SeaWorld Tanks – Why Bigger Will Never Be Big Enough

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k33 versus seaworld
The tiny blue box in the upper middle of this picture shows the amount of space in one of the pools at SeaWorld. The bright yellow line shows the path of  a dive by a wild Southern Resident orca, K33.

No matter how big SeaWorld builds their tanks they will always be hopelessly tiny compared to the environment where orcas live. Yet room to swim and dive are only part of why the orcas’ natural environment can never be duplicated in captivity – those crystal clear tanks of chlorinated water where the whales swim in circles or bob endlessly at the surface are not even remotely representative of the ocean.
Whales are uniquely adapted to live in a complex, dynamic, sensory rich environment – below you can see how the saltiness of the Salish Sea (where the Southern Resident orcas live) varies over the course of a single day, and observe what happens as the salty ocean water meets the fresh water from rivers.  (Graphic from UW Coastal Modeling Group).

Sound  –  which is essential to whales for locating food,  staying together, and avoiding predators – travels through these salty/fresh water masses at different speeds.  And as whales descend through these masses of water their bodies also must adjust to changes of pressure. Their lungs collapse and their heart rates slow to 10 beats per minute or less…yet they still communicate and search for food.

img05-07 sound velocity and density Sound velocity (m/s) vs. depth (m) and latitude (S) derived from temperature, salinity and depth measurements, for the first 500 m of the water column in the Drake Passage.(

What this means to the orcas as they travel and forage as much as 100 miles in distance (and up to 823 feet in depth) is that they experience constant changes in how fresh, salty, warm, cold, light, and deep the water is.  The currents and tides are in constant flux, and can completely change direction with depth. They share this rich environment their entire lives with their families and pod members, and an ever-changing variety of marine life.

How far the orca K33 traveled in a little over a day. A SeaWorld tank would be about the size of one little dot.

How far the orca K33 traveled in a little over six hours. A SeaWorld tank would be about the size of one little dot. (Cascadia Research)

By putting these animals in tanks we are missing the point of their existence. Whales are fully adapted to a different world than ours, and no tank can ever replicate their world or truly educate us about these peaceful, intelligent beings that share the Earth with us.

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