SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment is exceptionally proud of its orca births and touts its breeding program as, “the most successful in the world.” Spearheaded by the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center, they’ve initiated an artificial insemination program that can breed any of its orcas to other orcas held anywhere in the world. It is this research, SeaWorld claims, that can benefit wild orcas and help to conserve them.
For a company to place itself in such a leading scientific role typically requires responsibility, restraint, and acceptance of current scientific data. But these qualities are overlooked by SeaWorld when it comes to breeding their existing captive orca populations. To date, including deceased animals, SeaWorld’s breeding and artificial insemination program has produced 20 hybrid orcas — orca offspring produced by matings between orcas from two different oceans, populations, or ecotypes. Something that does not sit well with Dr. Naomi Rose, the Animal Welfare Institute’s marine mammal biologist.
“It has always been clear to me from these essentially random pairings that SeaWorld is interested only in producing more orcas for its collection, not in any conservation goals,” Rose said. “True conservation breeding programs are very careful to control pairings, to carefully select sires and dams, to ensure that any progeny’s genes will be consistent with those of the population to which they may one day be introduced. This has never been the case with SeaWorld’s orca breeding program.”
To be fair, when wild orcas were initially rounded up for marine parks (beginning in 1961), the public didn’t know much about them. Scientists knew the populations were unique but now more than 50 years on, they know the many ways in which they are unique. There is still much to learn about orca populations, but research has certainly advanced enough to scientifically and ethically challenge SeaWorld’s production of hybrids.
Scientific research now tells us that different orca populations are genetically, morphologically, behaviorally, and culturally unique. They interact differently, eat a variety of diets, have physical differences, reside in particular areas, are socially distinct, display a multitude of hunting strategies, and have unique calls and whistles. This is all the best available science, which SeaWorld discounts when it crossbreeds orcas who would never naturally breed, interact with, or even — with some populations, geographically encounter one another in the wild.
To understand how unethical the marine park’s breeding program is, requires a basic knowledge of orca populations and their habits and habitats — something Orca Aware Founder — Sam Lipman, provided in her article, “Orca of the World.”
Orca populations found around the world have been observed to differ morphologically, genetically, behaviorally, acoustically and culturally from one another. Some populations also differ geographically, whilst others overlap in their home range. A single population can be divided into several smaller pods and groups.
Lipman goes on to describe how researchers have currently identified, “ten orca ecotypes (distinct forms or races of the orca species),” which “make up the three or four dozen populations that are found inhabiting our World’s oceans.” Seeing as understanding ecotypes can get a little tricky for the layperson and because research into them is still ongoing, this article will address orcas at the population level.
“There are over forty different orca populations (that we know of) found in most seas and oceans around the world,” Lipman told me, and “many of these populations occur in nonoverlapping geographical areas.” Called allopatric populations, these orcas are “unable to mix or breed,” she explained.
Yet even in sympatric orca populations (existing in the same geographic area), such as the Pacific Northwest resident and transient populations, these “do not mix or breed either,” Lipman said. In fact, she explained, “resident and transient orca have even been observed displaying avoidance behaviors when they encounter each other.”
The Pacific Northwest resident population of orcas is one of the best studied in the world. Yet despite four decades of research, there exists only one eyewitness account where resident and transient whales were forced together, and it did not end well.
Based upon reports from eyewitnesses, Howard Garrett — founder of the Orca Network, wrote the following account of the day J-Pod, a clan of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, encountered the T20 transient group of whales:
Only rarely are residents and transients found within miles of each other. Usually, as the larger groups of residents approach, transients reverse course or slink into the rocky shorelines; and even if they are clearly aware of each other, almost no hostilities have been reported.
Once, however, some unknown interaction flared into a bloody clash. On February 13, 1993, veteran orca researcher Graeme Ellis of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo was told that a group of killer whales had been spotted nearby. Ellis and his daughter, Dana, set out in a boat to find them.
They found 10 members of J pod racing south at 10—12 knots toward Descano Bay on Gabriola Island. Graeme followed for a while and then noticed splashing ahead. It turned out to be the rest of J pod. “They were really agitated, milling around the bay, obviously worked up about something,” recalls Ellis. Once all of the whales bunched together, they charged into the bay, straight for the beach, again at high speed. “Then all of a sudden I saw three new killer whales pop up about 100 yards in front of them.”
Ellis recognized them as the T20 transient group: T21 (Pandora), her presumed adult son, T20 (Kwatsi), and her adult daughter, T22 (Eucott). The transients fled toward the rocky shoreline, with J pod in hot pursuit. J pod angled in on them, as if they were trying to push them up against the rocks. Then the white-water started spraying with 20 agitated whales. Ellis could hear their intense whistles and squeaks resonating through his boat. He saw heads pressed against flanks, apparently nipping at skin.
The rumble ended a few minutes later when a ferry went by and the transients raced off along the shoreline and dove. The J pod whales started to “huff and chuff and puff” around the bay, catching their breath, as Ellis motored off to have a look at the transients. A couple of them had fresh teeth rake marks on them.
When J pod emerged from the small bay with no visible scratches, it became apparent that three pod members were missing — a new calf (J28), its mother (J17), and its grandmother (J5). The three rejoined the pod not long after the transients disappeared. “Whatever the reason,” says Ellis, “the T20s definitely got their butts kicked, in my view.”
Garrett told me, ”this is still the only report of any actual hostility between Residents and Ts in over 40 years of field studies.” Of course, these whales are not followed or studied continuously, so it is possible other instances of hostility have occurred but were not observed.
Lipman explained that avoidance behaviors when combined with other factors, are indicative of reproductive isolation between orca populations:
A number of studies have identified multiple behavioural, morphological and ecological divergences between different orca populations. This research has led to the conclusion that at least some sympatric orca populations are reproductively isolated from one another. In their 2012 review article, Riesch et al. maintain that orca are “undergoing ecological speciation as a result of dietary specializations,” and they propose that “cultural differences in the form of learned behaviours between ecologically divergent killer whale populations have resulted in sufficient reproductive isolation even in sympatry to lead to incipient speciation.”
So, are there other ecotypes or populations of whales who actively avoid each other?
“Yes,” says Lipman:
The West Coast Community orca do not mix with other orca (Type 1 and 2 North Atlantic) found in UK waters and the Antarctic orca ecotypes (Type A, B and C) are also known to avoid each other completely. Furthermore, there is also some evidence to suggest that the Antarctic ecotypes may inhabit entirely separate habitats, as do other ecotypes and many populations. Geographic isolation is considered a form of reproductive isolation against potentially fertile members of genetically distinct ecotypes and populations and is thus a barrier against hybridization.
In their 2010 study, Morin et al. confirmed that sympatric ecotypes, ” … avoid social interactions and are not known to interbreed,” with no mixing or interbreeding having been observed between orca of different ecotypes or populations.
Biologically speaking, a population is a community of animals whose members interbreed and therefore, by definition, orca from different populations would not (typically) breed.
Garrett’s account of the forced encounter between the transient and Southern Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest is both fascinating and chilling. Remember, SeaWorld’s current whale population is currently a mixture of wild-caught orcas and animals born in captivity, and its captive-bred orcas are of course, descendants of wild stocks. If different orca populations do not crossbreed in the wild, why crossbreed them in captivity?
The marine park discusses the different orca populations and ecotypes and how they socially interact directly on its website. They even touch upon avoidance behaviors — see Distribution and Social Behavior. So crossbreeding is a choice SeaWorld is making with eyes wide open. To claim it as beneficial to wild orcas, their conservation, and even to science itself however, is somewhat of a massive reach.
“They just put animals together, regardless of relatedness or origin, and hope a pregnancy will result,” Rose said. Although Rose believes that SeaWorld has tried to avoid extreme inbreeding between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, there has been one mishap that we know of. “The program has produced one mother-son mating, which resulted in the birth of a daughter/sister,” explained Rose, who called the accidental breeding, “careless in the extreme,” and who characterized it as a demonstration of, “how abnormal the behavior of captive orcas is. This kind of incest should be seen as horrific, just as it would if these were people.”
“Incest doesn’t occur in the wild (this has been genetically demonstrated),” Rose remarked, “even though families are tightly bonded. This is because normal socialization and behavioral development prevents it — the orcas know not to mate with their parents and siblings. Clearly captive orcas don’t know this, because their socialization and behavioral development are abnormal.”
Tracing the lineage of any SeaWorld-born orca is a convoluted adventure, but consider the last two calves born at SeaWorld — to Kasatka in 2013, and Kalia in 2014. Kasatka and Kalia are mother and daughter. Kalia’s heritage is mainly Icelandic orcas, but her great grandfather was an orca named Winston. Captured in the massive Penn Cove orca roundups in Washington State, Winston is thought to have been from the Southern Resident population.
Kasatka was captured in 1978. She gave birth to Makani in 2013, after being artificially inseminated by sperm taken from Kshamenk, an orca residing at Mundo Marino in Argentina. Kasatka was captured in Tvisker, and is an Icelandic orca. Kshamenk was captured in Samborombon Bay, about 160 km southeast of Buenos Aires. He is an Argentine orca.
Argentine orcas, like transient orcas of the Pacific Northwest, are mammal-eating orcas, noted for intentionally beaching two thirds of their body on the shoreline to snap a seal meal. Icelandic orcas however, (like the resident whales of the Pacific Northwest), primarily feed on fish (usually herring), as their food of choice.
“Icelandic orca have a similar group structure to other fish-eating populations found around the world: highly complex, matrilineal, family groups,” writes The Icelandic Orca Project. Even so, there are differences. “We have compared whistles recorded in Iceland, Norway and the Pacific and found that whistles from Iceland and Norway are quite similar but they differ considerably from whistles produced by killer whales in the Pacific,” the project noted. Furthermore, they also discovered that inaudible to humans, “Icelandic killer whales also produce whistles at much higher frequencies than previously thought.”
Lipman believes that SeaWorld’s crossbreeding program is highly questionable. “Orca already suffer poor welfare in captive conditions and as a result, I do not think breeding should be occurring at all,” she said, “but to breed individuals that would not reproduce naturally together in the wild? The ethical and welfare implications of this deeply concern me.”
And what of SeaWorld’s claim that its research has benefits for wild orca populations? “Every cross of an orca from one ocean with an orca from another (let alone between ecotypes) is utterly valueless from a conservation perspective,” Rose said.
The progeny and descendants of such a pairing can never be returned to the wild, as their genes are mixed and may cause problems in the population to which they are introduced. Such crosses are even troubling from a husbandry perspective, as it is unclear if such gene mixing might not cause health or behavioral problems in the progeny. Such progeny also have no value as research subjects if the study questions are specific to an ecotype or a population.
Yet SeaWorld maintains, “the animals in our care allow researchers, biologists and conservationists to better understand and conserve these remarkable animals in the wild.”
"We’re just scratching the surface. Understanding the animal helps us to conserve them. Science isn’t always big leaps, and small contributions can lead to additional questions. Even this basic stuff enhances our understanding of killer whales." -- Chris Dold, vice-president of SeaWorld veterinary services. ‘Slate’ interview. June 17, 2014.
Both Lipman and Rose have a strong aversion to these claims.
Lipman told me, “the entertainment giant claims to be an institution based on science and education, putting the welfare of their animals at the forefront of all that they do. However, in forcing orca hybridization, they disregard the science and they disregard the potential harm this could cause to the hybrid individuals, as well as the other orca in their captive population. And education? SeaWorld are sending out the message that it is OK to work against nature. I don’t think that’s OK.”
And Rose added, “I find SeaWorld’s claim that its orca breeding program has conservation value to be among its more troubling pieces of rhetoric. A lot of what SeaWorld claims about its orcas is insulting to science — that they are in “families,” that they are “stimulated,” that they are behaviorally normal in any way. But the claim that its orca breeding program is about conservation rather than maintaining its collection,” concluded Rose, “is the most insulting to science by far.”
Article first published Jan. 13, 2015