Orca Dorsal Fin Controvery – Experts vs. SeaWorld

It’s obvious that something is wrong, or at least different, when you see an orca with a 6ft. dorsal fin bent all the way over.  It’s also pretty well known, or so I thought, that this happens mainly with whales in captivity.  However, SeaWorld is still trying to pass this on as a “Genetic” issue, and not a captivity issue.

The video below is an in-depth explanation, or list of excuses, for the dorsal fin collapse according to SeaWorld’s Education Department.

She goes into great lengths to explain that the dorsal fin does not have any bone or muscle, and the whales have no control over the bend.  She goes on to explain that it is genetic, and Tili’s offspring also have collapsed dorsal fins.  (They are all in captivity too)  Other explanations she gave were that Tilikum’s dorsal fin has a smaller base, and that is a reason for the slump.  She also says that it could be due to injury from play, stating that if it happens when the whales are young the dorsal fin continues to grow that way.

My personal favorite tidbit was that each whale’s fin is different, like people’s hair.  Some are curly, some are straight.  The misconception is that it happens because of where they live.  That’s a stretch!

In the background, you can see a bored Tilikum floating at the surface with a bent dorsal fin.

I prefer to believe the opinion of the experts.  In an interview by David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, and filmed by Jeff Ventre, former whale trainer, Dr. Astrid van Ginneken gives her take on dorsal fin collapse.  Dr. Ginneken has studied wild orcas as a part of Orca Survey since 1987 and has been co-principal investigator since 1994.

She says that less than 1% of wild orcas have dorsal fin collapse.  Her 5 reasons for captive fin collapse are:

1.  Pattern swimming – swimming mainly in one direction going in circles

2.  Resting at the surface – gravity takes over

3.  Warmer water temperatures

4.  Lower hydration

5.  Genetics with lack of exercise

In another report by Wende Alexandra Evans on Flaccid Fin Syndrome, or FFS, found here:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/119426027/Flaccid-Fin-Sydrome-by-Wende-Alexandra-Evans, out of 26 expert responses, 20 of them list captivity as the main reason for the flop.  Other theories given were the fitness of the whales, injury, water pressure and temperature (both due to the lack of diving deep in captivity and heat breaking down collagen)

Here are a couple pictures by Jeff Ventre of other examples and explanations:



So, which description makes sense to you?


45 thoughts on “Orca Dorsal Fin Controvery – Experts vs. SeaWorld

  1. Thank you for this. It is so helpful to hear the explanations proffered by the aquarium industry, explanations that they likely give day-in-day-out when the cameras are not rolling – and to compare them with the explanations of marine scientists.

    Curly hair, indeed. NOAA, this is SeaWorld education. Now you know.

  2. I am sure its safe to say that whales in captivity have a higher chance of their dorsal fins flopping. But I’ve been to a seaworld and only two of their males have a curved fin the others are fine. Secondly why does it matter? Im not catching that, its clearly not an emotional state because that makes no sense. It doesn’t seem to effect their swimming. Also at this park the narration was not stating curly hair but that whales who spend time closer to the surface of the water have a more likely chance…maybe this video is poor narrating?

    • Hi John. I would be curious to the age of the males who had fins that were “fine” as you describe. My best guess is that they were young. Sadly, whales in captivity don’t live out their potential lifestyle. All who do live into their adult years do have some form of bend, if not total collapse. No it doesn’t effect their swimming because they are not swimming very far, going round and around in circles. In the wild, whales who show signs of collapse are usually in poor health. The narration states that dorsal fins are like hair, some are curly and some are straight. That is absolutely an incorrect analogy. Unfortunately those of us who have visited these type parks have gotten used to curved fins as the norm, but it is anything but normal.

      • It actually makes more sense that younger whales would have less rigidity in their fins as they tend to harden over time. But I doubt anyone asked these whales if that wanted to live in a fish tank and do 10 shows a day for the rest of their lives. Couldn’t be any worse if they raced whales and bet on them.

    • Thank you for bringing this up. Yes, I have read this paper. If you notice, she says that a certain percentage had abnormal dorsal fins, NOT collapsed. One one in her paper NZ100 (Slater) had a collapsed dorsal fin. He was also reported to be sluggish which could indicate poor health.
      ALL adult captive males have collapsed dorsal fins. At SeaWorld this is often passed off as genetics and they misuse Dr. Visser’s paper as their example. However not only are they misrepresenting what she is saying, but none of SeaWorld’s whales come from the New Zealand population.

      Thanks for asking

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  4. I just watched Black Fish tonight a CNN special. As a kid I watched Orky and Corky and was amazed to see these creatures up close at Sea World. I am sadden for several reasons. One of the whales I had watched as a child was brutally attacked and killed by other whales while in captivity. I understand this not to be a normal occurrence in the wild. The main reason I am drawn to tears is how the brutal capture of the free wild whale’s calves were separated from their families (where only the strongest survived) and the largest male Bull is used to reproduce captive young from profit. This is disturbingly similar to the times of slavery in America where families were torn apart and destroyed for the sake of profit. Will we ever learn as a people from our past mistakes. I am ashamed now to have lived in ignorance only choosing to view the Sea World show as a great performance and not take into consideration the lives of the whales and the hurt or killed trainers. Shame on me.

    • Blackfish has provided an excellent education for those who were not aware of what happens behind the scenes at SeaWorld. It is time for SeaWorld to change their business model. The best thing you can do is further education yourself and spread the word.
      I had a similar experience as you. The important thing is that we know better now and can help make a change.

    • Hi, Yes I watched this program too, twice, and moved to tears each time. No, nothing to be ashamed of as like me, at the time, we were just kids, putting our faith in adult’s hands. What would be a shame is if now that we know better, we did not come her to learn more and to speak out and to view this with disdain. Please do not be too hard on yourself. We are able to take action now by signing petitions and teaching our own children.

  5. I would like to ask a related question. My family and I recently visited a “swim with the dolphins” adventure, and the dolphin we were working with had all sorts of teeth marks and scars from other dolphins. We were told that it was normal “playful” behavior of dolphins which each other. But after doing some reading and watching “Blackfish”, I am wondering if dolphins play by biting each other in the wild, or is this aggression a consequence of captivity. Any insight?

  6. I saw blackfish and I didn’t see a problem with SeaWorld. I feel that if peope actually believe that these whales were gentle creatures that would never attack is just plain silly. What about the elephants in a circus? People are quick to condem a park when an animal acts like an animal. I support the efforts of SeaWorld to conserve and protect these beautiful creatures. I will be taking my children to SeaWorld.

    • Jaime the contradictions in your comment point out the problem. Killer whales have never attacked in the wild (although they have great potential to do so), yet there have been multiple attacks in captivity, many of which weren’t pointed out in Blackfish. I don’t think that elephants should be in circuses either. Again they attack humans due to their frustration with captivity.
      SeaWorld has done nothing to conserve or protect orcas. I applaud their rescue efforts for turtles and manatees, but the fact is orcas do not cope well with captivity and should not be held in concrete tanks for our entertainment.
      If you want to support conservation, take your children to see them in the wild.

    • J, it’s appropriate that you mention the circus, because that’s what SW is. Unlike elephants, wild killer whales have not been known to injure humans. Only in small spaces, where they’re deconditioned, sunburned, collapsed with broken teeth, do they lash out at humans. In regard to SeaWorld, its shameful how they lied to blame the trainer for her own death. One day, the sea circus will be closed, or at least not be in a position to treat majestic killer whales like dancing bears

    • Jaime since you mention elephants in the circus you might consider watching the documentary called “An Apology to Elephanrs.” You might find it interesting

    • S.Lee…I completely agree with you. I just watched Blackfish tonight and there’s noway that someone in their right mind would support Seaworld after watching it. Heck After watching Free Willy, I knew there was something wrong with the whole system and that was a long time ago. It really shouldn’t take a movie for humans to know that this is wrong.

  7. My two cents …
    I researched every reported attack by killer whales ever, been to sea killer whales in captivate a long time ago and truly I thought the killer whales were magical. I watched the CNN movie Blackfish as well and only a monster would not be moved by it, but here is the truth of the situation right now.
    I read that the whale from movie free Willy was released and they tracked it; it did not run off all happy and free as we hoped it would nor did it join a bunch of other killer whales. In fact it came back to the boat and to their fences lots of times. After a time it did go off, alone never joining another and he died alone like two years later.
    The whale that recently killed that trainer was ripped from its home; obviously it still remembered and was traumatized by the event and lashed out killing a total of three people. Just like a circus elephant that was captured lashes out and people say what happened?
    To release SW whales back into the wild would only bring them exile and then death. The only solution is to have the US government pass laws banning the use of whales in shows/ breeding them; and then release them to a very large controlled ocean area for the rest of their natural life. This will never happen I am sad to say Sea World will just spend millions paying off our government leaders so that it does not and the shows will go on to appease the masses, just like in ancient Rome…sigh….

    • I wonder if tests should be done on testosterone levels, there are studies done on the domestication of wolves and foxes and after generations and generation of captivity there tales and ears go limp and there testosterone drops not mention there brains shrink. The opposite occurs in pigs when released into the wild they gain a boost in testosterone increase muscle mass and the bones of its head shift and grow as well as grow coarse hair and tusks. Domestication seems to be a more gradual prolonged neutering.

      • I concur. I suspected something similar after watching Blackish. I thought of dogs and how they have tails up when proud, happy and healthy….

    • You must be referring to Keiko. Who was captured at the age of 3 and held in captivity for 20 years before efforts were made to return him to the wild.

      He spent 4 years learning how to be a wild orca before he was released, but how can you remove 24 years of human contact. He didn’t grow up with his wild pod and didn’t know how to be a wild orca. I remember they referred to him as like a Golden Retriever, always happy to come back for human contact. He died at the age of 27 in 2003.

      Like they talked about in the movies, all the captives came from different areas with different languages and experiences. The ones born in captivity must really be confused, and then to be ripped from their mothers as babies to be sold to another “zoo”.

      It didn’t take this movie for me know know that keeping any cetaceans in captivity is wrong. I have felt this way for over 30 years. Thanks to Washington State for banning wild captures.

    • I agree with what you say! I don’t understand why they can’t give the whales a better living situation at Sea World though! They make enough money to extend the living space and give each whale a better chance of happiness and survival! If you poke anything/anyone long enough it will react, why are people always so surprised? I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often honestly! Just last month there was a lion that got loose over here… Unless an animal is injured and cannot be released back into the wind after an accident I don’t see why we have them locked up! Everyone and every thing deserves freedom and love!

  8. I saw blackfish yesterday. It confirmed how I was feeling about SeaWorld and other waterparks that have whales & dolphins as slaves for our entertainment! It’s utterly cruel & sickening how these animals are treated!!!
    I feel sick to think my husband and Igave good money to these greedy people to swim with dolphins just 2yrs ago! Because of blackfish, I’m also boycotting zoo’s as well! If I want to see majestic creatures, I will plan a trip to the ocean or a safari where I can see them TRULEY happy & free as God intended them to be!!!!

  9. Humans are the most cruel invasive animal in this.planet. It is obvious that whales held captive suffer not only emotionally but physically. Why cant people understand wild animals are meant to.stay in yhe wild. I sure would love to see all the owners of sea world go to the wild to see if.they last a day put urselfs in the animals position to see if u dont suffer emotionally and physically. And then to pay a great deal of money to see how animals are being treated as.slaves. It is not the.animals fault to.be attacking humans because humans attack them every.day by keeping them captive. Wild animals wl ways.be wild

  10. I agree with as number of the previous posts!
    Whales in captivity aren’t as healthy and active as whales in the wild. Sea World has 100% of male Orca’s with floppy dorsal fins. In the wild there are LESS THAN 1%! They have to stay above water so much and swim the same small patterns for so long that their dorsal fins fall over. This isn’t fair or right! The whales are ripped from their pods (family) and are tossed into a swimming pool with complete strangers who don’t even speak the same language. They aren’t always accepted by their new “families” and are abused by other whales in this forced family! A few whales die just so one can be captured! If you want to capture healthy animals to parade around for people, why not release them back to their natural habitat, where they were kidnapped from, after 5 years or so? Give them a chance to have a good life! Like Blackfish demonstrated, why hold an animal of any size captive when it clearly doesn’t want to be there! Why deprive them of a good life? They did nothing wrong!

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  12. I have been whale watching one time, it was off the coast of Vancouver. We were lucky enough to see a pod of orcas (this one was J pod) and the largest orca in the group had a huge dorsal fin that was more slumped than those pictured. I seriously doubt that in 1 trip I managed to see something that happens in less than 1% of the wild orca population.

    • Hi Linda. This is interesting considering I just spent a week at SJI where I had multiple encounters with all 3 pods and didn’t see a single flopped over fin the entire time.
      When was your trip? Do you have a photo that could be IDed? Perhaps you saw a sick whale who has since passed away.

  13. I can’t help thinking that the dorsal fin collapse is one of the first visible signs to the other whales that this collpased-fin-one is in such a state of stress or failing health that it is not robust and therefore a good choice for a mate. In an artificial environment where artificial insemination is forced on the captive animals, that is meaningless, as is the lost of the symmetrical dynamic of the dorsal fin for deep diving and long sea voyages. But this is not the way an orca dorsal fin is supposed to look – it is a sign of an underlying cause. If it was a genetic mutation, then they’d have collapsed fins before capture, wouldn’t they? And if it was a genetic mutation that is not a sign of poor health of some sort, wouldn’t there be a far larger percentage of this appearing in the wild? If it looks awful to us; imagine what it looks like to the whales! Camel humps slump over in elderly and unhealthy camels; old and unheathy male lions have sparse manes, unhealthy deer produce malformed antlers; etc. Even though these elements of animals have different structures, functions and different biological means of failure, they share a similar physiological response in that supporting these are not part of preserving the basic life functions of a stressed body in decline, so the body elects to let go of these first (like for people in severe stress; we lose hair, then finger/toe nails, teeth, etc.), in order to use necessary energy and cellular support for vital organs.) I’m so sorry that Sea World and other aquatic “parks” can’t function primarily as preservation, research and education facilities, instead of entertainment venues. They are in a perfect position to educate, entertain and make money for themselves and for supporting conservation of the world’s oceans and seas all at the same time without capturing magnificent wild animals and shortening thier lives by turning them into sideshow performers.

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  15. I saw blackfish for first time, yes I understand seaworld and other marine parks to conserve and help the continuation of these majestic animals,but I do not understand why they have to hold these wild animals captive and teach them to he like a domesticated dog!!! They are wild, and should be left, out to live their lives in the wild. I have been to seaworld in Australia, and have seen the seal shows and dolphin shows, which now makes me wonder, it’s only all for money and “our satisfaction”. Yes it is beautiful to see a wild creature up close and to see it perform for us, but it’s a whole lot more better to see it out in the wild, in it’s natural habitat in it’s own ground or better still, by surprise, isn’t it? I know which one I would prefer!!! I do hope we humans come to the realization one-day very soon that these animals need to belong where they are meant to be, and we respect and look after theirs and our environment for this to continue fir as long as possible. From a very sad human, who hopes and prays it will change one day soon.

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  17. Let’s put Seaworld trainers in a 4×6 room while others “train” them and punish them until they “get it right” and see how lost and messed up they’d be after being let out 30 years later…I assure you they would be a mental and physical wreck! And they just may want to go back to the 4×6 room for “comfort”….after all, that’s what “they” became acustomed to….

    Ever heard of “Stockholm Syndrome”? Please look it up …it’s too involved to explain.

    All God’s creatures belong where they thrive the most… in the nurturing and thriving environment God put them in to begin with.

    May The Lord Bless You All,

    PS. Since it’s 2017, Seaworld is “phasing out” captive whales…this May will be the LAST circus with captured elephants, also.

  18. Yes, I honestly believe animals can suffer from the human studied/titled/explained “Stockholm Syndrome”…..let us just call it “Seaworld Syndrome”


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