Tag Archives: Marine Mammal Conservancy

SeaWorld Has a Vested Interest in Helping Stranded Whales and Dolphins

The efforts by volunteers, government officials, the Marine Mammal Conservancy and SeaWorld to save some of the pilot whales that beached themselves recently in the Florida Keys is both heartwarming and admirable.  Although many of the whales died, two were successfully released and five others are receiving care (Sun-Sentinel).
Yet having SeaWorld and The Marine Mammal Conservancy involved is a double-edged sword, since both groups are committed to maintaining whales and dolphins in captivity (the majority of both the advisory board and the research committee of the Conservancy is composed of ex-Seaworld executives or those of other captive facilities (more here)).  Both organizations have the needed expertise to help the stranded whales though, and since they get the public to support them with donations they have the financial resources to help as well.  But it is like leaving the proverbial foxes to guard the hen house, because dolphins and whales are worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to theme parks.

Creative Commons Photo

Why are these stranded animals worth so much money? It is the old law of supply and demand  in action- it is next to impossible for the theme parks to obtain wild-caught animals, and they are now trying to breed them in captivity. But there are so few individuals of some of the species in captivity that inbreeding, with all the associated genetic liability, is inevitable and SeaWorld is desperate to deepen their gene pool. In a Frankenstein-esk move, SeaWorld applied for and received a permit to collect reproductive parts from dead animals:

The research will involve the collection, receipt, import, export and analysis
of marine mammal specimens (hard and soft parts) under the jurisdiction of both the National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Specimens
of interest fiom dead animals include, but are not limited to, testes (including the epididymis and
vas deferens), ovaries, uterus (with any conceptus if present), cervix and proximal vagina, pineal gland, urine, feces, teeth, and blood. Specimens of interest fiom live animals include, but are not limited to, semen, urine, feces, saliva, ocular secretions, and blood.
2 For species under NMFS jurisdiction, receipt does not include samples from animals stranded in the U.S. Such samples would be obtained under separate authorizations issued by the NMFS Regional Offices, or for ESA-listed species, under a separate NMFS permit. Such samples may be exported and re-imported under the authority of this permit.

To obtain samples from stranded animals under NMFS jurisdiction, you should contact the appropriate Regional Stranding Network Coordinator (list attached) to become a designated stranding responder or authorized recipient of such specimens.

Naturally enough, SeaWorld is a designated stranding responder:  NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.
In early 2010 they deemed a young stranded and rehabilitated pilot whale, “Sully”, unreleasable and brought him to live with two females in their San Diego facility. On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough because the rescuers had been unable to reconnect the young whale with his family, or with another pod in the wild.  But then the picture gets a bit fuzzy because the SeaWorld animal keepers suspected that the whale had hearing loss, which led to tests that did indeed show diminished hearing, giving SeaWorld another justification for keeping the whale in captivity. But I could find nothing more about the hearing tests, and my call to SeaWorld on the subject was fruitless.

Japan fishermen measuring a pilot whale (Reuters)

In November of 2009 SeaWorld had tried to import a young male pilot whale from Japan, but it met with outcries and accusations that SeaWorld  supported the Japanese drive fisheries (responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of pilot whales each year).  From the Federal Register:

The applicant requests authorization to import one male nonreleasable stranded pilot whale from Kamogawa SeaWorld 1404-18 Higashi-cho, Kamogawa, Chiba, Japan to Sea World of California. The applicant requests this import for the purpose of public display.

SeaWorld denies the association with drive fisheries vehemently:

Sep 25th, 2010 – Updated Information on Sea World California’s Request to Import a Pilot Whale
“Argo the pilot whale has no association with the drive fisheries. He was a lone stranding, as a neonate, six years ago on a beach northeast of Kamogawa and was nearly dead when rescued. Animal care specialists nursed him to health at Kamogawa SeaWorld saving his life. Because Argo was hand raised by humans, he is not releasable. Kamogawa SeaWorld does not have any other pilot whales at its park while we have three pilot whales here. We were asked if could provide long-term care for Argo so that he could live with other whales of his own species. We of course said yes. And in case you are not aware, we are providing long-term care to a young pilot whale named Sully rescued after he stranded near death on the island of Curacao a year ago. Argo, like Sully, was given a second chance at life by passionate and dedicated animal care specialists working in marine-life parks like ours.”
– SeaWorld San Diego

The problem with SeaWorld is that it just lacks credibility, and has a tendency to distort facts and re-write history.  Below is a prime example, in which SeaWorld is either mixed up and less than competent in it’s record keeping, or is tweaking reality to suit it’s needs.  The dates/age/identity of this whale just don’t add up:

Press Release (by SeaWorld) Created: January 2010
It’s hard to find an animal with a more legendary career than SeaWorld’s short-finned pilot whale superstar, Bubbles. This grande dame’s career spans more than 40 years. “I’ve never known an animal with a more impressive air spin, where she jumps out of the water and spins around at lightning speed,” says Bill Winhall, assistant curator at SeaWorld San Diego and one of Bubbles’ original caretakers at Marineland of the Pacific, once located along the coast of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., where Bubbles career first began.
As a young 12-foot-long, 1,600-pound female pilot whale, she began her expansive career at Marineland in the 1960s and was eventually given her own stadium and placed center stage.
At approximately 47 years old, Bubbles is one of the oldest marine mammals at SeaWorld and perhaps at any park, according to SeaWorld senior veterinarian Tom Reidarson.

Information provided by SeaWorld to marine mammal inventories put Bubbles’ capture date at September 6th, 1966,
but Bubbles was actually captured on February 27th, 1957.  She was estimated to be 7 years old at that time. So in 2010, the time of the SeaWorld press release, Bubbles would have been 60 years old, not 47. Here she is in the first few minutes of an episode of Sea Hunt, which aired in 1958.

Right now SeaWorld San Diego has the two older female pilot whales and the young male, and will most likely need to find a young female if they wish to breed these whales, but they seem to be committed to providing a home for any of the unreleasable whales – which is fine, as long as someone else is making that determination.
Note: I contacted Hubbs/SeaWorld Research about the ages of the pilot whales and to find out specific information on the stranded animals, and will post that information when/if I hear back.