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Risso's dolphin at surface

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

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SeaWorld where is the “Science”?

On SeaWorld’s own website they claim that their “… published studies on killer whales showcase SeaWorld’s larger commitment to animal welfare and conservation … (and) complement and strengthen research efforts in the field”.

So a challenge was set and we wanted to find out the extent of this “larger commitment”.

First stop was the SeaWorld website itself where the number of scientific papers published since they opened their doors in 1964 came to a grand total of 49, so just over one paper a year. In our searches we also found several papers listed on both the SeaWorld and the Hubbs Research Institute pages, so it’s worth remembering (as we’ll come back to Hubbs and their publications in the next blog) that the numbers published by both are actually less than presented.

Looking at these scientific publications in a bit more depth we find that 36 of the 49 (74%) focus on whales and dolphins in their care. Importantly, only 14 (39%) of these have been written since 2000 whilst most of them (61%) were written back in the 1980’s and 90’s with some dating as far back as 1976 – and that paper was on live capture techniques of killer whales, as was the next published paper in 1978.

Other scientific publications (if you can call instructions on how to capture killer whales science) by SeaWorld included papers on the development of artificial insemination, the killer whale placenta and food consumption of a captive killer whale. The majority of the remaining papers focus on a variety of diseases and physiological problems encountered by captive whales and dolphins.

The publications therefore mostly focus on information relating to reproduction, development, immunology, metabolism, pathology, behaviour and communication, however SeaWorld continues to claim that the work helps to shed light on problems facing wild animals, including pollution, strandings and food supply. A 1998 review of SeaWorld’s publications by the American Cetacean Society concluded that the scientific findings could be misleading for management of wild killer whales as their blood chemistry, physiology and disease profiles differ from their captive counterparts.

Only 13 of the 49 publications (26%) are based on information gleaned from wild whales and dolphins and almost all of these focus on killer whales in Iceland and Norway – coincidentally, this is also where the papers on wild killer whales capture techniques are written about. To add to this, 12 of the 13 papers were written BEFORE 1988 – coincidentally around the time that the last wild killer whale was captured in Iceland.

Contrary to SeaWorld’s claim that that their captive studies “complement and strengthen research efforts in the field”, we have struggled to find ANY recent “research efforts in the field” and NONE of the publications that we came across speak directly to the “conservation” of killer whales in the wild. With an organisation that makes as much money as it does off the backs of their captive killer whales and one that is under an increasing amount of scrutiny and public pressure, you would think that they would be only too keen to flaunt their science for all to see, however, as others have noted, perhaps these publications are just not easy to find?

Going straight to the source, a Zoology student linked to BDMLR/OrcaAware (who themselves have recently undertaken a similar dissection of SeaWorld science) recently got in touch with SeaWorld explaining that she would like to learn more about killer whales and asking which journals she would be able to find their publications in. SeaWorld’s response raises some eyebrows – “Our research, in general, is not available for people outside the zoological society to read and review. Although we do an extensive amount of research there is little we can directly point you to.”  

We can only ask you to come to your own conclusions about this statement! 

As a result of these findings, we openly and publicly question SeaWorld’s claims that they have a “larger commitment to animal welfare and conservation” and that their captive studies “complement and strengthen research efforts in the field”.

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC