Featured Image Credit: Minette Layne via Wikipedia
By Lindsay Edgar
When SeaWorld made the jaw-dropping announcement that they would phase out their orca shows, many people wondered what would happen to the large whales that called the park their home. Would they be released into the wild?
Since the announcement, animal welfare groups have drawn up several proposals that the captive whales be released with the help of sea pens. These enclosures are built on the fringes of marine habitats and are designed to give the animal inside a gradual adjustment to a natural setting. A sea pen’s barrier is made of strong netting which allows the marine water and small native species to flow freely through it. Sounds ideal, right?
However, every plan has its flaws. There are considerable downsides to sea pens. If you think about it, the orcas from SeaWorld have spent their lives within the protective, sterile walls of their enclosures. Though arguably “unnatural”, that is the environment their immune systems have adjusted to. If rapidly transferred to coastal waters, they are exposed to poor water quality and significant pollutants. Our oceans today are not entirely clean, and the netting won’t keep out any trash that happens to float by.
Keiko, the whale famous for being the inspiration for the film “Free Willy”, was an example of how sea pens can mean certain death. He was kept in an ocean enclosure and eventually died from exposure to pathogens. In this case, his history of care in captivity was too significant to overcome the stressful conditions in the wild. While they might seem like a reasonable choice for introducing animals to the world outside their enclosures, sea pens are not all they’re cracked up to be.
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