A marine biologist from New Zealand claims to have witnessed a captive killer whale mother who was too depressed to feed her calf during a trip to SeaWorld in San Diego.
Dr. Ingrid Visser, a researcher specializing in orcas, was filmed at the amusement park with John Hargrove, a former orca trainer, reacting to the behaviors that the animals displayed in their tanks.
Visser and Hargrove's video comes just weeks after the California Coastal Commission approved a $100 million expansion to tanks at SeaWorld. The commission stipulated, however, that SeaWorld was no longer allowed to breed its captive orcas.
SeaWorld has come under fire in recent years, particularly after the release of the documentary "Blackfish" in 2013, over concerns about its treatment of killer whales.
The company's stock has been under pressure as a result. It defends its record at length.
Visser purported that a female killer whale, named Kasatka, had suffered bruises on her belly from a calf's repeated attempts to bump into her and initiate feeding.
"Imagine a crying baby needing something from the mother and the mother's so depressed, incapable of taking care of her calf," Hargrove said in the video.
Visser also noted that in captivity whales show stereotypic and abnormal repetitive behaviors that are not seen in the wild. They "have no outwardly obvious function," she said. "...for example, staring at a concrete wall."
"We just need better education, because you know most people they're not malicious," Vissar said in the video.
SeaWorld, however, says that the killer whale experts are mistaken. Aimee Jeansonne-Becka, communications director at SeaWorld, told CNBC that Visser and Hargrove had mistaken a 3-year-old orca named Makani for a calf. Jeansonne-Becka said that Makani is a fully weaned whale and eats about 65 pounds of fish per day.
Dr. Hendrik Nollens, a veterinarian at SeaWorld San Diego, told CNBC that it might be easy for an untrained eye to mistake a 3-year-old whale with one of just 10 months. "To the general public, I could see these two animals being confused. But, if you call yourself an whale expert, then you have to be able to tell the difference."
Nollens noted that the 10-month-old calf weighs about 800 pounds while the 3-year-old whale is almost three times that size.
The company also claims that Kasatka, the purported depressed whale who was getting nudged by a younger whale, is not bruised and is displaying normal behavior. He explained that some whales spend between 10 and 21 percent of their time resting, with rest periods lasting two hours on average.
SeaWorld posted a video on its YouTube channel on Thursday in response to Visser and Hargrove, reiterating that the pair had confused the two young whales and clarifying several behaviors displayed by the whales at the park.