Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

On average, orcas in captivity don’t survive beyond their 20s — just a fraction of their expected lifespan in the wild. Their estimated maximum life span is 60 to 70 years for males and 80 to over 100 years for females.

Although SeaWorld hasn’t captured any orcas from the wild in over three decades, it isn’t rescuing them either. Despite SeaWorld’s pretense of marine life research and conservation, eight of its 11 orcas were born in captivity.

SeaWorld forces orcas to breed and uses them for entertainment, which is detrimental to their quality of life and drastically shortens their lifespan. Between SeaWorld’s three parks, 37 orcas have died and among the orcas in captivity around the world, 159 have died since 1950.

SeaWorld has been barred from breeding orcas in captivity, but has taken minimal steps to protect the lives of marine animals already in its parks. SeaWorld San Diego president John Reilly claimed breeding is an important part of the animals’ development, but disregards the detrimental  consequences of reproducing in captivity and has ignored calls from animal rights groups to retire the marine animals.

Many orcas are still young, so the park will continue profiting off of them unless measures are taken to force SeaWorld to remove orcas from its parks.

The California Coastal Commission recently approved SeaWorld San Diego’s proposal for its Blue World Project, which will expand the park to accommodate larger tanks for its orcas for research purposes, “under a condition that would prohibit captive breeding, artificial insemination, and the sale, trade or transfer of any animal in captivity.”

While this is a step forward for the rights of animals, it falls short of what could be done. These animals will continue living in the human equivalent of a bathtub for the remainder of their lives, rather than in their natural habitat.

In wake of the controversial 2013 documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld has faced a good deal of scrutiny in its practice of exploiting marine animals for entertainment. Although the facts presented in the documentary are contested by SeaWorld, animals are not meant to live in captivity, especially not in enclosures only a few times their size.

Activists have been fighting SeaWorld for decades on the issues of captivity and exploitation, but the documentary pushed the public to finally take action against SeaWorld. According to a BBC article, SeaWorld’s earnings have fallen 84 percent in the second quarter of 2015.

SeaWorld plans to double the size of its current tanks to 50 feet deep and 350 feet in length, holding 10 million gallons of water. The average orca is a little over 20 feet long and the park’s two largest whales weigh around 10,000 pounds each. Even with the expansion, the tanks will only be a little over twice the size of these animals. No tank could replicate what life would be like for these animals in the ocean. If a human lived in this environment, a 5-foot-by-5-foot person would only have about 11 feet of depth to move around.

In 2014, SeaWorld was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the Animal Welfare Act “namely for keeping expired veterinary materials and neglecting to repair dislodged and crumbling rubber flooring which animals walk on during performances at the park.” It’s important SeaWorld has decided to expand its tanks, but its motivation is clearly not for the benefit of the whales.

On the website for the Blue World Project, SeaWorld states that larger viewing points will provide guests with “the world’s largest underwater killer whale viewing experience.” Instead of focusing the discussion around the welfare of the orcas, increasing guest experience is SeaWorld’s first priority — and a misguided one.

Animals rights groups like the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) have applauded the commission’s decision to approve the expansion, but have also called for an end to the use of orcas for entertainment.

Despite scientific evidence showing that captivity is detrimental to the orcas’ health, SeaWorld claims the animals are better off because of the special attention captivity provides. Studies have shown that SeaWorld’s breeding of orcas provides little to no benefit to the animals, who are forced to breed more frequently and at younger ages than they would in the wild.

SeaWorld seperates mothers from their calves, selling their babies to other marine parks or moving them to other enclosures. This is a painful process for mother and calf and mother orcas have been recorded making long range vocal calls for their babies.

If SeaWorld cared about the wellbeing of animals, rather than profiting off of their captivity, it would retire the orcas to sea pens — sanctuaries in the wild that allow the animals to live as naturally as possible — as suggested by the ALDF. State-of-the-art living conditions are irrelevant to an animal who doesn’t belong in a tank in the first place.

Research institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium have had success in rehabilitating local animals, rather than keeping them in captivity and using them for entertainment. The aquarium specializes in the conservation of sea otters and works to rehabilitate and release them rather than keep them at the aquarium. This model of conservation is one SeaWorld claims it uses, but its orcas remain in its parks and the majority of them have not been rescued, but instead taken from the wild.

Although this ruling has the potential to ruin SeaWorld’s profits, the concern should lay with the orcas and not with finances. This ruling only applies to the San Diego park, not the parks in Florida and Texas, which house a number of orcas themselves. Steps are being taken here in California, but SeaWorld needs to prioritize the lives of animals in their care rather than profits.