SeaWorld Announcement Sidesteps Call for Orca Sanctuary

By agreeing today to end its orca breeding programs, SeaWorld reduces its risk of having to surrender its captive killer whales to a sea pen.

SeaWorld's announcement today that it will cease all of its orca breeding programs puts the park in a better position to keep making money off of its captive orcas while publicly promoting marine mammal conservation.

Conservationists had been strengthening their call for sea pens to house large marine mammals, like orcas and dolphins. The envisioned sea pens would be large reserved spaces in the ocean, probably near land in a bay or cove, enclosed by barriors such as nets. The cost and negotiations - government and otherwise - required for the establishment of such sea sanctuaries would be significant, however.

This ‘Granny' Orca Predates the Titanic: Photos

Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Canada-based Zoocheck Inc., previously told Discovery News that "if marine parks and aquaria are forced to, or voluntarily, give up their animals, where can those animals go? One option for some individuals may be release back into the wild, something that has been done successfully a number of times, but that option has to be evaluated on a case by case basis."

He continued, "For those animals who are not candidates for release, the most feasible option that stands the best chance of providing them with enhanced welfare and quality of life, through the provision of more space than any traditional captive setting, as well as environmental complexity and flexibility and a heightened level of individual autonomy, are sea pen sanctuaries. However, at present, no permanent sea pen sanctuaries for whales and dolphins exist."

Just prior to today's SeaWorld announcement, the marine park had issued a press release on the declining health of Tilikum, a male orca featured in the popular documentary "Blackfish," which underscored problems within the sea park industry.

The recent release about Tilikum read, in part, "We are saddened to report that over the past few weeks, Tilikum's behavior has become increasingly lethargic. The SeaWorld veterinary and animal care teams are concerned that his health is beginning to deteriorate."

Video: Killer Whales: How Captivity Affects Their Minds

The news about Tilikum prompted renewed criticism of SeaWorld. A report in One Green Planet just two days ago, for example, included the following: "Now more than ever, we must rally together and boycott these cruel facilities and #EmptyTheTanks once and for all. Only when we stop paying to see animals in captivity can the suffering end."

By partnering with the Humane Society, however, SeaWorld reduces the risk that it will have to surrender its 29 orcas, aka killer whales. The facility houses the largest killer whale population in a zoological facility worldwide.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) confirmed today that, in addition to ending its orca breeding programs, SeaWorld would maximize "its focus on rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals in distress," participate in advocacy campaigns to end the commercial slaughter of marine mammals, revamp its food policies in its restaurants, protect coral reefs, and reduce the commercial collection of wild-caught ornamental fish.

HSUS had been negotiating for months with SeaWorld to develop and initiate the changes.

"This is a first, massive step forward toward a more humane future for SeaWorld," said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and formerly with the HSUS. "I welcome these commitments from (SeaWorld CEO) Joel Manby. He has given SeaWorld a new lease on life."

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Even "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite praised today's announcement.

She said, "This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change."

AWI also issued a statement today that read, in part:

The decision to end its orca breeding program globally and to commit to ending the collection of exhibit animals from the wild, as well as to a ‘no orca' policy should SeaWorld expand its brand into new international markets, is a monumental and important first step forward in achieving a more humane business model for the company.

AWI, however, indicated that it would continue to monitor practices at SeaWorld: "We look forward to engaging in future discussions with Manby and his team to ensure that the company continues to improve its practices and policies surrounding captive cetaceans."

David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute, perhaps best summed up public concern over the continued captivity of large marine mammals, and past dramatic shows featuring these animals.

Phillips told Discovery News, "In the future, we'll look back and shake our heads that far-ranging and socially dependent orca whales were ever allowed to be kept in small concrete tanks doing circus tricks."

The orca, Tilikum, at SeaWorld Orlando, 2009.

The world's oldest orca, affectionately known as "Granny" and an estimated 103 years old, paid a visit to the waters off Washington state on May 9 alongside her 25-member pod, "J-Pod." The sighting was a treat for the tour guests of Captain Simon Pidcock's Ocean EcoVentures. Pidcock took the chance to capture Granny in this series of photos.

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The grand dame and J-Pod for the majority of the year patrol the waters between the north coast of British Columbia and Northern California.

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Pidcock said Granny was instantly recognizable by her saddle patch, a white area whales have on their dorsal fins.

Documentary 'Blackfish' Takes on SeaWorld

J-Pod was reportedly seen about one week earlier in an area off Northern California -- some 800 miles away from this appearance. This leaves whale watchers feeling confident about the shape Granny is in, if she can make such amazing journeys.

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Granny's birth year designation of 1911 derives from her size, the size of her offspring, and comparison photos of the senior-citizen orca from as far back as the 1930s. She was caught once in 1967, but she was released because her age was a bit long in the tooth for sea park life. Who could have imagined that 47 years later she would still be alive and thriving?

Granny's 103 years are about twice the age of the oldest orca in captivity (Lolita, in the Miami Seaquarium, is 50). "It surprises people when they realize this whale was around before the Titanic sank. She's lived through fishing changes and live captures of whales. I would love to know what she thinks," said Pidcock. Photos courtesy of Simon Pidcock and

Ocean EcoVentures