SeaWorld Reacts to “Blackfish”

Filed under: SeaWorld,Vacation Tips |

Over the last few weeks there has been much discussion about the documentary “Blackfish” that was released in the United States on 12 November 2013. The documentary was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film festival in Park City, Utah on 19 January 2013. It was then picked up by Magnolia Pictures for wider release and was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-Ray disc on 26 August 2013 in the UK.

The documentary was then broadcast by CNN on October 24, 2013 and after the broadcast, CNN aired an Anderson Cooper special with Jack Hanna, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Naomi Rose and Jack Hurley. This was subsequently followed by a special edition of Crossfire with Blackfish associate producer Tim Zimmerman debating Grey Stafford, a conservationist and zoologist.

The documentary focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a killer whale who has now been involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping such large and intelligent animals in captivity. The coverage of Tilikum begins with his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland,  showing how he was harassed by fellow captive whales and left in dark tanks for hours, incidents that Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the whale’s aggression. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld’s claims that whales in captivity live longer, a claim that the film argues is false.

Tilikum was captured in off the east coast of Iceland on November 9, 1983 at about two years of age, along with two other orcas named “Nandu” and “Samoa”. Tilikum was first assigned to Sealand of the Pacific, now closed, in South Oak Bay, British Columbia, near the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada. There, he lived with two older female orcas named Haida II and Nootka IV. Tilikum was at the bottom of the social structure, and Haida II and Nootka IV behaved aggressively towards him, including forcing him into a smaller medical pool where trainers kept him for protection.

On February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, slipped into the pool containing Tilikum, Haidi II and Nootka IV while working as a part-time Sealand trainer. The three orcas submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing.At one point she reached the side and tried to climb out but, as horrified visitors watched from the sidelines, the orcas pulled her screaming back into the pool. Other trainers responded to her screams, throwing her a life-ring, but the orcas kept her away from it. She surfaced three times screaming before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool.Both females were pregnant at the time, which was something not known to the trainers.

Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, Florida on January 9, 1992 and Sealand of the Pacific closed soon afterward. On July 6, 1999, a 27-year-old man named Daniel P. Dukes was found dead and nude, draped over Tilikum’s back.Dukes had visited SeaWorld the previous day, stayed after the park closed, and evaded security to enter the orca tank. An autopsy of the body found multiple wounds, contusions, and abrasions, and concluded he may have died from hypothermia and drowning.

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum was involved in a third incident when he killed Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer.Brancheau was drowned after a “Dine with Shamu” show. At least a dozen patrons witnessed Brancheau in the water with Tilikum; however, it is unclear how many patrons witnessed enough of the incident to understand at the time that it was out of the ordinary. Employees used nets and threw food at Tilikum in an attempt to distract him.

Moving from pool to pool in the complex, they eventually directed Tilikum to a smaller, medical pool, where it would be easier to calm him. He subsequently released Brancheau’s body. A SeaWorld executive, witnesses and video footage from right before the attack confirm that Brancheau was lying with her face next to Tilikum’s on a slide-out (a platform submerged about a foot into water). SeaWorld misrepresented the cause of the incident, claiming that the trainer was pulled into the water by her ponytail and that it may have got caught in Tilikum’s teeth, stating further that the trainer’s hair may have also been confused for a toy or a fish because Bracheau had been holding a fish previously and may have touched her hair afterwards, leaving the scent.However, witnesses to the incident stated that the trainer was pulled into the water by her arm.Brancheau’s autopsy indicated death by drowning and blunt force trauma. The autopsy noted that her spinal cord was severed, she had been scalped, her upper-left extremity had been completely avilsed, and she sustained fractures to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra, as well as a lacerated liver.

On August 23, 2010, the park was fined US$75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for three safety violations, two directly related to Brancheau’s death. SeaWorld issued a statement that called OSHA’s findings “unfounded”.  Although Brancheau’s widower, Scott Brancheau, hired a Chicago law firm that specializes in wrongful-death litigation, he has not taken any legal action against SeaWorld.

So it’s against that background that “Blackfish” came to be and became the reasoning for eight out of ten performers to cancel their arrangements to appear at the Bands, Brew and BBQ festival that starts in February.

On Thursday, SeaWorld reacted to all the negative publicity by issuing a statement. We had hoped to bring you a video interview in regard to the “Blackfish” situation but given the national media has seized on the story, SeaWorld has been somewhat busy fulfilling all their requests first! We are pleased to be able to bring you SeaWorld’s statement however and it appears below:


SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People
An Open Letter from SeaWorld’s Animal Advocates

Inaccurate reports recently have generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care. The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight.

The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates. We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned. Whether it’s a sea lion, manatee, sea turtle or whale, we are on call 24/7.
Here are some important facts about SeaWorld and our work:
SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild. Due to the groundbreaking success of our research in marine mammal reproduction, we haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years. In fact, only two of the whales in our care were collected by SeaWorld and they continue to be in our care today. In addition, our research has led to a much greater understanding of whales in the wild, giving researchers important scientific insights surrounding marine mammal reproduction.
We do not separate killer whale moms and calves. SeaWorld recognizes the important bond between mother and calf. On the rare occasion that a mother killer whale cannot care for the calf herself, we have successfully hand raised and reintroduced the calf. Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure.
SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales. In the last three years alone, we have invested $70 million in our killer whale habitats and millions of dollars annually in support of these facilities. Our habitats are among the largest in the world today. They are state-of-the-art, multimillion-gallon environments of cooled and filtered water that allow for the highest and safest standards of care. We give our animals restaurant-quality fish, exercise, veterinary care, mental stimulation, and the company of other members of their species.
SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild. While studies continue to define the average life span of killer whales in the wild, the most recent science suggests that our killer whales’ life spans are comparable — indeed, five of our animals are older than 30, and one of our whales is close to 50.
The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild. We work with universities, governmental agencies and NGOs to increase the body of knowledge about and the understanding of killer whales — from their anatomy and reproductive biology to their auditory abilities. Some populations of wild killer whales have been classified as endangered or threatened, demonstrating the potential critical nature of these research opportunities. This type of controlled research and study is simply not possible in the wild, and has significant real-world benefits to the killer whales that live there.
SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue. The millions of people who visit our parks each year make possible SeaWorld’s world-renowned work in rescue, rehabilitation and release. We are constantly innovating when it comes to this care: Our veterinarians have created nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned whales, prosthetics to save sea turtles, and a wetsuit to help injured manatees stay afloat during rehabilitation. Whether it’s the result of natural or man-made disasters, SeaWorld is always on call and often the first to be contacted. We have rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild. 

Naturalist Baba Dioum put it best when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
At SeaWorld, this has been our calling since we first opened our doors 50 years ago. It is a responsibility we do not take lightly. More than 400 million guests have visited SeaWorld. We are proud that their experiences here have a lasting and positive impact on them, and on the world in which we live.
The truth about SeaWorld is right here in our parks and people. Our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans. When they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job.

Here at Florida Leisure we have been asked for our thoughts on all of this and our answer is very simple. We have been behind the scenes at SeaWorld and we have been able to ask questions about animal care and well fare. We have seen first hand how all the animals in SeaWorld’s care are looked after and we are completely satisfied with how they look after all of these animals.

Of course, we understand the argument about keeping animals in cages or tanks but we are absolutely confident in the outstanding abilities of some of the most amazing animal caregivers in the world today and in how they look after all of these extraordinary creatures. We fully support SeaWorld and their amazing people. We know they do the right thing and we know they put the animals interests at the top of their priority list.

Further, with a record of over 22,000 animals rehabilitated, we don’t believe there exists any question as to SeaWorld’s intent. On 5th October 2013, before any of this became an issue, we ventured backstage at SeaWorld and we saw exactly how they looked after manatees, turtles, dolphins and many other animals. We also did a blog piece on the visit that you can see here.

We have also been behind the scenes at the Dine with Shamu and you can read about that here and watch our video below:

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Finally, you have no real reason to listen to us on the subject of animal conservation but we’d encourage you to listen to the words of Jack Hannah, a real authority in the animal world, in the video below:

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