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SeaWorld, critics debate if park tanks or sea pens are best for orcas

During a night performance in 2014, trainers direct killer whales at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld San Diego in California. The captive orcas are at the center of an animal welfare debate.
During a night performance in 2014, trainers direct killer whales at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld San Diego in California. The captive orcas are at the center of an animal welfare debate. Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/TNS

The killer whales at SeaWorld SanDiego in California will not get a happy ending.

A documentary movie was released in 2013 about SeaWorld. It accuses the company of mistreating its killer whales, also called orcas. Now, people who fight for animal welfare are angry. They demand that the San Diego theme park free its 11 killer whales.

However, scientists agree that the orcas probably will never be released to the open seas.

The closest they would get to freedom would be living in ocean coves. The coves would be separated from open water by netting. There, the orcas would be fed and cared for by humans for the rest of their lives.

Captive Orcas Will Always Need Help

Killer whales that have lived in captivity are not a good fit for the wild because they have not spent enough time in the ocean, said Naomi Rose. She is a scientist for a group that protects animals from mistreatment.

There are no sea pens that can hold all 11 orcas. The cost of building such pens could reach $5 million each. Each pen could cost up to $500,000 a year to care for, Rose said.

Although animal welfare groups have tried to get the orcas moved to sea pens, SeaWorld's killer whales may never make the change. SeaWorld has said no to giving up its orcas. It says they are safer living in the parks’ concrete and glass cells.

“They would not be better off in sea pens than where they are now,” said Chris Dold. He is the head veterinarian for SeaWorld Entertainment. “We would not ever feel comfortable putting our whales into that setting.”

Sea Holds Dangers Too

Dold and other SeaWorld supporters say that killer whales that have not lived in the wild may not be able to handle the sea. Even in pens, they could get sick or experience tough weather.

The call to release the orcas has grown louder since the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish.” The movie charged SeaWorld’s parks with mistreating its killer whales.

SeaWorld Entertainment has 23 orcas in three parks across the country. 

SeaWorld San Diego proposed a $100 million plan last year. It said it would double the size of its killer whale exhibit. The project was called Blue World. California's leaders accepted the plan. However, the leaders want SeaWorld to end its captive breeding program and halt the transfer of its orcas in and out of the park.

SeaWorld has put Blue World on hold. It has also taken California to court. It is fighting the no-breeding rule.

Unhappy Ending For "Free Willy" Orca

One famous orca was released to a sea pen. His name was Keiko. He was the whale whose story was featured in the 1993 movie “Free Willy.”

Keiko was captured off Iceland in 1979. He was trained to perform at theme parks. After several years at a theme park in Mexico, the whale was transported to a sea pen in Iceland in 1998. 

During a short swim outside of the pen, accompanied by caretakers on a ship, Keiko swam away. He turned up in a deep inlet in Norway. There, he was found horsing around with children and fisherman along the shore. The whale died a few months later of pneumonia, a lung disease.

No Good Solution

Mark Simmons was once a SeaWorld trainer who was hired to help with Keiko in Iceland. He said the Keiko experience showed that sea pens are not a safe place for killer whales.

People who fight for animal welfare say those who oppose sea pens do not want an answer to the problem. They do not want to consider an alternative to keeping the whales captive.

Ingrid Visser started the Orca Research Trust. It is a group dedicated to the study of orcas. “We can put a man on the moon, surely we can move an animal out of a concrete life,” she said.

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Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

According to the article, what effect did the documentary movie "Blackfish" have on the killer whales issue?


It made many people upset about how orcas are treated at SeaWorld.


It made SeaWorld and animal welfare activists come to an agreement.


It gave SeaWorld a chance to explain how they take care of killer whales.


It made California's leaders write a new law, demanding that SeaWorld release its orcas.

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

Why did SeaWorld put its new, larger killer whale exhibit on hold?


SeaWorld realized $100 million is too much money to spend on killer whales.


SeaWorld is angry at a new rule that says it cannot breed killer whales in captivity.


SeaWorld has realized that the best solution is to transfer the killer whales to another place, not build a new exhibit.


SeaWorld was only pretending it would build the larger tanks in order to calm down angry animal welfare activists.

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

What do scientists, many animal welfare groups, and SeaWorld agree on?


The best option for the orcas is to live in protected sea pens.


Sea pens are expensive and not totally safe. The best answer is to build bigger tanks.


Orcas deserve to live in freedom in the ocean. They just need to learn how to survive again.


Captive orcas should not be returned to the open ocean. It would be too difficult to survive.

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

What might animal welfare groups who want to move killer whales to sea pens say to Mark Simmons?


You are not qualified to decide what's best for killer whales, because you've never worked with them.


It is sad that Keiko died, but he was getting pretty old and he probably would have died anyway.


It is sad Keiko was let out of his pen and later died, but sea pens are still a much better choice than a small concrete tank.


It's too bad that Keiko was let out and died, but all scientists agree that sea pens are the best solution for killer whales.


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