An Open Letter to SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

While we applaud the SeaWorld decisions to end immediately their captive breeding program and to phase out theatrical shows by 2019, we cannot in good conscience allow the misrepresentations in your new advertising campaign to go unanswered and unchallenged.

Despite your progress, 28 orcas remain in concrete tanks that are detrimental to their health. The best solution for those animals is to relocate them to seaside sanctuaries, as living in natural habitat has been proven to promote the health and well-being of whales and dolphins.

We emphatically reject your mischaracterization of seaside sanctuaries as “sea cages”. Moreover, your current ad campaign blatantly conflates the effort to move orcas to sanctuaries with release to the wild, which is not being proposed by any responsible organization. Your ad is an attempt to create a false choice: either keep orcas at your facilities, or drop them in the ocean to fend for themselves. What is being proposed as the best option is the relocation of captive orcas to carefully managed seaside sanctuaries where orcas can thrive without performances and the well-known stressors of living in a concrete tank, and instead receive care, feeding, and veterinary support in a more natural setting.

Sanctuaries for the retirement of captive animals are a longstanding, effective and globally-accepted alternative to artificial enclosures for other large, wide-roaming animals such as elephants, primates, big cats, horses and many other species. It is a highly successful model.

There is no valid reason not to extend the sanctuary model to whales and dolphins.

We call on you to demonstrate your truthfulness and authenticity by working with others to develop seaside retirement sanctuaries for orcas and the other cetaceans in your care.

Thank you.


Lori Marino, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy

SeaWorld’s Announcement: A Good Start, but …

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced today that SeaWorld is ending captive breeding of orcas in its parks. But he intends for this last generation of orcas to live out their lives in concrete tanks at SeaWorld, and apparently intends no changes for all the other dolphins and whales and other animals that the company holds captive for profit.

SeaWorld’s announcement has been met with mixed feelings by the marine mammal advocacy community. David Phillips, Executive Director of the Earth Island Institute, expressed concern about the support that SeaWorld is receiving from the Humane Society of the U.S.:

Because of the stamp of approval from HSUS to SeaWorld keeping all orcas in captivity, it may significantly hurt the growing effort to bring about orca retirement to independent seaside sanctuaries.

So, while I do think it is important to support this step forward, it doesn’t mean that our work is done. We must keep up the pressure to end the capture, trade, breeding, circus performances, and holding of cetaceans captivity and for retirement of all captives.

On, marine biologist and author Carl Safina weighed in on the critical issue of how and when the orcas would be retired altogether:

I and some others would like to see orcas retired to net pens in natural waters. This would be analogous to retirement sanctuaries for elephants and chimpanzees  … Let us now devise a realistic, humane, properly funded long-term plan for retirement sanctuaries for orcas.

And author Tim Zimmerman echoed this concern in an article in Outside Magazine:

Even with an immediate end to captive breeding, killer whales are long-lived, and SeaWorld could have some of its younger killer whales in its pools for 30 or more years … This leaves SeaWorld with two costly choices: weathering ongoing criticism for keeping killer whales in its existing pools or investing in developing sea-based sanctuaries.

Responses like these point to the one inescapable conclusion that SeaWorld’s CEO is still avoiding: that while stopping the breeding of captive orcas is an important step forward, the only way the company will be free of continued criticism from animal protection advocates, scientists, and the public is to retire the orcas and all the other cetaceans to sea sanctuaries.

Coastal sanctuaries are the only ethical and practical solution to SeaWorld’s dilemma.

On interviews throughout the day, Joel Manby responded to the sanctuary question with the classic crisis-PR maneuver of ignoring the question and going off on a tangent – in this case by saying that captive orcas cannot be released into the wild, thus creating the impression that retiring the orcas to a coastal sanctuary is the same as releasing them into the ocean. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coastal sanctuaries are the only ethical and practical solution to SeaWorld’s dilemma. And sooner or later SeaWorld is going to have to bite the bullet again, just as it has done today with the issue of captive breeding.

Last December, Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, and I presented a day-long public workshop entitled Sea-Pen Sanctuaries: Progressing Toward Better Welfare for Captive Cetaceans at the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference in San Francisco. Throughout the day, an A-list of marine mammal veterinarians, scientists, sanctuary directors and marine engineers outlined the necessary steps towards building a coastal sanctuary for orcas and other cetaceans.

Several realistic plans exist to achieve the goal of retiring captive orcas and others to sanctuaries within the next five years. We would welcome SeaWorld as an authentic collaborator in this overall effort. Only then will the company be the welfare and conservation organization it pretends to be now.

Sea Sanctuaries for Cetaceans: A Growing Reality

This past Sunday, December 13th, Dr. Lori Marino, Executive Director of The Kimmela Center, and Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, presented a day-long public workshop entitled Sea-Pen Sanctuaries: Progressing Toward Better Welfare for Captive Cetaceans.

The workshop focused on the key issues relevant to developing and maintaining a permanent sea sanctuary in North America for formerly captive and injured/sick whales and dolphins. There are sanctuaries for other large highly social and wide-ranging mammals, such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales.

The standing-room-only workshop was held at the 2015 Society for Marine Mammalogy conference in San Francisco and included presentations from some of the most experienced scientists, veterinary clinicians, engineers, attorneys, trainers, business experts and advocates in this field.

Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Heather Rally discussed the particular psychological and medical issues that would need to be addressed when caring for dolphins or whales who come from years of exploitation in the theme-park industry. She described the effort to develop a sea sanctuary for cetaceans as “an unprecedented undertaking for the scientific and veterinary communities in this country, with great potential to dramatically improve that lives of captive orcas in the U. S.”

Don Baur, an attorney previously on the Marine Mammal Commission, explored the legal issues that would need to be navigated to set up a sanctuary on the North American coast.

John Hargrove, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld and author of Beneath the Surface, presented information about the striking differences between sanctuary life and theme park life for orcas from a training perspective.

Ed Stewart, cofounder of PAWS, laid out the common challenges of creating a sanctuary for large wild animals either on land or in the sea.

Joan Gonzalvo, a biologist with the Tethys Research Institute, discussed similar efforts for formerly captive bottlenose dolphins in Italy.

Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, brought us up to date on further ongoing efforts in Europe.

Rob Laidlaw, Executive Director of Zoocheck, discussed candidate sites for a sanctuary in Canada and some of the advantages and disadvantages of locating such a facility in various provinces.

And Michael Parks, field engineer for the Keiko Project, educated everyone on the “nuts and bolts” of building a sanctuary for orcas.

The audience consisted mainly of marine mammal scientists, advocates and business experts, along with some members of the captive theme park industry.

All in all, the workshop was a valuable exploration of the new frontier in our changing relationship with dolphins and whales: from captives, born and bred for our entertainment, to fellow beings who deserve respite from the ways our species continues to abuse and exploit them, both in captivity and in the wild.