As humans, we are innately curious about the world around us, especially in regard to what exactly inhabits our seas. Aquariums have allowed us to peak into the mysterious world of oceans, which many of us may never deeply experience. However, the creatures we flock to see live in tanks resembling glass cubicles — inhumane homes for living, breathing creatures. Concerned visitors and even activists have sounded the alarms for years, so why aren’t we listening?
Back when you were a child, SeaWorld might have seemed like one of the greatest places on Earth. Guests of all ages are welcomed into the park to view all types of fishes and mammals without having to take an expensive trip down to the bottom of the ocean to see animals you would otherwise never see. With the bonus of 17 attractions, SeaWorld Orlando is a fun, family-friendly destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of families every year. Nevertheless, the park appears to have a couple skeletons in its closet.
If you have been to SeaWorld Orlando, it is possible you visited Tilikum the Orca, who has the reputation of the “Killer Whale” for the three deaths he had caused in his lifetime. In Nov. 1983, at age two, Tilikum was taken away from his family near Iceland and was kept at the Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo for a year until he was later transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a now-closed public aquarium located in British Columbia, Canada.
In 1992, Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., where he lived out the remainder of his life until Jan. 2017. During his time at SeaWorld, Tilikum was responsible for the deaths of three trainers: Keltie Byrne, Daniel P. Dukes and Dawn Brancheau. Tilikum is not the only orca from SeaWorld to have harmed employees.
Another orca, named Lolita, who passed away in Aug. 2023, shared a similar experience to Tilikum at the Miami Seaquarium. In 1970, at the age of four, she was captured and purchased by the organization for $6,000 — approximately $47,271 today. Lolita spent her life in a tiny tank with a depth of 20 feet. She and other orcas spent their days swimming aimlessly or floating in their tanks to cope with the small enclosure they inhabited.
Most, if not all, the animals you will see at an aquarium have been captured and separated from their families as babies. These animals can grow lonely and depressed from social isolation and, as they stir in their tank, they may end up acting out on those feelings.
Regina Asmutis-Silva, the Executive Director of North America for the Whales & Dolphin Conservation, explained the routine schedule these animals are held to each day. She supposes the monotony of daily weigh-ins, vet checks, training sessions and performances may not be the best for ocean creatures.
“[The daily schedules of aquarium animals] are very specific to the needs of humans, not the needs of the animals held in captivity,” said Silva. “These animals are meant to swim hundreds of miles a day. They’re not getting the exposure to the right kind of tidal cycles.”
Asmutis-Silvia also brought to attention the lack of stimulating activities for captured animals. She compared it to a music analogy of how children will listen to different types of music from their parents and, therefore, learn new things and act in certain ways different to their folks. Captured orcas are mentally stunted and cannot acquire the skills necessary for life in the ocean.
Lily Morgan, a junior majoring in marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami, aspires to work in the marine industry. Through a series of family trips to the Keys, Morgan fell in love with the ocean and everything that comes with marine biology. However, after learning about institutions like the Miami Seaquarium, Morgan was saddened at how these large mammals are mistreated by being kept in inhabitable tanks. Nevertheless, she still sees value in rehabilitative centers staffed with trainers who tend and care for the creatures.
“It’s obviously very cool that we can see these animals up close and I believe that if the animal is in captivity for rehabilitation purposes, then that is okay. If it is a rescue facility and they let you go and see their animals, I don’t see the issue,” said Morgan.
Deborah Giles, the director of science and research at the Wild Orca, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to save killer whales from extinction, believes the organization has the capability to transform the lives of ocean animals who genuinely need human intervention. However, she acknowledges the history of harm SeaWorld and other aquariums have created as a direct result of their practices.
“SeaWorld does good work with regards to stranded animals [from their] marine mammal stranding arm. That does fantastic work,” said Giles. “I wish they would have come to that conclusion a long time ago and stopped breeding and showing their animals decades ago. It was a different time. People had different ideas of moral right or wrong.”
Still not really getting it? Suppose you looked at the situation from a human’s perspective. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, people across the world were forced to stay at home and, in some cases, were isolated from their families. But these animals are on lockdowns 24/7 with no light at the end of the tunnel and no escape.
Taste of the Sea
So, what should you do if you want to get up close and personal with all the animals and plants the ocean has to offer? Here are some alternatives to visiting your local aquarium that will still allow you to peak into the wonderful world of the ocean blue.
- Snorkeling: If you’re interested in experiencing marine animals first hand, snorkeling is a great option, especially for those who have no desire to swim with the sharks. Biscayne National Park conducts daily snorkeling tours which take visitors across the bay – all for the low price of $35.
- Scuba Diving : If you’re really trying to immerse yourself in the ocean blue, scuba diving will allow you to explore much further depths than snorkeling. The university has an official scuba club, with dues standing at $75 per academic year and $50 per academic semester. If you don’t know how to scuba dive, you’re in good hands, as the club offers an in-depth training program for beginners.
- Marine Animal Sanctuaries: As opposed to aquariums, marine animal sanctuaries dedicate themselves to caring for and rehabilitating aquatic creatures. They also provide visitors with an opportunity to observe marine animals in a more ethical context. In fact, most of the waters surrounding the Florida Keys form the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
- Marine Animal Webcams: Yes, these do in fact exist. Don’t ask us why. Through simply typing in phrases such as “live underwater webcams” into your search engine, you can access live streams of marine animals from around the world and watch them swim around in real time, all from the comfort of your own home.
words_ariella green. photo_lizzie kristal. design_aden lalonde.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
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