Blackfish, as well as in David Kirby's book Death at SeaWorld

Note: There remains volumes of unreported material on these human tragedies, the OSHA trial, the cover ups, the 27 minute delay in calling the Orange County Florida Sheriff, the gag orders, the misinformation; enough for many more books, articles, dissertations, or films. 

Click HERE to read this article

While tragic, these stories focus on the loss of human life, with less attention given to the suffering experienced by all captive marine mammals who are forced to live and be on display until death. We advocate for seaside sanctuaries as retirement areas for currently captive cetaceans. Read about the Whale Sanctuary Project, here

So what happens to the whales when they die at SeaWorld? The industry has been effective at keeping details away from the public, mainly by lobbying lawmakers to pen or amend laws that allow them to NOT publish necropsy reports & other health or welfare data. The industry realizes that more transparency translates into public outrage & lower stock prices. Below are 5 videos and a testimonial that describe the death process at SeaWorld, but for whales, not humans.  

Video one: Ex SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg describes the death of the false killer whale known as "Zori." 

Video two: Ex SeaWorld trainer Dean Gomersall describes the death of the orca Kanduke

Video three: Excerpt from the Blue Freedom Film, Voiceless. Please go to minute 12:00 to hear Dr John Jett describe how killer whales are "disposed of" at SeaWorld 

Video Four with journalist Elizabeth Batt: Go to 4:20 to learn how the orca "Splash" died with "Hundreds of pounds of sand in his stomach." 

Video Five: At the end of the BBC radio interview with Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, he describes what happened with blackfish Tilikum 


More Death at SeaWorld 

Preface: Cynthia Payne is a former SeaWorld animal care handler and president of a company in North Carolina called Go Green, Inc, which she founded in 2007. She's lived in Holland & Germany and is an accomplished equestrian rider. After watching Blackfish, she reached out to us, at Voice of the Orcas, with this moving testimony, which we originally published, here.

She was employed by SeaWorld, in Orlando, from 1992 to 1994, and told us, "I truly, truly cared for the animals and admired several of the people I worked with and for, but I also recognized it was wrong." Cynthia adds her voice to ours, and to a growing number of former industry workers, and citizens, who are speaking out against companies who display intelligent, self-aware creatures for human amusement. 


Cynthia bottle feeds a small manatee as others surround her

"Over the course of three years and as an employee of the animal care department, SeaWorld of Florida, Orlando,  I witnessed the deaths and misery of several animals including that of [orca] Nootka’s stillborn calf."

[Below is Cynthia's story - unedited] 

During this time, I participated in “whale watch” [aka "night-watch"]; extra personnel to watch for the upcoming birth of Nootka’s calf. She seemed separated from all of the whales, her only apparent communication was through the gates. Touch, feel, social interaction is a critical component to a whale's life.  I remember so many nights of sitting up with her, listening to her cry at the gates.  I was young, 18-19 years of age. What did I know, I thought? But the doubts were amassing as to my remaining [employment] at SeaWorld.   

Cynthia on Night-watch at Shamu Stadium
On the night of her calf's birth, I was present, next to her pool on whale watch.  Nootka gave birth to a stillborn calf. 

The next few hours were a horror movie.

Staff members, everywhere, were giving orders and decided they must immediately remove the stillborn calf, thus refusing Nootka any time to grieve. 

Nootka fought and fought AND FOUGHT. She carried the stillborn calf repeatedly, trying to keep it at bay from the staff. 

Mercilessly, the staff seemed intent on the calf’s immediate removal. I turned to the vet on-site, almost in tears and I asked “Can't she have a moment to grieve?”  There was no debate, there was 'no time,' he stated. They needed to take the calf immediately.

The "Animal Care" Department at SeaWorld of Florida in 1994

This night replays over and over in my head, I can still hear her screams. 

The SeaWorld staff dropped a net the depth and width of the pool.  Nootka would try to pick up the net  and then at other times push her baby over it, all in an effort to escape this onslaught of people, everywhere, screaming orders and trying to take her calf away. Certainly, any mother would need, desire, require some time to grieve?

They gave her nothing. They took the stillborn. Nootka was forced into a holding pool, hardly enough space to turn around.

I sat with her that night on whale watch. I had witnessed everything. She cried through the night.  She cried and cried. I still hear her screams and I still wish I could have helped her. 

I sat in total disbelief at the events of that night. I was horrified... feeling as a participant, of any kind. She died shortly after this night. I was hopeful she was in a better place. This night replays as a vivid movie over and over again in my head with her screams and cries sounding just as sorrowful as they did that night .  I remember feeling sickened at my participation and then relief knowing… I was leaving SeaWorld.