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Sea World’s Newborn Orca: An Ambassador or an Exploited Cripple of the Sea?

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By Helene Hesselager O'Barry

Program Assistant, Earth Island Institute, Save Japan Dolphins

Sea World, a chain of amusement parks in the United States, recently announced the birth of an orca at its San Diego facility. The theme park in which the orca was born is called Sea World, even though the barren interior of the orca tank has nothing to do with the sea and in no way resembles an orca’s real world. Born within the walls of an amusement park, the life of this newborn orca will be a far cry from the life of his free-roaming counterparts.  He will undoubtedly be incorporated into the amusement park’s marine mammal training program, which transforms these independent top predators of the sea into performing pets dependent on their human keepers for food and attention.

The orca is the largest member of the dolphin family and the largest animal ever to be taken into captivity.  With about 20 orcas at its three theme parks, Sea World is the largest owner of captive orcas in the world.  The dolphin captivity industry time and again refers to captive orcas as “ambassadors of the sea.” But how are spectators supposed to learn anything about the true nature of orcas by looking at Sea World’s performing orcas that were captured from the wild or were born inside a tank and have never seen the ocean?

The newborn calf at Sea World’s San Diego theme park was reportedly fathered by the Argentinian orca named Kshamenk.  Kshamenk was captured in 1992 when he was between four and six years old and is being held in solitary confinement at the Argentinian amusement park Mundo Marino. Several attempts have been made by animal welfare organizations to convince authorities that Kshamenk should be returned to the ocean, so far to no avail. The commercial value of Kshamenk as a sperm donor for captive dolphin facilities such as Sea World could be a strong motive for Mundo Marino to insist that he must remain in captivity.

The calf´s mother is named Kasatka. She was yanked from Icelandic waters in 1978.  A website called Orcas in Captivity, which gathers information about captive orcas around the world, notes that Kasatka was only about one year old at the time of her capture.  In the year 2000, she became the first orca to be artificially inseminated, using sperm from another wild-caught orca named Tilikum. He is better known as the orca that in 2010 fatally attacked his trainer at Sea World’s Orlando theme park.  Kasatka, too, has shown aggression toward people and in 2006 came close to killing her trainer during a show by pulling him underwater and pinning him to the bottom of the tank.  It has been reported that Kasatka reacted to not being able to reach her calf, who was calling out for her from a separate tank.

Kasatka’s newest offspring has inherited all the awe-inspiring characteristics of his species.  Swimming with amazing agility, he possesses the necessary skills for living in the vast ocean world.  His body is sleek and streamlined, designed by nature to move fluidly though the water over long distances, and if he were given a chance to reach maturity in nature, he would be able to reach speeds of about 30 miles per hour.  If he had been born free, he would have been part of an orca pod’s complex culture, exhibiting behaviors that are passed down from one generation of orcas to the next.  He would be a member of an orca community with exceptionally tightknit social bonds, traveling up to one hundred miles each day in the company of relatives and other pod members.  Life in captivity prevents him from expressing these natural behaviors, and I can’t help but wonder what it is like for him to be confined to a minuscule tank.  He will never use his strength and endurance to swim mile after mile, nor will he use his sonar, intelligence, speed, and maneuverability to catch live prey.  He will never feel the pressure build up as he dives down to more than 300 feet, nor will he ever ride the ocean’s waves. His mother will have to teach him not to swim in a straight line for more than a few feet. She will convey to him the importance of never attempting to reach top speed and, above all, stay clear of the walls. She will show him how to make turns at every corner of the tank, and he will soon learn to swim in circles, going nowhere, just like the others. He will have to adapt. Subdued by the restrictions and monotony of captivity, he will be forced to suppress instincts and knowledge designed for life in the sea, which his ancestors before him have accumulated through more than 50 million years of evolution. By human design, he will never get a taste of the sea life that he was built for—a life filled with mystery, challenges, and diversity.

Instead of being taught by his relatives how to navigate and forage, he will be trained to read his trainers’ never-ending commands for rewards of dead fish. He might be used for splashing water at the first rows of spectators, and he will probably be trained to beach himself on a concrete platform, and day after day he will have to tolerate the sounds of blasting rock music and cheering audiences. At this very moment, he and his mother should be swimming side-by-side, wild and free, moving swiftly through the ever-moving layers of ocean water. But that is not going to happen. Deprived of even the faintest memory of the ocean that has shaped his existence, this newborn orca will be walled in for life. Sea World is going to promote him as their ambassador. But they are wrong. Sea World does not own this orca. The real sea world does. This orca belongs to the sea. And the sea belongs to him.


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