Last updated on June 13, 2021.
As far back as I can remember I’ve loved animals, and I’ve always felt the desire to protect them. I’ve never seen an orca in real life and I had always wanted to visit SeaWorld and had even hoped to take my son there one day. Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot about these amazing, majestic, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. But I also learned about the trials, dangers, and cruelty that come with having orcas in captivity. In this series, I’ll explain why I will now never be able to visit SeaWorld.
About Wild Orcas
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are perhaps the smartest species and have a higher emotional capacity than humans. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. There are several types of orcas and they are found in all of the world’s oceans, most abundantly in colder waters like in Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska. What they eat varies by location and pod preference. They live in matrilineal pods that travel between 50 and 100 miles per day. They have complex coordinated hunting techniques, showing a high level of communication. Mothers typically have one calf about every 5 years and calves, particularly males, will stay with their mothers for life. Orcas are apex predators, meaning that there are no animals that prey upon them.
Orcas have large brains and have challenged the belief that humans are the most intelligent species. These social animals have strong bonds with each other, organize for play and hunting, and communicate in ways beyond vocalizations that humans don’t understand. They use echolocation and rely on underwater sound to feed, communicate, and navigate. Even though their vocalizations sound the same to us, each orca pod possesses a unique set of culturally transmitted and learned calls.
“Social life for killer whales…is deeper and more omnipresent than it is for humans; their identities are defined by their families and tribal connections; and their empathy is powerful enough to extend to other species. If orcas have established empathy as a distinctive evolutionary advantage, it might behoove a human race awash in war and psychopathy to pay attention.” -David Neiwert1
There are many ecotypes of orca. The Southern Resident orca, which resides in the Pacific Ocean in areas ranging from central California to southeast Alaska, is critically endangered. There are only 74 individuals (three pods) in the wild as of October 2020. While they are protected, there are always threats stemming from food supply issues; pollution and contaminants in the ocean; global warming; and most importantly, human activities.
Whales are extremely sensitive to sound as they can hear (and feel) much higher ranges than humans, so sound pollution from ships can significantly affect them. The NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, requests that people choose land-based whale watching because it decreases the number of boats on the water, which reduces underwater noise that can disturb killer whales. The Whale Trail2 includes many land-based observation sites where you can view and learn about over 30 marine mammals, and there are more than 100 shoreside sites in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.3
One example of human activity and sound pollution comes from our own U.S. Navy, which “has been authorized for decades to conduct local testing and training, which includes firing torpedoes, detonating bombs and piloting drones.” Recently, NOAA Fisheries approved the U.S. Navy to continue military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters for an additional 7 years.4 I personally find it very confusing that they permit the Navy to cause such extreme sound pollution but ask that others reduce theirs.
“Orcas filter incoming sound through high-quality fat in their lower jaws, and this appears to give them abilities to distinguish sound and where it comes from in ways humans probably can’t visualize.”
Free Willy, starring Keiko
Though the Free Willy movies came out in the 1990s, I had never seen them. This year, since COVID-19 has kept us home, we’re obviously watching a few more movies than before. We watched three of them and even though these movies are a little dated and a little predictable, I enjoyed watching them with my son.
Afterward, I was curious if they were based on a true story, so I researched a little and found that while the movie was fictional, the starring whale, Keiko, had in fact lived in captivity and had later been freed. I wanted to know Keiko’s story so I watched the 2010 documentary, Keiko: the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy. Spoiler alert: I cried at Keiko’s death but he had lived in the ocean instead of a small tank for 5 years, and for a year and a half he swam freely in the ocean. He likely would have lived a much shorter life had he remained in captivity.
His release was and still is controversial, but Keiko’s fame, life, and death hold great importance. One article described that “the fight for his freedom and his subsequent release…brought worldwide attention to the welfare of marine mammals in captivity.”6 Keiko will never be forgotten because of his importance in capturing the attention of the world regarding whales in captivity.
“As a retirement project, it was a 100% success. [Keiko] lived in his natural habitat…the health problems he suffered from all cleared up. He thrived for 5 plus years. How is that a failure?” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose
Then I saw Blackfish, twice. I was so intrigued by the relationships trainers develop with these animals. But there is a huge controversy about orcas in captivity. This film told the story of Tilikum, an orca that was involved in the deaths of three people over the course of his captivity. Tilikum killed an experienced trainer in 2010 and her tragic death was highly publicized. The film highlights the fact that SeaWorld blamed her death on her instead of the whale. I’ll explore Blackfish and killer whales in captivity in this series.
Luna the Whale
One of my favorite documentaries was called The Whale, about a wild orca named Luna that tried to befriend humans after becoming separated from his pod. The whale’s behaviors gained fame and soon many people were trying to interact with him. It became controversial because some marine biologists felt that this was not good for the whale. Luna showed the connections between humans and animals.
Michael Parfit, who coauthored The Lost Whale, said this in the film above: “We meet at a dock in Mooyah Bay and we look at each and we recognize something. This isn’t casual stuff, I thought, this isn’t insignificant…I looked at him, I looked at that awareness that looked back at me, and I thought, we’ve treated you with inconsistency, we’ve treated you with disdain, but still, you trust us. How in the world, I thought, will we ever be forgiven by life, by nature, by ourselves – if we let you suffer just because you’re trying to be our friend?” I wept during this film but it made me appreciate these whales even more. They are such beautiful, social, emotional, and intelligent creatures!
“Many people hope that someday we’ll meet an intelligent being from another world. Hollywood tells us this being will come flying down in a spaceship, and he’ll look a bit like us. Most importantly, he’ll have a mind like ours, and we’ll figure out how to communicate right away. But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it will be like this” [showing Luna the orca]. -Ryan Reynolds, narrator of The Whale
More on Orcas
There are many documentaries about orcas, and there are also dozens of books about orcas. I’m still trying to read them all. As I do, I’ll update this post and my Books page. I encourage you to learn and read about orcas! Check your local library to see what resources they may offer. Comment below to let me know if there’s a good book you’ve read that you’d like me to know about! Thanks for reading, please subscribe, and look for my upcoming articles on the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld, and other marine parks.
Website, “Orcas (Killer Whales): Facts and Information,” National Geographic, accessed November 30, 2020.
Article, “Endangered orcas at risk from U.S. Navy, activists warn,” by Jeff Berardelli, CBS News, July 31, 2020.
Website, “Meet the Different Types of Orcas,” Whale and Dolphin Conservation, accessed December 9, 2020.
Article, “The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed,” The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
A Plastic Whale, Sky News documentary film, 2017.
Video, “Freeing Willy,” Retro Report, The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
Article, “How to Watch Whales and Dolphins Responsibly,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed January 30, 2021.
Page, “The Luna File,” The Orca Conservancy, accessed May 5, 2021.
Article, “Befriending Luna the Killer Whale: How a popular Smithsonian story about a stranded orca led to a new documentary about humanity’s link to wild animals,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 13, 2008.
Article, “Luna: the Orca Who Wanted to Be Friends,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed May 5, 2021.
- Book, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.
- Website, “The Whale Trail,” accessed November 22, 2020.
- Article, “No-Impact Whale Watching: The Whale Trail Builds Knowledge of Whales and Support for Recovery,” NOAA Fisheries, October 26, 2020.
- Article, “Navy authorized to train where endangered orcas live for 7 more years,” KIRO 7 News (Western Washington), November 9, 2020.
- Book, The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna, by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
- Article, “Was the Release of Keiko the Orca a Failure? What This Iconic Whale Taught Us About Marine Captivity,” by Corrine Hen, onegreenplanet.org, accessed November 12, 2020.