Orcas – Captivity, Media Coverage and Their Sentience

The popular 2013 documentary Blackfish spurred the public to boycott SeaWorld due to their questionable treatment of orcas. In the two years following the release of the documentary SeaWorld saw an 84% loss in profits (SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., 2015), admitting that ongoing ‘brand challenges’ were to blame.

Captivity and its Effects

orcas-in-captivity-infographic.jpgThe effects of captivity include aggression, dorsal fin collapse and reduced lifespan. Whilst there is a long list of altercations between orcas and people in captivity, ranging from minor injury to death, there is no recorded instance of an orca harming a human in the wild. In fact, the opposite is true, orcas in the wild have been known to collaborate with people. At Eden, on the south coast of NSW, between 1840 and 1930 orcas would help whalers hunt baleen whales, knowing the spoils would be shared between the orcas and the humans. Orcas are accustomed to vast expanses of ocean and the tanks of SeaWord do little to replicate their natural environment, enforcing them in a barren area much too small of a creature of their size.

In March of 2016 the franchise announced the current generation of orcas in SeaWorld parks in the US are to be the last. (HSUS, 2016) However, the orcas in captivity currently cannot be released into the wild because they do not have the skills to survive and it’s unlikely they’d acclimate after life in captivity. SeaWorld is planning what they call a natural orca encounter meaning the animals will no longer be part of theatrical shows but will supposedly be kept in a more natural environment. The phasing out of shows will take a few years.

Why must they be kept in the tanks at SeaWorld? Surely open-ocean enclosures would be a much healthier environment. Not enough ocean pens exist for the 29 orcas at SeaWorlds and the cost would be huge. SeaWorld Chief Executive Joel Manby has said that “For as long as they live, the orcas at SeaWorld will stay in our parks.” (Manby, 2016) He references the story of the Free Willy killer whale, Keiko, who was rescued from a Mexican park and put in an ocean pen. His return to the wild was surrounded by controversy as many people considered it unsuccessful after he died. SeaWorld uses this example to enforce that their tanks are the best place for the orcas.

The Media’s Role

SeaWorld appears to be taking the necessary steps in attempting to appease protesters without giving up the orcas, no doubt because they still attribute to a large amount of income for the company, despite the criticism they have received. Media coverage of the ongoing PR battle between SeaWorld and the film makers and other activists has continued over the past 4 years since the release of the documentary. Stories continue to appear whenever something changes regarding the issue of captive orcas because of the invested public interest and continuing campaigns that have seen the end of theatrical shows and captive breeding of orcas. Blackfish (2013) has become the face of the issue and an example of investigative journalism and storytelling having the ability to bring light to an issue and as a result have the the company, in this case SeaWorld, change to better the issue.

What has been dubbed the ‘Blackfish effect‘ has caused public audiences to engage with an issue and create change through the protest and boycotting of SeaWorld. People who previously had little to no knowledge of orcas are invested in seeing these creatures remain in the wild where they thrive. The social impact of Blackfish (2013) was pioneered through grassroots activism, media coverage, multi-platform distribution and social media; demonstrating the effect that media and social justice can have.

Animal Sentience 

“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.” (WDC)

In Blackfish they discuss the grief a mother orca feels when her offspring is taken away from her. Neurological study into orcas has shown they have incredibly complex brains. (Crawford, 2013) This not only suggests sentience but intelligence and emotion arguably, equal to that of humans. Orcas live in complex social groups that are often matriarchal. They have shown behaviours such as cooperation and deception and based on research orcas are even thought to have their own cultures. (Stiffler, 2011) It has been suggested by neurologists that an orcas sense of self is not merely individual but depends very much on their social group.

Animal sentience has been researched differently depending on species and it’s difficult to cross-examine the intelligence and sentience of different species. Whilst there was little research on orcas until recently, neurological examination shows their high intelligence, shown through the ways they communicate, hunt problem-solve and live in social groups.



Blackfish. 2013. [film] Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Crawford, L., 2013. Killer Whales Are Non-Human Persons | Grey Matters. [online] Greymattersjournal.com. Available at: <http://greymattersjournal.com/killer-whales-are-non-human-persons/&gt; [Accessed 31 Mar. 2017].

HSUS, 2016. HSUS Praises SeaWorld for Committing to End Breeding of Orcas : The Humane Society of the United States. [online] Humanesociety.org. Available at: <http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2016/03/orca-release.html?credit=tw_post031716?&gt; [Accessed 30 Mar. 2017].

Manby, J., 2016. SeaWorld CEO: We’re ending our orca breeding program. Here’s why.. [online] latimes.com. Available at: <http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0317-manby-sea-world-orca-breeding-20160317-story.html&gt; [Accessed 30 Mar. 2017].

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., 2015. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. Reports Second Quarter 2015 Results. [online] Prnewswire.com. Available at: <http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/seaworld-entertainment-inc-reports-second-quarter-2015-results-300124561.html&gt; [Accessed 30 Mar. 2017].

Stiffler, L., 2011. Understanding Orca Culture. [online] Smithsonian. Available at: <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/understanding-orca-culture-12494696/&gt; [Accessed 31 Mar. 2017].




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