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Orcas At SeaWorld

Updated on August 12, 2013

Seaworld's "One Ocean" Show

SeaWorld and Orcas

We've all been there - the most popular marine park in the world. It is one of the only places that many of us have ever seen marine animals up close and personal. These encounters leave us with wonderful memories and a desire to learn about these creatures. Seaworld is a marine theme park at its heart and it exists to entertain the masses as well as educate about marine life. The shows you see every day, such as the one in the video above exist to show the power and beauty of the orca whales that live at SeaWorld parks.

Several species of animal call SeaWorld home, but the most popular of course is the Orca. These immense apex predators have called SeaWorld their home for decades since the marine park's founding. In fact, it was the Orca that became the mascot and crown jewel of the parks across the country - becoming the signature mascot 'Shamu'. The shows that feature these animals at the parks are the most popular. While the first orcas at SeaWorld were indeed taken from the wild and transported to the parks - this practice only lasted until the 80s when laws were placed that banned the capture of Orcas in U.S waters. Currently all of SeaWorld's orcas are born and bred at the parks.

However these orcas are also the subject of a lot of debate recently. With the release of the documentary film Blackfish and the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, many have stated that orcas cannot be kept safely in captivity, and that being in a captive environment is what drove Tilikum (the largest captive orca at SeaWorld) to kill Dawn. The people who believe in this sentiment are mostly already anti-captivity supporters (aka "anticaps") who believe that these animals should be freed.

Their arguments are strong, but they fail to capture the good that SeaWorld does for its orca population and never touches on how these animals are kept and trained to do the shows we so often come to see.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Orca (Tilikum) performing a slide-out behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando. Orcas perform with trainers in the water in SeaWorld's previous show "Believe"Orcas performing a jump behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando.
Orca (Tilikum) performing a slide-out behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando.
Orca (Tilikum) performing a slide-out behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando. | Source
Orcas perform with trainers in the water in SeaWorld's previous show "Believe"
Orcas perform with trainers in the water in SeaWorld's previous show "Believe" | Source
Orcas performing a jump behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando.
Orcas performing a jump behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando. | Source

The Making of SeaWorld's "One Ocean" - Whales and Trainers

How Do You Train An Orca?

According to SeaWorld, the orcas are trained by positive reinforcement techniques - they receive food for doing the proper behaviors (that's the lingo for the moves we see during the show). Many anti-captivity protestors state that this form of training is actually abusive because the trainers are restricting the orca's access to food and only give them their food when they perform correctly.

The video to the right proves that this is incorrect. It shows how the orcas are trained via the positive reinforcement technique for SeaWorld's newest show "One Ocean"

Sometimes the orcas don't always behave - but that doesn't mean their meals are restricted. They have to be fed no matter what or they wouldn't survive. That's basic logic. Speaking of food - the orcas are fed restaurant quality fish each and every day - up to ten buckets per orca! That's a lot of fish. Each orca receives different types of fish according to its dietary needs. This is common for all captive animal facilities such as zoos and other aquariums. Every animal needs a diet specific to it and no two are alike.


Training Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A trainer teaches Tilikum how to wave his pectoral fin.
A trainer teaches Tilikum how to wave his pectoral fin.
A trainer teaches Tilikum how to wave his pectoral fin. | Source

Positive Reinforcement: A Schedule

SeaWorld uses positive reinforcement techniques to train their orcas, but did you know that there is a schedule to go along with it? Here are the various types of positive reinforcement that SeaWorld uses with its orcas

  • Fixed Interval - The fixed interval is based on receiving positive reinforcement at a fixed time. This is the most common type of positive reinforcement and the key to it is that the reinforcer is always given at the fixed time.
  • Fixed Ratio - A subtype of fixed interval, the fixed ratio schedule is based on receiving reinforcement after a fixed amount of behaviors. The desired behavior has to occur a certain number of times before the reinforcer is given.
  • Variable Interval - This type of reinforcement occurs after varying lengths of time. The behavior is reinforced at random intervals. This is the variant of a fixed interval.
  • Variable Ratio - A variant of the fixed ratio reinforcement, variable ratio reinforcement occurs after varying numbers of behavior. Reinforcement varies unpredictably, so the animal performing the behavior is never certain when reinforcers will be applied.

A female orca and her calf at SeaWorld Orlando
A female orca and her calf at SeaWorld Orlando | Source

Baby Shamu

There is one more aspect of Orca captivity that is also touched on repeatedly - the breeding of the Orcas already in captivity. Most of SeaWorld's female orcas are bred these days through artificial insemination (the sperm of the male orca is placed into egg of a female orca and said egg is placed back into orca's womb). To date there have been over 30 orcas born at SeaWorld.

A baby Orca can live for up to 20+ years at SeaWorld and are over 350 pounds when born. Talk about a big baby! The average gestation for a killer whale in captivity is anywhere from 15 to 18 months, much longer than that of a human pregnancy.

However with every good captive breeding program does come some bad times. Sometimes the calves are stillborn or they die of illnesses while very young. However the breeding program does serve as a way for SeaWorld to study orcas and learn more about them.


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    • Ms LaLa2014 profile image

      Ms Quick 2 years ago from Fayetteville, NC

      Free Tilikum and the other orca whales!!

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      Anonymous 2 years ago

      Quick note: the picture with this caption - "Orca (Tilikum) performing a slide-out behaviour at SeaWorld Orlando" is not Tilikum. The picture was taken at SeaWorld San Antonio and I believe that it is either Tilikum's first son Kyuquot (don't ask me how to pronounce it, I just call him Ky) or another adult male named Keet, who used to live at SWT (SeaWorld Texas) but moved to SWC (SeaWorld California) in 2012.

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      iRANT 3 years ago

      There are some more interesting Orca stats here - http://www.webanswers.com/_ybb84tndu