Does everyone love Marineland?

'Orca Swimming Free' by Nicole Corrado - © 2011 Medium: Acrylic Paint

Everybody who lives in Ontario’s “Golden Horseshoe” or Buffalo, New York, has heard the famous jingle for Ontario’s marine park.  What many people don’t realize is the controversy that surrounds Marineland and similar places that keep cetaceans in captivity.

Animal welfare organizations do not believe orca whales belong in captivity due to a number of reasons.  The most obvious reason is that a pool can never be as big as the ocean.  Orcas, like other predators, have large home ranges.  Places like Marineland could never be made large enough to accommodate the needs of these kind of animals.

Whales and dolphins hunt using echolocation, in which clicks aimed at objects allow the animal to catch food, as well as be aware of its surrounding.  Dolphins and whales find tanks disorienting, because any sound they make bounces off the walls of the tank.  Another problem with pools is that they are often cleaned with chemicals such as chlorine, which can be toxic to cetaceans after a while.  Due to the various stresses on whales and dolphins in captivity, many don’t live as long as they would in the wild.

Marineland has been in the news recently, as a custody fight over a male orca named Ikiaka wages between Marineland in Niagara Falls, ON, and Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  The two marine parks frequently trade animals on breeding loans.  Ikiaka was born nine years ago at Sea World, an organization owned by Anheuser-Busch.  He went on loan at four years old to Marineland, a privately powered amusement park, where he remains today.

Sea World has recently gone to court asking Marineland to return Ikiaka out of concern over his physical and mental health.  According to Sea World, Ikiaka had chronic gum infection all his life, which caused him pain and emotional problems.  Ikiaka was examined by two veterinarians in May, and was given a clean bill of health.  However, this doesn’t take into account the long term emotional health of a captive orca whale.  Sea World has claimed that Ikiaka has shown signs of sexual aggression, both at Sea World and Marineland, which is not surprising, given the fact that he probably didn’t have the chance to develop normal social skills in a small tank with only a few other whales.

At four years of age, Ikiaka was likely too young to be loaned for breeding, as orcas don’t reach sexual maturity until around nine years old.  But what is more disturbing is the allegation that Ikiaka maybe displaying aggression toward humans, a behavior not seen in wild orcas.  Last year, Tilikum, Ikiaka’s father, accidentally killed a trainer at Sea World.  Orcas, also known as killer whales, often eat marine mammals such as seals and other cetaceans.  Cooping up a large carnivorous marine mammal in a tank would likely result in aggression and hyperactivity in the animal.

I have never been to Marineland, but I have never agreed with the idea of keeping wildlife strictly for entertainment.  What educational merit is there in a place that displays wildlife such as whales, seals, deer, and black bears in unnatural settings, while suggesting to kids that feeding wildlife is acceptable?  If you would like to take your family to see whales and dolphins, then consider going on a whale watching tour instead of a marine amusement park.

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