SeaWorld has been safely caring for killer whales for nearly 50 years. We are a global leader in the care, behavior and enrichment of this species and are accredited by the world’s foremost professional zoological organizations. Including our whales overseas, we provide for the health and well-being of the largest killer whale population in a zoological organization worldwide: 29 animals. These killer whales are healthy and well adapted to their surroundings, a fact that is evident to us through our constant care, interaction and observation 24 hours per day. We apply a broad range of best practices in behavioral training, environmental enrichment, preventive health, veterinary medicine and facilities design and management.
All animals at SeaWorld live in safe, sophisticated habitats, receive world-class care and are continually engaged socially, mentally and physically. More than 1,500 zoological team members are committed to the care of all of the animals in our facilities, and assuring their health and well-being is a responsibility these skilled professionals take extremely seriously.
Learn about the care of our killer whales including:
Safe and Sophisticated Habitats
Killer whale health starts with a safe, state-of-the-art habitat and a day filled with enriching activity. Our zoological habitats are among the largest in the world today. They are multi-million-gallon environments of continually chilled and filtered saltwater. The killer whale habitat at SeaWorld Orlando, for example, encompasses more than 6 million gallons. We also have a dedicated team of water quality experts on call 24/7 to monitor this advanced system and ensure all water quality conditions meet or exceed federal standards.
The design of these facilities allows for the highest standards of caring for our animals safely. We invest millions of dollars in habitat maintenance and improvement and, in the last three years alone, have invested $70 million in our killer whale habitats.
And, living in these habitats, our whales show every sign of physical fitness including healthy weight, muscle tone, respiratory efficiency, strength and heart rate. While our whales do not live the same lifestyle as their wild counterparts, this difference does not translate to negative welfare of these animals. For example, the health of a killer whale is not solely dependent on long-range swimming; wild whales must do this to search for food and new foraging grounds. Our trainers work with our whales and closely monitor and/or provide their food, exercise and other environmental enrichment activities.
Also, the animals at SeaWorld do not face many of the challenges of wild animals. They are not subject to hunger or pollution. If they’re ill or injured, they receive veterinary care.
We have learned a great deal about whales over the past five decades, including what measures of daily care ensure their optimum health. We provide our animals with restaurant-quality fish, exercise, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species. Their environment also is continually changed to include a wide variety of positive reinforcements and enrichment activities that keep them healthy and engaged physically, mentally and socially.
Our SeaWorld trainers interact with each killer whale, every day. Their contact and the personal relationship it nourishes enable the training staff to become intimately familiar with each animal’s unique behavioral profile and to notice even the slightest differences in behavior that might indicate anything unusual.
Another key component of keeping our killer whales healthy is proactive monitoring of their health as an aspect of preventative care, including blood tests and physical exams. Animals at SeaWorld have a more comprehensive preventive medicine program than most humans. Rather than just a yearly physical, the whales at SeaWorld receive complete health assessments every month.
To make this possible with minimal discomfort – and safety for the staff – the animals have been trained to cooperate in their own care. To illustrate this with a familiar animal, imagine a pet that is trained to walk into the veterinarian’s office and, voluntarily, place its paw on the table for the doctor to draw blood. Our killer whales do the equivalent of this, voluntarily positioning their tails so that veterinarians can collect a sample. This is the direct result of our trainers and veterinarians collaborating together and working with the whales all day, every day. To see the results, and watch killer whales calmly participating in exams and blood tests, watch this video.
Behavioral Enrichment and Training
Our entire program is grounded in the philosophy of positive reinforcement and compassionate care. When training the whales, SeaWorld uses a variety of positive reinforcements, and what is positive for a whale can vary from day to day, and whale to whale. For instance, some whales prefer a massage or toy, some prefer a big salmon. The essence of animal training is to continually vary the reinforcement to keep the animal engaged.
Animals are never punished, and their overall diet is never dependent on their behavioral performance.
We recognize that these animals have evolved complex behavioral capacities and problem-solving strategies to succeed in the ocean, and we are committed to caring for their behavioral health as well as the physical. Our trainers work closely with our veterinarians and other team members to provide a holistic behavioral program that focuses on health, exercise and mental challenges.
For example, the behavioral health program of a killer whale at SeaWorld would include training to participate in husbandry and veterinary care; exercise in the form of high jumps, fast swims, and other high-energy behaviors both in and out of shows; social interactions with other killer whales and interaction with multiple enrichment objects that challenge the animals to manipulate their environment and solve problems individually and in groups.