SeaWorld: Is Shamu a Sham?

The orca (Orcinus orca) is an iconic species that many people, myself included, would be thrilled to see close up. SeaWorld offer thousands of visitors the chance to see these amazing creatures perform every day. However, Claudia Ardreys recent talk “SeaWorld: Does Conservation Justify Captivity” brought to light some issues surrounding SeaWorlds role in conservation and the treatment of their captive orcas.

Jumping orca

SeaWorld present themselves as an organisation that captivates and educates the public, and gives them the rare chance to view orcas and other sea life close up. SeaWorld also aim to portray the image that the welfare of their 241 orcas is of the upmost importance, and at the heart of the running of their parks. However, some question the health and well-being of these orcas. Although SeaWorld deny any wrong-doing, “SeaWorld: Does Conservation Justify Captivity” begged the question – is the conservation of an entire species through funding, engagement and education worth the confinement of a relative few individuals?

SeaWorld have received extensive criticism for the conditions their orcas are kept in and the effect that this has on their mental and physical health2,3,4. Orcas are well-documented to be highly intelligent and have complex family groups and behaviours5. Their captivity involves the fracturing of families and the enforcement of unnatural behaviours6. Boredom3 ensues due to an inability to carry out normal behaviours, such as hunting and swimming, within the unnatural habitats and space restraints they are provided with6,7,8. Psychological problems such as depression and aggression, both to other orcas and to humans, are widespread2,3,9,10. It was also found that the life expectancy of captive orcas is far below that of wild orcas, although SeaWorld deny this10,11.

curved fin

SeaWorld label themselves as an educational facility, using the animals to inspire and teach visitors about the natural world with the aim of improving conservation. Surveys suggest that SeaWorld actually provides very little educational material2, and that which it does is often misleading. For example, all of SeaWorld’s bull orcas have collapsed fins12, indicative of poor health and stress13. SeaWorld argued that many wild orcas also have collapsed dorsal fins due to genetics; however, less than 1% of wild orcas have collapsed fins14. Additionally, the study used as evidence was performed in New Zealand15, where no SeaWorld orcas originate from.

SeaWorld claim to put a great deal of funding towards conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012, only 6% of funding given to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF) was used to protect whales and dolphins, including some spent on researching captive animals17. It was also found that over 8 years, SeaWorld gave less than 1/5 of 2014s profits alone to the SWBGCF17.

wild orcas

Primarily, there is evidence that the captive whales are negatively affected by their unnatural lifestyle and cramped conditions. Furthermore, it would seem the claims made by SeaWorld regarding their role in orca conservation are greatly overstated. Additionally, their educational and research contributions are unconvincing at best. Claudia’s view was that SeaWorld use orcas primarily as a tourist draw and money making scheme, and excuse themselves on the basis that education and conservation rationalise this business venture. For these reasons, I too believe that SeaWorlds captivity of orcas is unjustified and inexcusable. Although seeing these animals so close would be a remarkable experience, it could not possibly compare with witnessing healthy, wild families of orcas in their natural habitat.

By Jenny Davidson


  1. Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 2015. The Fate of Captive Orcas. Available: Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  2. Dougherty, S.D. 2013. The Marine Mammal Protection Act: Fostering Unjust Captivity Practices since 1972. Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law. 28, p337-367.
  3. Copeland, E. 2015. Cognitive Enrichment Intervention for Captive Orcas. Senior Projects -Spring 2015. 1, p128.
  4. Jett, J. & Ventre, J. 2012. Orca (Orcinus orca) captivity and vulnerability to mosquito-transmitted viruses. Journal of Marine Animals and their Ecology. 5, p9-16.
  5. Simmonds, M.P. 2006. Into the brains of whales. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 100, p103-116.
  6. Rose, N.A., Parsons, E.C.M. & Farinato, R. 2009. Marine Mammals in Captivity. The Humane Society of the United States. 4, p1-82.
  7. Matthews, C.J.D., Luque, S.P., Petersen, S.D., Andrews, R.D. & Ferguson, S.H. 2011. Satellite tracking of a killer whale (Orcinus orca) in the eastern Canadian Arctic documents ice avoidance and rapid, long-distance movement into the North Atlantic. Polar Biology. 34, p1091-1096.
  8. Arkush, K.D. 2001. Water Quality. In: Dierauf, L.A. & Gulland, F.M.D. CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine. 2nd ed. New York: New York CRC Press. p779-787.
  9. Marino, L. & Frohoff, T. 2011. Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition. PLOS one. 6, p1-9.
  10. Jett, J. & Ventre, J. 2015. Captive Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Survival. Marine Mammal Science. 1, p1-16.
  11. Olesiuk, P.F., Ellis, G.M. & Ford, J.K.B. 2005. Life History and Population Dynamics of Northern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in British Columbia. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 33, p1-56.
  12. Hoyt, E. 1992. The Performing Orca — Why the Show Must Stop. Bath: Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
  13. National Marine Fisheries Service. 2005. Proposed Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Region, Seattle, Washington. 183.
  14. Ford, J.K.B., Ellis, G.M. & Balcomb, B.C. 1994. Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. p4-10.
  15. Visser, I.N. 1998. Prolific Body Scars and Collapsing Dorsal Fins on Killer Whales (Orcinus Orca) in New Zealand Waters. Aquatic Mammals. 24, p71-81.
  16. Hodgins, N. 2014. SeaWorld as a Conservation Donor. Available: Last accessed 06/11/2015.


  1. Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  2. 2015. Gallery/Photos. Available: Last accessed 06/11/2015.
  3. Jim Maya. 2010. Last accessed 06/11/2015.

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