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How Killer Whales are Exploited for Entertainment


Since the mid-1800s, marine mammals have been caught and imprisoned for entertainment. P. T.  Barnum displayed dolphins and belugas, and, in the late 1800s, the Brighton Aquarium in England displayed harbor porpoises. By the 1870s, whales and dolphins were being captured and sold to parks in the United States and Europe. Major circus acts, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, have phased out the use of wild animals for audience entertainment. Many marine theme parks have promised to no longer feature trainers in the tanks with orcas but have not yet done so. 

I founded Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 and have spent decades on the high seas conducting numerous anti-whaling campaigns to protect these and other magnificent sea mammals from slaughter. Since captivity itself is often a death sentence for orcas, Marine wildlife expert Tiffany Humphrey and I have written an exposè on this form of  “entertainment” in our book ORCAPEDIA: A Guide to the Victims of the International Orca Slave Trade. 

About Orcas

orca

Kiska with drilled/worn teeth, Marineland Canada
Photo by Tiffany Humphrey

Let’s first meet Orcinus orca, more commonly referred to as killer whales but also known as blackfish and grampus, the largest members of the family Delphinidae. There are only around fifty thousand killer whales in existence at this time, and while the Southern Resident orcas are on the endangered species list, all killer whale species are at risk. They have no predators, and, within ecotypes, their diets may include fish, birds, cephalopods, elasmobranchs, and marine mammals, such as other whales, porpoises, and sea otters. Although orcas are deadly to other aquatic wildlife, no human deaths have been attributed to orcas in the wild and they very rarely attack, even when their young are being taken away from them. 

The orca’s dorsal fin acts like a keel on a sailboat and offers stability. Orcas can be identified by their saddle patches, the light area behind the dorsal fin, which can be compared to a human fingerprint in that no two are alike. Different pods have unique dialects, further differentiating orca ecotypes. Orca sightings are common among the coasts of Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Canada,  Europe, Galapagos, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United States. 

There are over 60 orcas in captivity today

orca performing

KshamenkMundo Marino
Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd 

Keiko was the male orca who portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy. An international movement finally led to his release in 2002. Shamu was a nine-year-old orca at SeaWorld San Diego that was infamous for bucking off the secretary of SeaWorld, Annette Eckis, and grabbing hold of her leg, which resulted in Ms. Eckis needing over one hundred stitches to close her wound. Shamu died later that year,  and SeaWorld trademarked her name, bestowing it upon various orcas at different park facilities and designating September 26 as National Shamu Day. Fast forward to 2020 and there are now close to sixty orcas in captivity.

Lolita is a member of the Southern Resident Orca population which was placed on the endangered list in 2015 by the National Marine Fisheries Service. She was captured in Penn Cove, WA at age four years old. She was part of a roundup that occurred in August 1970, when eighty orcas were caught in a large purse seine net and seven were chosen for parks. Only one from that capture remains in captivity today and that is Lolita who resides at the Miami Seaquarium. Even though she is twenty feet long and weighs 7,500 pounds, her tank is the smallest in North America. She lives alone in this small tank and is one of the oldest orcas in captivity.

Katina, Makaio, Inouk, Kamea, Sakari, and Nakai are among the inmates that do not have a movie to help them get released. ORCAPEDIA features them all and shares facts about their genealogy; their date of birth or the age they were when captured; their size, weight, and height; and any behavioral issues they may have, with the hope that these individual stories will inspire a call to action. These are the survivors. Over 144 orcas have died in captivity.

How orcas suffer in captivity

performing orca

Keto, Loro Parque, Stand-on Spy Hop
Photo by Tiffany Humphrey  

A comprised life

  • Certain characteristics, such as their size, eating and mating habits, and pod dialects and structures, work against orcas in confinement. 
  • A female normally will have three to five calves during her lifetime. In captivity, she will be forced to breed every few years through artificial insemination, often with sperm from orcas that have a dialect that they would never encounter in the wild. 
  • Orcas have well-developed ears and use echolocation to find their prey. But because the containment tanks have concrete walls, the animals are bombarded with unrelenting reverberations from loud music, cheering crowds, construction work, and people banging on the glass view windows. 
  • Orca calves are not born with a full repertoire of sounds; instead, their dialect is learned from adults. When orcas are forced to live in captivity with others who aren’t from their own pod,  they are unable to develop the dialect they need. 
  • Pool tank dimensions vary from 20 to 36 feet deep, 70 to 115 feet long, and 35 to 70 feet wide.  Orcas range in length from 12 to 18 feet long, so although they are capable of swimming dozens of miles a day to look for food, they are given only enough space to swim up to ten times their body length. 

A Shortened Life 

In addition, there are myriad detrimental health effects associated with being confined, including the  following: 

  • Tooth decay. Many orcas bite on the steel gates and concrete sides of their cells. Fractured teeth lead to exposed pulp, which can cause infections. Holes are drilled (without anesthetics)  into the affected teeth and rinsed out three times a day with an iodine/saline solution. 
  • Pneumonia. Orcas suffer from immunosuppression, which leaves them susceptible to infections,  including pneumonia. This is one of the many reasons they are fed large quantities of antibiotics on a daily basis. 
  • UV damage. Due to extended periods of rocking (logging) at the water’s surface, the orcas can suffer retinal damage from looking up at the sun and can also become sunburned.
  • Collapsed dorsal fins. All of the adult males and most of the females have collapsed dorsal fins.  This is an extremely rare occurrence in orcas in the wild. Some speculated causes are insufficient support due to logging at the water’s surface, dehydration, and stress. 
  • Dehydration. Most orcas are fed tasteless gelatin cubes, which are given in large quantities to offset the water deficiencies they experience from eating thawed frozen fish. 
  • Psychological disorders. Boredom, stress, and unnatural social groups cause orcas to act out in frustration, which is typically expressed by biting walls, pulling paint stripes from the wall, or ramming gates. 

Solutions and Resources 

What should be the fate of captive orcas? Since most orcas have drilled teeth, making them prone to infection and, in some cases, incapable of catching fish, releasing them into the wild is not ideal. Yet keeping them in captivity, even if they aren’t forced to perform, is equally undesirable. Watson and  Humphrey believe that sea pens are a viable option. Sea pens would allow orcas to be able to dive to greater depths, have more room to avoid aggressive acts by other whales, have access to adequate water intake by eating live fish (that they catch or that are given to them by caretakers), and maintain natural social structures, including having babies remain with their mothers. 

If you would like to become involved, these organizations are working to protect and defend orcas  worldwide and would welcome your support: 

The US Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 and the Endangered  Species Act (ESA) in 1973. The MMPA does not restrict taking marine mammals for public display or the commercial fishing of orcas for scientific research. For more information on both of these acts, visit the  National Marine Fisheries Service at fisheries.noaa.gov. 

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