David Kirby On Captive Orcas and His Book, ‘Death at SeaWorld’ – Part 1

Written by on January 9, 2014 in Interviews, Other News, Whales & Dolphins

Editor’s Note – Contributing MST writer Michael Bear is an AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Science Diver and a Featured Contributor with California Diver Magazine. He lives and works in San Diego.


Recently, the movie ‘Blackfish‘ has created quite a stir in the world of captive orcas and those concerned with the ‘captive display industry,’ ie: SeaWorld and its impact on killer whales.

David Kirby and his dog, Wilson.

David Kirby and his dog, Wilson.

Not everyone is aware that a full year before the movie came out, David Kirby authored a ground-breaking book on the subject, called ‘Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,’ which was the first in-depth examination of the controversy surrounding the death of one of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau, at the hands of one of SeaWorld’s largest bull, Tilikum, as well as the science behind the subject of orcas in general, featuring orca expert, Dr. Naomi Rose, who also appeared in the movie’s DVD extra.

David Kirby is also the author of ‘Evidence of Harm,’ which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and ‘Animal Factory,’ an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work The Jungle.

Marine Science Today recently caught up with Mr. Kirby to ask a few questions about some of the issues raised in both the movie and his book. Here’s part one of the two-part interview.

Q: Although not an orca researcher yourself, you have interviewed several in the course of researching your book, namely, Dr. Naomi Rose and Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, Co-Principal Investigator on the Orca Survey since 1994, so you have obviously done your homework on a subject, which can get pretty emotional at times. SeaWorld says that having orcas in captivity helps educate the public on these complex animals and that without the public display industry, the average person would probably never get to see an orca.

A: It is an emotional issue, to be sure, but when you examine the evidence objectively, weighing both sides of the argument, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than captivity for killer whales is, on balance, neither good, ethical, nor educational.

1) Seeing orcas at SeaWorld does not educate the public on orcas in the wild. In fact, SeaWorld mis-educates the public about these animals, their natural history, social bonds, longevity, compassion and so on. At SeaWorld, you learn that orcas like to “party” and “dance” to rock music, wave their pectoral fins at people and French kiss each other, which of course is nonsense. I have heard visitors leave the park raving about the ‘Shamu whales,’ but they remain uneducated about the species and the serious challenges that some populations (especially in the Pacific Northwest) must endure, or how to help alleviate these problems.

2) And the argument that most people cannot see orcas in the wild is unfounded. Just recently, all kinds of orcas were spotted off the coast of Southern California, much to the delight of whale watchers out on boats.

3) Furthermore, it costs roughly as much to fly from, say, Chicago, to Orlando or San Diego as it does to fly to Seattle. From there, you can board the Victoria Clipper for a day of orca watching off San Juan Island, which includes 2.5 hours of dedicated viewing (as opposed to the 18-minute Shamu show). It’s true that prices have increased this year: Adult tickets run $83-to-$138, depending on the month, though child tickets are only $22. So for an average family of four, it is still the equivalent, or cheaper, than a day at SeaWorld. And there are many places in the area where you can see orcas from the shore, for free, often more up close than on a boat (where Federal regulations limit vessels to 200 yards away). Finally, many people, especially kids, are fascinated by dinosaurs, yet they have never seen one in person.

Q: Why is captivity for orcas a bad idea?

A: In a word: longevity. One scientific study found that the annual mortality rate for killer whales in captivity is two and a half times higher than orcas in the Pacific Northwest (and more recent estimates put the figure at three times higher). But that is just the beginning.

According to a manuscript submitted to the Orca Project by John S. Jett and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre: in captivity, orcas are kept alive with antibiotics and other drugs, they are dehydrated from eating frozen fish, they are separated from their mothers and families and moved around like so many chess pieces, they die from horrible and bizarre causes (everything from infighting to tropical diseases borne on mosquitoes) they become aggressive, they break their teeth on metal gates, leading to a painful drilling of their tooth pulp, and all the adult males’ towering dorsal fins collapse onto their backs – something that only happens to one percent of adult males in the ocean. In the wild, killer whales swim up to 100 miles a day, fulfilling their evolutionary destiny of being top predators with a wide foraging range. At SeaWorld, they are lucky to swim 100 laps a day, repeatedly around their pool, over and over like neurotic victims. Predators with large ranges fare the worst in captivity, studies show. (More information on this subject can be found at my Death At SeaWorld Column at TakePart.com.)

Q: In a paper published in the Oct. 14, 2004 Issue of Anatomical Record, neuroscientist Lori Marino identified an area of the orca brain, called the para-limbic cleft, which she says may be involved with the processing of emotions. She has said elsewhere that orcas may have a sense of self that may not be only an individual sense of self, but also one which depends very much on their matriarchal social groupings.

"If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you'd get a little psychotic?"

“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” Photo credit: mriz4 via photopin cc.

Orcas in captivity are often separated from their wild-ocean families and put into small, isolated tanks by the display industry, prior to training. In a now well-known quote from the movie Blackfish, Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor wonders, ‘If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?’

Do you believe there is evidence that isolation and captivity make orcas stir-crazy and may lead to violent behavior?

A: I would hesitate to use the term “crazy,” but I do think there is evidence that captivity is very stressful on these intelligent, emotional animals and it leads to extreme behaviors. I have a whole chapter in “Death at SeaWorld” called “Abnormal Behaviors” which details all the ways that captive orcas differ than their wild cousins. Wild orcas do not kill each other nor do they kill people. Wild orcas stay with their families for life. Wild orcas do not spend hours floating listlessly at the water’s surface. Wild orcas do not bang their heads against hard surfaces. Wild orcas are almost never alone. None of this is true at SeaWorld. I think some of these whales are neurotic to the point of snapping. Tilikum was sending us a message when he dismembered and killed his trainer of seven years.

Here you can see the collapsed dorsal fin.

Here you can see the collapsed dorsal fin. Photo credit: lolilujah via photopin cc.

Q: Another source of controversy has been what is known as the ‘Flaccid or Folded Fin Syndrome,’ which is a breaking down of the collagen-like support structure in the orca’s dorsal fin, causing it to fold or bend over. Some have said it is seen mainly in captive orcas, but SeaWorld has said it occurs in 25% of orcas in the wild. In an interview filmed by Jeff Ventre, a former whale trainer for SeaWorld, orca expert Dr. Astrid van Ginneken says it is seen in ‘less than 1% of orcas in the wild.’ Do you think SeaWorld is being deliberately misleading on this point?

A: This is pure corporate propaganda. SeaWorld based its estimate on dorsal fins in wild whales on research conducted by Dr. Ingrid Visser of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust. She found that 23 percent of the killer whales in New Zealand had dorsal fins that were bent, ragged or wavy, (only one had total fin collapse, possibly the result of injuries from a vessel). Dr. Visser was upset at this misrepresentation of her work. In the rare cases of complete fin collapse in the wild, there was usually extraordinary stress and/or illness involved. For example, after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, two adult males were observed with collapsed fins. They died soon afterward. I would say that fin collapse is a sign of poor health, as well as spending too much time at the surface in tropical or subtropical climates.

For more on the dorsal fin collapse, watch the following interview with David Kirby and Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, filmed by Dr. Jeffrey Ventre.

Video courtesy of Dr. Ventre.

Interviewer’s Note: I would like to thank Dr. Naomi Rose, Dr. Lori Marino and Dr. Jeff Ventre for their assistance.

Read part 2 here

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: .


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed Find MST on Instagram Connect with MST on Google Plus