SeaWorld Parks Killer Whale Survival Rate Ranks Near The Top

Jul 05, 2014 09:42 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

Since the controversial "Blackfish" documentary was released in 2013, SeaWorld Entertainment has been condemned by animal rights activists around the world over the condition of its killer whales.

Annual survival rates for some of the most common marine mammals, including killer whales, at SeaWorld's three parks, are actually near the top of all parks and aquariums in the U.S., based on analysis of five decades worth of data.

The average life expectancy for captive killer whales at all US parks was more than 27 years, the same as at SeaWorld, with a high estimate of 49 years and a low estimate of 19 years.

SeaWorld's killer whales had an average life expectancy of 46 years, when accounting for just orcas born in captivity.

SeaWorld's survival rates for California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins actually surpass estimates for those in the wild.

Captive bottlenose dolphins had an average life expectancy of almost 24 years, with a high estimate of 26 years and a low estimate of 22 years. Bottlenose dolphins at SeaWorld had an average life expectancy of almost 45 years, according to the study.

Captive California sea lions had an average life expectancy of 20 years. Those at SeaWorld had a life expectancy of more than 32 years.

Advances in medicine and training, which allows the park's medical staffs to perform fewer stressful or invasive procedures, are somewhat responsible for those successes, said SeaWorld officials, according to the Associated Press.

Just a few decades ago, an evaluation of a marine mammal at a SeaWorld park might have called for a pool to be drained for an X-ray or the animal to be restrained. Now, through behavioral training and promises of herring and salmon, the marine mammals at SeaWorld have learned to give breath blood samples, and urine on cue, according to analysis.

Dolphins are trained to keep their heads out of the water so endoscope can be passed into the stomach so that park officials can take a look. Samples are evaluated immediately thanks to an elaborate laboratory on SeaWorld grounds.

''We do a lot of self-critiquing of who is doing what, how,'' said Todd Robeck, vice president of reproductive research at SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., the largest US holder of marine mammals, according to AP. ''How are you handling food? How are you handling your moms and calves? What is the medical care?''

Killer whales born in captivity at SeaWorld parks have a survival rate equal to those in the wild, according to an analysis of data from the Federal Marine Mammal Inventory Report.

The survival rate of all SeaWorld orcas, like those captured in the oceans, is lower than estimates of those in the wild.

Though survival rates have improved, they don't speak to the quality of life the mammals have at SeaWorld parks.

Mammals younger than a year were not included in the analysis.

The average life expectancy for beluga whales was 19.5 years in captivity, compared to 24 years at SeaWorld parks, according to the analysis.

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