Evan Woodall, a locally born and raised Hawaiian fisherman, can still remember the awe he felt as he watched the dolphin show at Sea Life Park Hawaii over two decades ago.

In 2019, Woodall wanted to give his three young cousins the same experience. However, when the day at Sea Life Park was over, Woodall’s opinion had drastically changed.

“I’m never going back,” Woodall said.

As an adult, Woodall, 32, said he now understands the harm of captivity. The worst, he said, was seeing the tank holding moi, or Pacific threadfin.

“They had done a pretty good job of imitating the fish’s natural environment,” he said. “But all the beautiful moi, the fish most revered by the Hawaiians as the fish of the kings, were all quite noticeably sick.”

Woodall is not the only one who believes facilities like Sea Life Park, tucked between the Makapuu coastline and the Koolau mountains, should empty the tanks and call it quits. The captive animals are prone to disease, and suffer being cut off from the wild, critics and conservationists say.

Perhaps most troubling of all, figures suggest that the animals at Sea Life Park die at a higher rate than at a number of comparable facilities. And while other marine animal parks have phased out dolphin shows, Sea Life Park still has them.

Sea Life Park Aloha Naia Dolphin Show.
While dolphin shows continue at Sea Life Park, other parks around the country are ending marine animal exhibition shows. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

“People started recognizing that bears riding tricycles and chimpanzees performing on the high wire weren’t sending the right message,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “That’s just not done anymore with terrestrial animals. But for some reason, it’s still OK to do with dolphins and sea lions and whales.” 

Some advocates say there is still a role for marine animal parks – mainly for research, but also to educate the public and familiarize people with the challenges the animals face.

Recently, the park has made improvements. Now, in the third year of a “five to six year, roughly $30-million redevelopment,” it’s negotiating an at times controversial past, and changes in the industry to attempt to cement a future role.

“Without the animals in captivity helping us to understand their physiology and anatomy, the world of marine mammal research would be set back entirely,” Shanen Cox, a former dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park and SeaWorld San Diego, said. “The information and advances gained from studying captive animals is priceless — and that’s why they’re often referred to as ambassadors of their wild counterparts.”

A ‘Terrible’ Track Record For Deaths?

Captive display facilities, such as Sea Life Park and SeaWorld San Diego, are required to report all marine mammal births, deaths and acquisitions to the National Marine Fisheries Service, within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA then compiles this data into the Marine Mammal Inventory Report. 

 

 

According to the most recent report, Sea Life Park has surpassed its California counterpart in two dubious areas: the number of cetacean deaths and the number of marine mammal deaths overall.

The report documents 127 cetacean deaths at Sea Life Park since the park’s opening in 1964. However, Keiko Conservation, in collaboration with the Dolphin Project, conducted their own tally of cetacean deaths and found 144

dolphin project deaths sea life park
The Dolphin Project and Keiko Conservation tally of deaths at Sea Life Park Hawaii. Courtesy: The Dolphin Project

Total deaths for all marine mammals that have been at Sea Life Park (including California sea lions, Steller sea lions, Hawaiian monk seals, and harbor seals) add up to 237, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory report. That’s 34 more than the total deaths at SeaWorld San Diego, which currently has four times the number of marine mammals on a campus that’s more than eight times larger than Sea Life Park and has been open for the same number of years. 

As another point of comparison, Miami Seaquarium in Florida which was once owned by the same parent company, Palace Entertainmentopened nine years before Sea Life Park, in 1955. 

Both Sea Life Park and Miami Seaquarium offer dolphin-interaction programs. Since opening, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, there have been 89 cetacean deaths, with a total of 180 marine mammal deaths at Miami Seaquarium. Currently, Miami Seaquarium has double the number of marine mammals, but in terms of raw numbers, even with almost a decade longer in the business, it has 30% fewer cetacean deaths and 24% fewer marine mammal deaths overall.

Nick Paradise, director of corporate communications at Palace Entertainment, failed to respond to requests for comment.

Sea Life Park Dolphin Lagoon
A high rate of deaths of certain marine mammals including dolphins as well as the treatment of other animals at Sea Life Park have some advocates asking whether such exhibits should still exist. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Heather Rally, a senior veterinarian at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said although Sea Life Park is much smaller with fewer physical and financial resources than SeaWorld San Diego, the numbers “make it clear that Sea Life Park is an outlier in an industry that already has a terrible track-record for animal deaths.” 

Current Sea Life Park curator Jeff Pawloski, who has worked at the park for 18 years, believes that the disparity may be explained, at least in part, because the park used to rescue animals.

“Back in the old days, we would accept stranded animals, animals that washed up on the beach that are on the verge of dying, a couple hours or a couple days later,” he said. “That goes on your inventory sheet. We don’t do that any longer because we see the risk that it causes for the animals that are here in the collection.”

Abuse Allegations And Fish Ailments

In the 1990s, KGMB 9, now known as Hawaii News Now, interviewed former Sea Life Park employees about the then-park curator, Marlee Breese. They alleged she abused the animals, depriving them of food and at one time hitting a dolphin with a pole.

Breese Allegations Sea Life Park
Page 1 of 5 in a summary of allegations against former Sea Life Park curator, Marlee Breese. Courtesy: The Dolphin Project

Breese denied the allegations and declined an interview for this story. During her time there, Sea Life Park was fined and cited on several occasions, including for the stranding of two false killer whales, causing a sea lion to become overheated and die and leaving a dolphin in less than two feet of water.

But Breese has her defenders.

“I worked with Marlee,” Pawloski said. “I worked for Marlee. We did all sorts of things together, and I didn’t witness anything that would make me question her integrity. She’s dedicated her entire career to caring for animals.”

Breese parted with Sea Life Park in 1997.

Concerns about the health of the fish at Sea Life Park also have been raised since the early 1990s.

In 1993, former park curator Steve Kaiser told KGMB 9 that fish missing fins or pieces of their tails might have been attacked by predators. Kaiser also said that some of the fish may have suffered from nutritional deficiencies, causing necrosis of the tissue around their faces and down their lateral line.

A Sea Life Park spokeswoman said the park has “put a pause” on acquiring more fish until issues with the fish it has now can be resolved. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Lora Lamm, a former Sea Life Park employee, who appears in the same interview, told Civil Beat that the problems with the fish could have been fixed.

“The big reef tank we were working in wasn’t being maintained properly,” Lamm said. “So many fish had diseases and things that could have been rectified with a little more care and knowledge.”

Civil Beat sent recent photos of fish at the park to Susan Wright, Sea Life Park’s creative services director. She replied via email that “the issue is lateral line disease,” also known as head and lateral line erosion disease.

Wright added that “the disease has its complexities and debate over causes and cure, though with the right adjustments in place, often the condition can completely reverse itself. The park is actively addressing this situation and has put a pause on adding additional fish until the issue is resolved.”

Rally, who visited the park in 2015, said conditions of the fish were virtually identical back then.”

She wrote that these symptoms can be the result of either lateral line erosion disease, trauma to the fins, or bacterial or fungal infection. She linked the issues to physical and environmental stress such as poor water quality or abrupt temperature changes.

Sea Life Park recently volunteered to take part in a survey of national aquariums on the disease, Wright said, to provide further insights into the disease and possible solutions.

Wright also said that while some species tend to be more susceptible to the disease, the park has not experienced increased mortality across any of its fish populations and it is a common problem faced by aquariums and within the aquatics community.

Cetaceans Purchased Without A Permit

In 2015, the park found itself enmeshed in another controversy when it bought Kina, a false killer whale, as well as Boris and BJ, a pair of bottlenose dolphins, from the University of Hawaii when researchers there were no longer able to pay for their care

Kina had been captured in a Japanese drive fishery, in which fishermen make loud noises to interrupt cetacean communications to force them toward shore or into a bay. The three were auctioned off to the highest bidder and Sea Life Park won, but did so without a permit

Approval for the sale was retroactively granted almost eight months later, after Catherine Goeggel, one of the founders of Animal Rights Hawaii, alerted the state Department of Agriculture of irregularities in the transfer.

After she was sold to Sea Life Park, the false killer whale Kina spent the rest of her days in a tank “backstage,” as Sea Life Park characterized it, mostly in solitude, before her death in October 2019 at about 44 years old.

Kina, a pseudorca, was sold to Sea Life Park in 2015. UH Manoa/Stephane Brussard

“We had her there for the purpose of, one, transitioning her, getting her to adapt, and then most importantly was (that) we would allow many school groups and VIPs to come and see Kina at no charge, and it’s a wonderful learning experience,” Pawloski said. 

Citations And Building Concerns

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Sea Life Park for not providing ample shade for the animals.

“Direct sunlight can be uncomfortable for the animals and adversely affect their health,” the inspector stated in the report.

Pawloski said the USDA guidelines are somewhat vague and that, in any case, all the exhibits now include more shade and staff has been trained to always keep it in mind when working with the animals. He also added that the park administers eye drops to any mammals affected with eye conditions. 

Rose sees this is an example of what’s wrong with marine animal parks. “If you have to medicate your animals to treat problems caused by something that’s inherent to captivity, then something is wrong with captivity,” she said.

In 2018, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced an investigation of safety violations at the park, and the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division fined the park $130,000 for multiple safety violations

Sea Life Park has also been cited by the USDA for various marine mammal enclosures having “one or more of the following problems: corrosion, rust, stains, paint that was coming off, or surfaces that had deteriorated.”

Sea Life Park has spent millions of dollars on building improvements. But some issues, like rust near tanks, persist. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Rally, the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ veterinarian said, “Deteriorating environments where particles of their (the animals’) tank are coming off and may be ingested by these animals, who are already predisposed to gastrointestinal issues, are of legitimate concern to me as a veterinary professional.”

A Changing Industry

Concerns about the welfare of marine mammals has caused a shift in the industry. World Animal Protection, a global animal-welfare organization, has documented 355 publicly accessible facilities across 58 countries that contain a total of 3,606 cetaceans, including the 20 who live at Sea Life Park in Hawaii.

Across the globe, aquariums are ending live performances or just choosing not to keep animals in captivity.

In 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to phase out its orca shows at its facility in California. A year later, the park put an end to breeding orcas. In 2020, the park also stopped trainers from riding dolphins during shows.

In 2016, Baltimore’s National Aquarium announced that it would be retiring eight captive dolphins, who had not performed in a show since 2012.

In 2002, the Maui County Council voted unanimously to ban the display of captive cetaceans on Maui. Though this has not yet happened on Oahu, where Sea Life Park is located, thousands of individuals have signed their names to a petition to do so.

Makapuu Sea Life Park aerial.
Sea Life Park in Waimanalo — picturesquely placed in between the Makapuu coastline and the Koolau mountains. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

“It’s well past time the park transitioned to a legitimate wildlife center and started aiding Hawaii’s local cetaceans instead of exploiting their surviving captives,” said Natalie Parra, founder of Keiko Conservation and a member of Dolphin Project.

But is there still a legitimate role for a marine animal park?

One obvious function is as a home for animals that know nothing besides captivity and would perish in the wild.

Shanen Cox, for one, firmly believes in the benefits of cetaceans in captivity. Cox worked as a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park from 2005 to 2010, then went on to work as a trainer at SeaWorld San Diego, and as a marine mammal hormone scientist with NOAA. She now studies wild dolphins as a research assistant at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

“The animals that are there now were either born in captivity or were captured long ago,” she said. “They would be sentenced to certain death if they were released. Their immune systems are not built against the many diseases found in the wild.”

Others, like Rose, acknowledge the need to provide a home for the current population, but argue that should be it.

“I feel very strongly that the current population of cetaceans in facilities should be the last generation in captivity,” Rose said. “Future research subjects will be animals that can’t be released back into the wild after they strand and so on. Marine mammals cope in captivity. They cannot thrive.”

But do these facilities offer an opportunity for research that could not be done in the wild?

Andrew Trites, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and the director of the marine mammal research unit, believes they provide important answers to questions such as cetacean competition with fish for food and the effects of underwater noise.

“You can’t answer any of those questions simply by being in a boat and using binoculars to watch them,” Trites said. “I think at least half of all we know about marine mammals has come from studying them under controlled conditions, which means in captivity.”

Rally said that research conducted on captive cetaceans is of minimal relevance to the biology of wild ones.

“Those animals are a shadow of their true selves, because they’re confined to an artificial environment,” she said.

Park officials argue that animals live longer in captivity, a point debated by animal rights activists. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

New Initiatives And Improvements

“I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t have a memory of Sea Life Park,” curator Pawloski said. “I’m always blown away when I talk to people that come for whatever reason. We want to connect with our guests because we want to be able to make them aware of these animals.”

Those multigenerational fans include Phil Taylor, an avian specialist at the Army Natural Resources Program on Oahu, who took his daughter to the park every few months before the pandemic.

Taylor, who has lived on Oahu for 16 years, said his 6-year-old daughter enjoys the park’s jungle gym, the sea lion show and its penguins.

“We both really liked the aviary, because they give you these little sticks with the seed on, and you just hold it out and the birds come and land in your hand or on your shoulder,” he said. “Zoos and aquariums are what got me interested in my field of work, and what led me to my job.”

Hale Manu Bird Aviary Sea Life Park
Other than marine animals, Sea Life Park is also home to cockatiels and lovebirds, and is a seabird sanctuary. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Sea Life Park, which rehabilitates hundreds of injured native seabirds every year, is also advancing Hawaiian green sea turtle awareness and providing future generations with an appreciation for conservation, curator Pawloski said.

It’s cultivating limu species endemic to local waters, which help feed sea turtles in its honu conservation program.

In late April, the park also invited the public to Kaupo Beach Park, to witness the release of two honu from the park’s program.

Specialized facilities, such as Sea Life Park, are able to teach people about dolphins, Pawloski said, while the park itself continues to learn from their “dolphin ohana” to advance the care of wild dolphins.

“We’re infusing millions of dollars into enhancements and renovations for our animal habitats and facilities, and look forward to furthering these important conservation programs and outreach,” Pawloski said.

Kristi Layman, a former dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park, said the park has come a long way since it first opened, and that the animals get all that they need.

“Nobody understands the amount of work and love that goes into those animals,” Layman said. “They become like your family and you get to know everything about them. We try not to anthropomorphize them because we don’t know what they’re thinking, but it’s very obvious that they’re intelligent beings and that they have emotions.

“We do everything we can to provide them the best lives, and these animals that are born and raised in captivity don’t know anything different.”

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