by Rick Wood
Today, I caught wind of a posting on a website that serves as a mouthpiece for SeaWorld (awesomeocean.com, the creators of which received financial support from the marine park) that uses the decline and imperilment of Southern Resident Killer Whales as “evidence” to why captive orcas are a necessity.
Their argument proposes that those folks who were sadly “brainwashed” after viewing “Blackfish” are clinging to a set of lies that make living “wild and free” look like a wonderful existence, and demonizes marine parks and captivity as cruel and unhealthy place for orcas.
Until now, I’ve stayed out of the captivity debate – as it doesn’t figure prominently into the story of “Fragile Waters.” But, since this website has decided to use almost all of the thematic elements of our film as “proof” of why captive orcas lead a better life than wild ones, I feel I have no choice but to respond.
Their blog posting – which panders to advocates of marine parks – says (in part); “The sad truth is that 82 "free" wild animals are carrying around poisoned blubber reserves, while the "Blackfish" activists focus singularly on SeaWorld and ignore the demonstrable plight of the Southern Resident orcas.” The posting goes on to say, “These resident whales face a huge depletion of resources as humans plunder the seas' forever-increasing quantities of seafood. According to the NOAA study, the whale watching business is booming and because of that, the noise pollution and traffic disrupts their natural feeding patterns. Despite existing regulations designed to limit increasing incidents of boat strikes, captains looking for a quick buck ignore the law for the sake of getting closer to the pods. A shocking result is that the whales have to move more and eat and rest less. Calf mortality is around 50% and adult mortality is increasing.”
It then says that “armchair activists” have no clue about these issues, no press coverage (which is kind of odd, since I personally have talked about it on radio programs, in newspaper articles and in magazines & blogs) and that “Blackfish” supporters have no plan to publicly talk about the “plight” of SRKWs.
Yet, here we are…making a film about these issues, and being produced by Howard Garrett (and Orca Network), a central interview subject for the movie “Blackfish.”
That minor bit of fallacy aside, let me dive into a few points here that the blog posting failed miserably at remaining factual.
Although the blog writer is correct that recent studies and scientific data point to a very dire situation for Southern Residents, it fails to inform the reader of how they got there in the first place.
Instead, they talk about toxins and whale watching boats as key elements of why SRKWs have seen a precipitous decline. While it’s true that the resident orcas are exposed and accumulating harmful toxins, and it is also true that irresponsible boaters (whale watching tour operators or not) do pose a threat to their safety, the blogger seems to have honed in on the wrong culprits.
Those two issues are troubling for sure. They do not help the recovery of the SRKWs in the slightest.
However, if you’re going to talk about actual scientific facts and use them to further your position, you do well to know a bit about what you’re writing.
The main – central and undebatable – issue imperiling SRKWs today is the loss of wild Chinook salmon stocks. Those other, ancillary hazards and impediments - bio toxins and boat traffic - fall further down the threat list for these orcas…much further. If the blogger understood the research results they post a link to, they might know that it is a decrease in prey source that’s led to decreased blubber, which, in-turn, has led to bioaccumulation of more toxins than ever before.
Here’s the critical part; it all comes back to Chinook salmon. High in Omega oils, rich in protein, these salmon make up 85% of Southern Residents’ diets. If you’re going to single out an issue, this might be the direction an informed writer would go.
The SeaWorld-fan blogger didn’t do much homework. If they had they might have thought twice about using the Southern Resident orcas as the poster child for why life in a concrete pool trumps living in the open sea. You see, the real – and most damning – damage done to the SRKWs was done more than 40-years-ago. The blogger and their “facts” seems to neglect to inform their reader that round-ups of the Southern Residents, taking place in the 1960s and 70s, removed 45 of the orcas from this small, unique community of whales. To say they “decimated” them would be a lie. They took one-third of their entire population.
In human terms, if we’re talking about the population of the United States of America, we’d be looking at the kidnapping and imprisonment of more than 100 million people – and the resulting death of 30 million folks. And it’s not simply that they collected a random group of orcas. They went for the youngest ones, literally removing them from their mothers.
SeaWorld, among other companies and individuals, are the MAIN reason we’re seeing this rapid decline and endangerment of SRKWs, or as the blogger put it, watching “Washington's Southern Resident orcas die.”
Let me make that clear. Because today is the 44th anniversary of the Penn Cove round-up, a brutal and devastating capture of Southern Residents that left five whales dead and more than a dozen taken out of their natural home, what the blogger is actually stating is tantamount to celebrating SeaWorld (and others) putting SRKWs into the situation they now face – and then decrying it as an example of why the marine parks are better than the wild habitat. It’s not just misguided; it’s ignorant.
This doesn’t surprise me, though. Ignorance seems to be a large part of the arsenal those who support captivity cling to.
First, if you’re going to use one of the smaller groups of wild orcas as your poster child to support your diatribe, let me clue you into something; there are actually wild orca populations thriving right now. There are transients orcas around the world (for those who know little about wild orcas, the blog writer included, transient orcas include mammal-eaters…you know, “mammals,” like the sea lions SeaWorld brings on-stage before the orcas do their routines) in great health and stable in their numbers.
Choosing a unique population of 80 whales to base your broad and ignorantly assumptive “facts” on is laughable. If you’re going to try and manipulate your readers into believing SRKWs are a poster child for the “suffering” of wild orcas, you might want to at least mention that there are an estimated 50,000 orcas and they can be found in all of the world’s oceans.
Whoa, wait – what?
Yes, the same orcas “doomed” to extinction, have 50,000 fellow orcas that are hunting, procreating, raising young, travelling hundreds of miles of open-ocean and living into their 60s, 70s, 80s….even 100-years. Captive orcas statistically don’t measure-up to the lifespan of wild whales.
The attention “no one” is paying to the plight of the Southern Residents? Well, that’s what “Fragile Waters” is all about. You see, the two ideas – captivity and saving wild orcas – are NOT a “one versus the other” proposition. They are independent of each other and equally important.
Yes, one sole survivor – “Lolita” – of the 1970 Penn Cove round-up remains in captivity. And releasing her into the wild (at this point) would be to place her into an uncertain future. But, leaving her in captivity, in her unshaded, concrete pool in Miami (by a theme park not owned by SeaWorld), dooms her to another fate. It means someday she’ll die in that pool - surrounded by trainers, veterinarians, maybe even park visitors – but she will die without her family, without beings of her kind. She will know she’s alone. She will know the people looking at her in the water are the same species as the ones who took her from her mother.
“Lolita,” didn’t ask to become a performer or to be separated from her pod. She has lived for 44 years in an artificial environment, doing tricks for dead fish. It speaks to the amazing robustness of the Southern Residents that she’s lived this long and acts so appropriately with those who provide care for her. She’s a survivor, from a strong lineage. Do we acknowledge that life by allowing her to die alone? Do we marginalize her life, and the lives of all of these other captive orcas, for the sake of entertainment and “education?”
After all, “Lolita” – Tokitae, as she is known by people here in Washington – now represents more than 1% of the SRKWs’ population. She is far more valuable to the world at home, even if you don’t buy into her “right” to be back with her family. Would she thrive? You can just as easily speculate that she would as would not. No one knows.
But, there is a chance. Slim? Yes. But, a chance nonetheless.
SeaWorld is not known for their solid track record of releasing captive orcas into the wild. If you add all of the captive orcas they’ve put back into the wild after making them jump, twirl and splash guests in the “splash zone,” you get…wait, carry the one…um…zero.
If they – or any other marine park – truly cared about saving SRKWs, THEY would be right here, with me, on the front lines and working towards educating the world on what measures could save them.
The blogger shows the true purpose of their posting here: “When taken to its logical conclusion, this trend shows that someday the armchair activists may look up from their angry Instagram debate to find that the SeaWorld orcas are in fact, the only orcas remaining. Because that is the path we are headed on unless we enact change. More science and more action is (sic) needed to protect Washington's whales.”
They simply want to divert attention, pass the buck and wring their hands.