Dr. Ingrid Visser, a New Zealand-based marine mammal scientist, has requested SeaWorld's Research Department to immediately address the use of distorted statistics from a study paper she published in 1998.
Visser is hoping the marine park will act ahead of next week's planned meeting in Miami with the Virgin Group. She and other cetacean specialists are meeting with Virgin to assess the impact to dolphins, porpoises and whales (cetaceans) held in captivity. The unprecedented sit-down was organized by Sir Richard Branson, following criticism of Virgin Holidays' travel packages to SeaWorld.
Visser will be accompanied to the meeting by Dr. Naomi Rose, the Animal Welfare Institute's
senior marine mammal scientist, plus cetacean advocacy groups, Whale and Dolphin Conservation
and World Cetacean Alliance
Visser told Digital Journal that two of the topics planned for discussion are "research" and "education" in the context of cetaceans in captivity. As a scientist at the leading edge of studies into native New Zealand orca populations through the Orca Research Trust
, Visser is disturbed that some of this research is being heavily misconstrued by the SeaWorld website, ‘The Truth About Blackfish
The study in question
was conducted in 1998 when Visser described dorsal fin abnormalities in a small population of New Zealand orcas. The study involved 125 orca — of which seven (of 30 adult males) had some sort of dorsal fin abnormality, but only one of those had a collapsed fin. In short, only one of 125 — 0.8 percent — had a collapsed fin.
Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer featured in the documentary, Blackfish, said in the film that “dorsal fin collapse happens in less than 1 percent of wild killer whales. We know this!” Ventre's statement of fact is based on the literature, personal conversations with Visser and other scientists, and his own field experiences with Orca Survey in 1996.
Astonishingly, in their rebuttal
to Ventre’s statement, SeaWorld used Visser's statistics on NZ orca and applied it to completely different pods of killer whales – J, K and L-pods, collectively known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. “Nearly one-quarter of adult male southern resident killer whales in the wild have collapsing, collapsed or bent dorsal fins,” SeaWorld wrote, citing Visser's paper beneath their statement.
“Firstly, my cited paper is about New Zealand orca, not a population found off the west coast of North America,” Visser said. “Any orca biologist worth their salt would know that.” In fact, of around 30 animals, only one male orca in the NZ pod was noted to have this problem. “All the other orca recorded in the paper,” she added, “had bent (or twisted) or partially collapsing fins, not collapsed.”
SeaWorld's rebuttal also neglected to include any other research. “Since I published that paper in 1998, there have been other papers which discuss dorsal fin disfigurement in wild (and captive) orca, but these are not mentioned, thereby failing to present relevant and more current data as well,” said Visser.
The scientist believes that if SeaWorld had mentioned two other existing 2005 papers – Baird and Gorgone’s paper on Pseudorcas, and Guerrero’s paper on orca distribution between Peru and Mexico, Ventre’s comments would have been put into context. Inadvertently, the findings would also support his statement that less than 1% of orca dorsal fins in the wild are collapsed.
Ventre tackled SeaWorld's rebuttal himself, by producing this video on YouTube.
“Here's the trick SeaWorld uses:
Seven out of 30 is 23 percent. So SeaWorld tells the public that dorsal collapse is "normal" because it happens in 23 percent of wild orcas. This is completely misleading. Dr. Visser was referring to fin abnormalities in a small group of NZ adult males. Lastly, her study also recorded 174 Norwegian orcas, and only ONE MALE had an abnormality. (0.57%) For whatever reason, including conspecific aggression, New Zealand orcas have more abnormal fins (with bends & twists) than other populations. For clarity, these waves & bends are not the same as a collapsed fin as seen in 100% of all male captives.
Samantha Berg, another former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member said, “this was a perfect example of how SeaWorld resorts to subterfuge and misinformation when disseminating information to the public. Dr. Visser stepped forward as an independent scientist and told the public her research was misrepresented and she corroborated that a former SeaWorld trainer in Blackfish presented it correctly. That SeaWorld tried to discredit the ex trainer after the fact, is even more damning, particularly as Ingrid has attempted to get SeaWorld to set the record straight.”
Ventre said that SeaWorld has been spreading misinformation on dorsal fin collapse for decades, “because it's the most noticeable acquired deformity caused by orca confinement.” He added that he was pleased Dr Visser was speaking out about, “SeaWorld's unethical misuse of her science to trick customers into believing that collapse is "normal," – because its not,” he said. Ventre referred to this video in which Dave Ellifrit and Dr Astrid Van Ginneken also address the 1 percent number.
In an upcoming peer-reviewed paper, Drs. John Jett and Ventre will be discussing dorsal fin collapse in depth, and will establish it as pathological. “Our research will describe how collapse is almost always anthropogenic. That is, collapse is caused by human activity, whether in the wild or in captivity,” Ventre explained. “In short, dorsal fin collapse is a pathological condition caused by captivity. It is seen in less than one percent of wild animals, and the rare wild orca with a collapsed fin, very likely acquired it from humans,” he said. “These causes are net entanglements, propeller strikes, gun shot wounds, exposure to oil spills, and others.”
As a member of the Society for Conservation Biology, Visser is not taking SeaWorld’s misuse of her data lightly. She has asked Dr. Judy St. Leger, SeaWorld's Director of Research, to correct the erroneous information on two separate occasions. Visser cited the Society's Code of Ethics
— of which point nine encourages members to, “attempt to correct misrepresentation of their research by others.”
“I hope, that as a scientist yourself and as the Director of Research at SeaWorld,” Visser wrote in an e-mail to St. Leger dated May 15, “you can see how wrong this misrepresentation is – not only to inform the public by distorting the facts but also misrepresenting the data by not presenting it in context.”
Ventre is appreciative that Visser is reinforcing his statement of fact made in the documentary, Blackfish
. “If the public knows that collapse is caused by captivity, they're less likely to buy a ticket,” he said. “SeaWorld has a vested financial interest in keeping people confused on this issue.”
Berg added that dorsal fin collapse is one of the "smoking guns" of the captivity debate (along with broken teeth) — it is indisputable proof that killer whales do not thrive in captivity, and it's in plain sight in all of the SeaWorld parks for the public to question.
"A legitimate scientific and/or research institution would be transparent and honest with the public, seeking only to share the established facts about dorsal fin collapse,” Berg explained. “When I worked at Shamu stadium, the most common question from park guests was 'why is that whale's fin flopped over?' Given that the public clearly wants to know the truth, SeaWorld doesn't bother to include information in their shows or even one single sign around any of their stadiums detailing the current facts about dorsal fin collapse. Even more frustrating is this recent video from SeaWorld Orlando which shows a staff member attempting to blame the sad state of Tilikum's dorsal fin on his genetics rather than his circumstances.”
Visser said that St. Leger has yet to respond to requests for corrections, despite a second inquiry sent as a follow-up. The scientist has put SeaWorld on notice by alerting the Society to SeaWorld's distortions. She is requesting an official response from the marine park's research department. “This meeting in Miami includes the topics of education and research,” Visser said, “yet here we have a clear example of SeaWorld doing miseducation and research distortion.”