It has been many years since Sea World Orlando was in the business of caring for sick or injured dolphins or small whales from the wild. With the outbreak of a deadly morbillivirus - a measles-like virus - in the Miami Aquarium, brought in by some sick pilot whales, which killed several of the aquarium's captive dolphins and other marine mammals, Sea World abruptly stopped the practice.
In the next few weeks, SeaWorld Orlando will open a new facility dedicated to the treatment of sick, injured, or stranded wild cetacea. The medical complex will be isolated from the main park and its exhibits, with its own tanks, water filtration systems, and even separate decontamination showers for employees. The main tank will contain 40,000 gallons with enough room to hold a 13-foot pilot whale.
Of SeaWorld's research and rehab efforts of various marine animals, Brad Andrews, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said, "This is what we do. [It] gives us an extremely interesting example of what's going on with the wild populations. They're like the canaries in the coal mine as they come up on shore."
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, about an average of 51 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are stranded on Florida shores, analyzed from eight years worth of recent data. Of that number, about a third of them were sent to rehab facilities.
Marine amusement parks like SeaWorld have been criticized by many pro-cetacean activists for the treatment of dolphins and whales in captivity. These are open ocean animals that utilize echo-location and various long-distance sounds as a form of communication and hunting. It is said that the tanks provided by marine amusements parks can not possibly provide enough room to ensure that the animals have a healthy, mentally-stimulating environment.
While that is an argument that has merit (and I am one that basically sides with that position), organizations like SeaWorld have also spent millions of dollars on research and rehab. So, it presents a bit of dilemma as it is the revenue from their entertainment activities that supports efforts like the new medical complex.
Critics believe SeaWorld's new facility is simply a politically-correct way to acquire new captive animals: nursing a sick or injured animal back to health and then transferring it to permanent captive status. SeaWorld has not acquired any new animals from the wild since the late 1970s. And of the 200 cetaceans held throughout the entire company's string of parks, only 5 were sick or injured animals rescued from the wild.
In response to critics, Andrews said, "The goal here is to take care of the animal, treat the animal and let it go." To be sure, there will be many who will be watching whether SeaWorld sticks to that strategy. If they do, it will be welcomed indeed - and captive dolphins and whales will be a separate argument to be debated.
Read about the new facility in the Orlando Sentinel.