For the Love of Orcas

Last updated on June 13, 2021.

Orcas swimming with sunset
Photo by Bart van Meele on Unsplash

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.

Orca pod in ocean
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Sound Pollution

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.

Orca swimming in the ocean
Image by 272447 from Pixabay

“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.

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverHis 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

Blackfish

Film cover

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

The Whale cover art

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.

 

The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna book coverMichael 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.

 

Additional Resources:

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 film coverA 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.

Article, “Orca Recovery Day: Why The Whale Trail is greenest way to see marine life in wild,” The Palm Beach Post, October 18, 2019.

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.

Footnotes:

With Extinction on the Rise, Joel Sartore works to fill his Photo Ark

Last updated on November 13, 2021.

Photo of a rhinoceros. Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

When I first wrote this article, I’d already written about how the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2019. A report from the United Nations report indicated that up to a million species may be threatened with extinction.1 One million!

“We are on the brink of a global extinction crisis. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities.”2

But despite the depressing news, I wanted to share something that truly inspired me.

National Geographic October 2019 cover of a dying rhinoceros
Cover of National Geographic October 2019, available for purchase at bookstores and online.

We’re Losing Species at an Alarming Rate

This cover of National Geographic caught my eye and I checked it out from the library. It features a keeper at a conservancy in Kenya saying goodbye to the last male northern white rhinoceros. Yes, you read that correctly – the last male. There are two females left. In the whole world.3

How did it come to this? Mostly from human activity such as poaching, pollution, habitat destruction for land and logging, pesticides, and climate change. The rhinoceros is a keystone species with a 50 million-year-old lineage, and in just the last 100 years we have brought it to near extinction. The author of the article wrote that “Watching a creature die—one who is the last of its kind—is something I hope never to experience again. It felt like watching our own demise.”4

Photo of a newborn sea turtle. Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash
Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash

“When we see ourselves as part of nature, we understand that saving nature is really about saving ourselves.” -Ami Vitale, National Geographic5

Joel Sartore & The Photo Ark

The same issue of National Geographic featured an article about Joel Sartore, a photographer who has worked for the magazine for 25 years. The Photo Ark6 is “an effort to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries,” and Sartore has photographed nearly 11,000 species. The goal is 20,000.7

His ultimate goal is “to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time.” His work is beautiful and stunning and astonishing.8 The editor of National Geographic asked Sartore, “What do you want people to know about the state of life on Earth?” He responded, “A recent intergovernmental report says that as many as one million species are already on their way to extinction. It’s folly to think that we can throw away so much life and not have it affect humanity in a profound and negative way.”9

Photo of elephants. Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash
Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

“The biggest question of our time is: Will we wake up and act, or will we stare into our smartphones all the way down to disaster? My goal is to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time to save the planet and everything that lives here.” -Joel Sartore10

Check out his work

Sartore did a TEDx Talk in 2013 and talked about photographing the first few thousand animals for The Photo Ark. The video is almost 20 minutes long but I promise it’s worth your time, especially the second half.

Sartore and The Photo Ark have published several books that feature his photographs, including children’s books. They include animals that have gone extinct just in the few years since he photographed them. There’s also a fascinating three-episode documentarian PBS series entitled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark about this project. I’ve featured these books on my Books page under the Endangered Animals section. I’ll also put links to The Photo Ark’s store and the film under Additional Resources.

“The intersection of plants, animals, and their environment is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all. The National Geographic Photo Ark is using the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” -Photo Ark Wonders11

What can you do?

There are so many things you can do! Follow legislation related to endangered species, habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, and pollution. Pay attention to what’s going on in your area locally, too. Donate money to any of the organizations that protect wildlife and the environment. Keep learning from leaders like Joel Sartore, Jeff Corwin, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and so many others that I haven’t mentioned. Share their information, shows, and books. Educate your friends and your children on the dangers of extinction. Spread the word!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Cover of Vanishing book

A note about the images used in this post: In order to not violate copyright and maintain a free website, I did not use any images belonging to Joel Sartore.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, The Photo Ark store, joelsartore.com.

Documentary, Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark, PBS, 2017.

 

Footnotes:

Have you heard of Wildlife Tourism?

It seems that every type of tourism exists now, as you can almost have any experience you can dream of if you’re willing to pay for it. But when does it go too far?

This is something I wasn’t really familiar with until I read an article about it recently. But once I read up on it, I realized that I had participated in this type of tourism myself! It’s a broad topic and also slightly outside of the scope of my blog, but I wanted to expose my readers to the topic.

Photo of a woman riding an elephant in the ocean surf.
Photo by Andy_Bay on Pixabay

What is Wildlife Tourism?

Simply put, wildlife tourism is interacting with wild animals either in their natural habitat or within controlled environments, such as tours where you can bathe with elephants. It also includes observing and photographing animals, interacting with animals in zoos or wildlife parks, and animal-riding. Hunting and safari trips are sometimes lumped into this category as well, but for the purposes of this post, I’m not including those today.

This type of adventure travel can support the values of ecotourism and nature conservation programs. But it can be damaging if not done responsibly.

A growing industry

Wildlife tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry. It is often an important part of the economy in many countries. According to a 2005 book on Wildlife Tourism, “ecotourism generates as much as $20 billion in revenues each year. It is especially important to the economy of some lesser developed countries.” Wildlife tourism spans the globe and is happening on every continent.

John Scanlon, the Secretary-general of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), wrote an article entitled “The world needs wildlife tourism. But that won’t work without wildlife.” He wrote that in Belize “more than 50% of the population are said to be supported by income generated through reef-related tourism and fisheries.”

Photo of a man posing with an owl.
Photo by Una Laurencic from Pexels

Good for economies – but is it good for wildlife?

This is, of course, the big controversy: Can wildlife tourism protect threatened and endangered animals while vastly improving local economies?

The answer is sometimes. I found many articles and even entire books dedicated to this very topic.

In Scanlon’s article, he argued that when wildlife tourism is done appropriately, it can actually protect animals, even endangered species. Wildlife tourism provides economic resources to local communities. When those local communities have such a stake in the wildlife, they will become the greatest protectors of it. Some countries, such as Kenya, have developed national guidelines for ecotourism. In one region, for example, elephant poaching was reduced by 50% and no rhinos have been poached in 4 years.

In a January 2010 article entitled “Tourists and turtles: Searching for a balance in Tortuguero, Costa Rica” from Conservation and Society, sea turtles and wildlife tourism “are now so inextricably linked in some places” because “sea turtle conservation organizations promote tourism as a way to ‘save turtles'”.

However, without informed and effective management, wildlife tourism can have negative effects on wildlife. It can disrupt normal activity, cause injuries, and alter habitats. In a June 2018 article from NewsRx Health & Science, a study of white sharks interacting with cage-divers found it may change the activity levels of the sharks and distract them from normal behaviors, such as foraging.

Photo of a diver looking at a sea turtle in the ocean.
Photo by Anton Avanzato on Pexels

National Geographic‘s exposure

I recently read an article about Wildlife Tourism in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic. The magazine sent a reporter and a photographer to different countries to explore this business, and what they often found was exploitation rather than conservation. I’ll be honest, the article was depressing and left me feeling really sad. But it was worth reading because it opened my eyes to the issue.

As Susan Goldberg from National Geographic wrote, wildlife tourism “a way for people to appreciate and support animals when it’s done appropriately but an exploitive business with terrible consequences when it’s not.”

The article provided helpful guidelines for wildlife tourism, such as paying attention to the animal’s health, weight, and general appearance. Is the animal underweight? Does the animal have obvious injuries or illness? Is the animal performing unnatural tasks (such as bathing or giving rides to tourists)? Does the animal seem to have been trained by fear?

Sad photo of a tiger on a short chain sitting in shallow water.
Photo from Free-Photos on Pixabay

I am responsible too

When I was a teenager, my Dad took me to a popular tourist site in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to see a parade of wild animals. The elephants, lions, and tigers were starring in a popular movie at the time and touring, I suppose, to promote the film. We sat with the animals and got our photos taken.

Author holding a baby lion.

Author and her Dad sitting with a tiger.

While I wouldn’t have known better then, and my Dad was just trying to show me a good time that summer, we participated in wildlife tourism. I don’t see any injuries or evidence of neglect in these photos, but I have no idea if they were treated well. See the chain on the tiger?

I’ve also let my child ride the camel at the Chattanooga Zoo. I let him feed the giraffes at Zoo Atlanta as well. Were those examples of exploitation, or just fun childhood interactions? I’d assume both zoos treat their animals well since they are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But not all organizations and countries have or follow guidelines set forth by national and international organizations.

Going forward

Now that I’m aware of the potential problems with wildlife tourism, I feel it’s important to share the issues with my readers. John Scanlon wrote that tourism operators have the opportunity to protect wildlife while making money. “But operators can’t do it alone. How we behave as individual tourists is ultimately what counts.”

The most important take away from the National Geographic article and this blog post is that we should all be aware, be intentional, and be mindful of what we are doing when it comes to wildlife tourism.

Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

Additional Resource:

Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism