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SeaWorld has refused to release its captive orcas into sea sanctuaries, claiming the environment would be 'a poor choice' for whales

SeaWorld has dismissed the retirement of the captive orcas into to sea pens, an enclosed refuge in the ocean, saying that the parks' tanks are the 'home' of the whales.

Answering recent questions of the #AskSeaWorld campaign about the potential retirement of captive cetaceans into wildlife sanctuaries, the company claimed that the whales are 'thriving right where they are'.

'These [the tanks] are the environments that are home for our animals, and the environments that allow us to care for them properly', the statement further reads.

SeaWorld's list of reasons for not releasing into santuaries includes 'exposure to pollution, ocean debris and life-threatening pathogens like morbillivirus'. Dr Ingrid Visser, a marine biologist and leader in the anti-captivity movement, dismissed such arguments as naïve and duplicitous.

'SeaWorld is doing nothing but attempting to hoodwink the public by stating such perposterous claims that their tanks are ‘environments’ and that those tanks are ‘home’ for the orca', she told DIVE.

Sea pens are a solution often raised in the ongoing captivity debate. While such sanctuaries do pose challenges, conservationists agree that they offer the best solution for the retirement of captive cetaceans.

'Sea pens are humane and a logical step away from the impoverished and barren concrete tanks that do nothing but harm the orca (and dolphins) who live in them. You only have to look at the damage caused by the orca held at SeaWorld, who bash their heads on the tanks and chewing on the concrete, to see that what SeaWorld claims is ridiculous,' Dr Ingrid Visser said.

Speaking to DIVE, Rob Lott, Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: 'The basic premise of the sanctuary concept is that they would have space, an end to performing and no artificial groupings of incompatible animals which leads to the chronic stress, depressed immunity and behavioural problems we see in marine parks today.

'Ultimately, over many years, the goal would be to see the sea pens empty - that is no more harrowing artificial breeding programmes and also a chance for those captive orcas brutally taken from their families in the wild to be assessed for release,' he added.

SeaWorld primarily uses artificial insemination, impregnating orcas as young as seven years old. 'Wild orcas don’t typically give birth till they are around 12-14 years of age and there is typically a 4-6 year period between pregnancies,' Dr Visser explains.

'Orcas at SeaWorld are not thriving - they are being forced to breed,' Visser says, 'All animals are ‘programmed’ to reproduce - that is our main biological goal - to pass on our genes. Despite hardships, despite mental anguish, despite being unhappy, animals still reproduce.

'Look at pigs in farrowing crates, dogs in puppy-mills, women in concentration and refugee camps (or human rape victims) - they all ‘reproduce’ despite the issues at hand. Breeding can not, and should not, be used as a measure of ‘happiness’ or welfare. But SeaWorld uses it all the time,' the marine biologist concludes. 

There are other aspects that speak for a release of captive orcas into sea pens. A 2004 study identified three infectious diseases in wild orca compared to 13 reported in captive orcas. Two SeaWorld orcas have died from mosquito-borne diseases contracted during the lengthy periods they spend languishing at the surface of their shallow tanks. Proposed locations for sea pens have been Norway and Iceland or offshore areas where mosquitos are not an issue. 

'Clearly the conditions under which SeaWorld currently keep their orca are five times more hazardous in terms of disease than conditions in the wild,' Dr Visser argues.

'SeaWorld's answer is nothing more than an attempt at fear mongering, as no orca in the wild has ever been recorded as having contracted morbillivirus,' Dr Visser explains. 'When you consider that the median survival rate of an orca in captivity is less than half that compared to in the wild, is clear that living in a tank is a much higher risk than living in the open ocean or in a sea-pen in the ocean'.

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