Disturbing truth about aerial image of popular tourist destination

Michael Dahlstrom
·News and Video Producer
·4-min read

Struck by an image showing the massive size difference between SeaWorld’s carpark and the tanks used to house orcas, many have been compelled to question whether it’s actually real.

Despite first going viral more than five years ago, the bird’s eye view of the Orlando park continues to turn heads every time it's posted online.

A similar image of the San Diego park also went viral.

What shocks people about the photograph is how much more room cars are given than the park's star attractions. It simply seems unbelievable to many internet users.

Male orcas weigh up to 5500 kilograms and swim more than 150 kilometres a day in the wild, diving to depths of more than 1000 metres.

However the deepest orca tank in the world is less than 20 metres deep.

A red circle around the blue tanks where orcas live at SeaWorld San Diego compared to the carpark, highlighted in the photo, which dwarfs their home.
SeaWorld San Diego's carpark highlighted at the bottom of the image dwarfs the tiny blue tanks circled above. Source: Google Earth

World-renowned cetacean expert Dr Ingrid Visser has visited the Orlando park and having witnessed the impact of orca confinement firsthand, she is an opponent of their captivity.

"Having personally seen how small these tanks are, and knowing the orca can only swim a few body lengths in a straight line, it makes it all that more graphic when you see this sort of a picture," she said.

"With so many people having gone through lockdown, imagine what it's like for these animals to be locked in a blue concrete box for decades.

"They've done nothing wrong other than looking beautiful."

'It angered me': Post viewed millions of times

Almost every time the picture is posted online it creates a splash and sometimes a new surprising detail is added.

In 2019, The Orca Project added a comparison to SeaWorld Orlando's lake for human recreation activities, noting it was also many times larger than the orca tanks.

A Google Earth image of SeaWorld Orlando with the orca attraction highlight with a red circle. On the left of the image is the much larger carpark.
An aerial view of SeaWorld Orlando with the Orca Encounter attraction circled. The carpark is the grey area on the left. Source: Google Earth

Speaking from Florida, the advocacy group's CEO Colleen Gorman told Yahoo News Australia her post had been viewed 125 million times, attracted 16,000 comments and 93,000 reactions.

“People were outraged when they saw the images,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“It just went really viral, it consumed me for a few months.

“Some people said, it’s not true, but they just need to look at Google Maps or Google Earth and they can see it’s for real.”

Orcas seen in a pool at a theme park as crowds watch on.
Orcas continue to be kept in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando. Source: Getty Images

Diane Fraleigh shared the image to the Boycott Sea World Facebook page, but she wasn’t surprised by the public reaction because, despite being a veteran campaigner, the picture shocked her too.

“It angered me. It gives you a perspective of how these animals are treated,” she said.

“Even if the the tanks were the size of the parking lot, they still wouldn’t be big enough.

“Of course they wouldn’t get the rhythms of the ocean or the enrichment of the vegetation either.”

Normally calm animals seen to be aggressive in captivity

While orcas can live for 80 years in the wild, their lifespan in captivity is on average less than half that.

Dr Visser puts this high mortality down to stress, diet, disease and not being able to swim properly when confined.

Captivity has been linked to increased mental health concerns with orcas, and while orca aggression towards humans is rare in the wild, it has been experienced firsthand at SeaWorld Orlando with fatal consequences.

Wild orcas, pictured in a stock image, can reach depths of more than 1000 metres.
Wild orcas can reach depths of more than 1000 metres, however the world's largest tank is less than 20 metres deep. Source: Getty

The plight of their orcas was highlighted by the 2013 documentary Blackfish which examined the deaths of three people inside a pool housing a large male named Tilikum.

Captured from the wild in 1983 when he was just two years old, the documentary examined how the stress of his confinement contributed to his aggressive behaviour.

Tilikum was used by the park to sire 21 calves, close to half the orcas born at SeaWorld, however at least 10 of them have died in captivity.

Amid ongoing controversy about captive orcas, the company announced in 2019 they would end captive breeding.

Despite the public announcement, the company divested themselves of a population of animals they owned in Spain and breeding continues there.

SeaWorld has five orcas in captivity at Orlando, and the company continues to breed beluga whales and dolphins for shows to entertain tourists who visit the park.

Yahoo News Australia has contacted SeaWorld for comment.

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