What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, Marineland Ontario purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

Marineland sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at Marineland Ontario in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at Marineland Ontario, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

Footnotes:

Update on Lolita/Tokitae

Image of Lolita/Tokitae jumping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

This is an update to my article about Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium, which is in one of the saddest captive orca situations. This orca is the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium and so the facility has a vested interest in keeping her onsite. She has been the lone orca for over 50 years, living in a tank so small it violates federal regulations. Now poor inspections and revelations about neglect in her care have made new headlines.

“It is Lolita, more than any other captive orca, who offers the potential to answer the big question that hovered around the Blackfish debate: Why not return wild-born orcas to their native waters and pods?” – David Neiwert1

Veterinarian Ignored

In June 2021, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection of the Miami Seaquarium found that it was providing low-quality animal care. The 17-page report outlined many problems and health risks to Lolita/Tokitae. The report noted that veterinary recommendations from the park’s own veterinary team were repeatedly ignored: “The facility’s attending veterinarian’s recommendations regarding the provision of adequate veterinary care and other aspects of animal care and use have been repeatedly disregarded or dismissed over the last year…Failure to allow appropriate veterinary authority poses a risk to the health and welfare of the animals.”2 The primary veterinarian who made the ignored recommendations was fired in the same month as the USDA inspection.

One of the problems included that Lolita/Tokitae and other marine mammals were fed rotten fish for 8 days, even though the veterinarian and others objected. The orca developed inflammation in her bloodwork within a week. The marine amusement park had also cut her daily food allowance down significantly. Since orcas rely on fish not just for food but also for their water intake, Lolita/Tokitae could become severely dehydrated.

Other veterinary recommendations the park ignored included those about performance at her age, her diet, and even injuries. “After Lolita had injured her lower jaw, [the veterinarian] specifically directed the staff not to request head-in entry jumps or fast swims from Lolita, now a geriatric whale. Yet, regardless of this directive, according to the report, the training manager incorporated extra head-in jumps to its routine and continued fast swims.”3 

Worse, the report detailed many other issues. These included “critical” issues with the pools and enclosures for dolphins and seals, poor water quality, and inadequate shade for the animals (which causes skin and eye lesions). Dolphins had been injured and some had even died because incompatible animals were housed together.

“She injured her jaw because they were making her do things that she was just too old to do. And the vet told them not to make her do them anymore. And they ignored the vet.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose4

Lolita jumping out of the water in front of an audience at the Miami Seaquarium with her trainer behind her on the work platform.
Photo by Freebird on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Response from the Scientific Community

Many marine biologists, animal rights activists, and empathetic people, in general, find this report offensive. The poor USDA report elicited this response from Dr. Naomi A. Rose:

“What this outrageous report all boils down to is, the infractions were or will be corrected, at least long enough to pass muster at some follow-up inspection. And therefore it is dismayingly likely that, aside from a citation (which carries no fine), nothing will happen to [Miami Seaquarium]. They will suffer no penalty, they get to keep their APHIS license, no animals will be confiscated. And NOTHING WILL CHANGE. They are likely to be cited again in the future for similar infractions, because they know they will suffer no real consequences for cutting corners and being lax…It is now very clear that the law will NEVER protect Toki[tae]. I don’t know what will work, after all these years of so many people trying to help her, but at the very least, we need to spread the word of what has happened at [Miami Seaquarium]. Based on this inspection report alone, [Miami Seaquarium] is failing abysmally in its duty of care for this amazing being.5

Park Sold Off to Another Company

Within two months of the poor inspection, Palace Entertainment, the current owner, sold the aquarium to the Dolphin Company. The timing is questionable. The Dolphin Company operates 32 parks and dolphin habitats in 8 countries including the United States, Italy, Mexico, and Argentina. They operate under different brands, including Dolphin Discovery, Dolphin Cove, Zoomarine, and Marineland (but not Marineland Ontario).

Both companies expect the final transitions to take place by the end of the year. The new company has promised to make improvements to the facilities and to allow authorities to make unannounced inspections. The director of Zoo Miami evaluated the Dolphin Company’s plans, including one specifically for Lolita’s care, and encouraged the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners to sign off on the deal.6

New Promises

The County Commission unanimously approved the transfer of ownership, as long as they “address” the issues in the USDA report. The Miami-Dade County Mayor proposed changes to the lease, which included requiring “compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, the maintenance of certifications by recognized organizations as the American Humane Association, and a commitment to seeking an accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” The county will increase oversight of the Seaquarium and “will aggressively monitor the health and well-being of these animals under the leadership of The Dolphin Company,” the mayor said.7

Miami Seaquarium
Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Skepticism

Not everyone believes that the Dolphin Company will fulfill its proposals. Ric O’Barry, the founder of The Dolphin Project, wrote: “Miami Seaquarium, the facility holding Lolita (Tokitae) the long-term captive orca, is being sold to Mexico’s The Dolphin Company (aka: The Dolphin Abusement Company) for an undisclosed amount…The company has no plans to make major changes to the park and will continue to use Lolita as [the] main attraction.”8

Miami Seaquarium protester Thomas Copeland is also skeptical. He doubts that the new owner will be able to make significant improvements to Lolita/Tokiate’s situation, simply because her tank is too small. He said, “At its deepest point on that angle, it’s 20-feet deep…she’s 22 feet long. The simple math tells you that the animal is too big for this tank.”9 Unless the Dolphin Company plans to expand the entire whale tank, Lolita/Tokitae will continue to live in too small of a space. However, the Miami Seaquarium has not been able to expand, as the Village of Key Biscayne has denied previous requests for permission to expand. There is very little land in this area and the town tries to control business expansion and control traffic problems.10

Lolita/Tokitae floating in the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

The Lummi Nation

As with many captive orcas, Lolita/Tokitae cannot just be released into the ocean because she’s lived in captivity for so long. She may not be able to hunt fish or merge into her old pod seamlessly. So the Lummi Nation, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, is working with several organizations to safely relocate her back to her home waters under their care. The Lummi Nation views the orca as a relative and a member of their tribe. “They believe their treaty rights were violated when she was taken from her family in Puget Sound” in 1970. Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris of the Lummi Nation said, “Under our inherent rights, she’s a relative. We have a right to call her home.” The Lummi Nation call Lolita/Tokitae Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, which means “nice day, pretty colors.”11

“She’s done. Her spirit is crying to come home. Let her go. Let her come home.” -Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris, Lummi Nation12

Taking Lolita/Tokitae Home

The goal is to return Lolita/Tokitae to the Salish Sea where she was born. It is where her family, the L pod of the Southern Resident orcas, still reside. With guidance from marine biologists and other experts at the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Lummi Nation will provide her care while she lives out her life in a custom-built sea pen, in her natural environment. “As part of our Whale Aid work, the Whale Sanctuary Project has drafted a comprehensive operational plan to safely bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to a secure and protected area within the Salish Sea where she can thrive in her natal waters while receiving ongoing human care and while prioritizing the wellbeing of the Salish Sea ecosystem and all its inhabitants, including the Southern Resident orcas.”13

The plan is comprehensive and supported by the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Orca Network,14 the Earth Law Center,15 and Sacred Sea.16 There are many who argue against her release, but there are even more who argue for her retirement and relinquishment from the Miami Seaquarium.

"50 years of stolen freedom. Retire Lolita." Aerial photo of the Miami Seaquarium's orca tank with public seating surrounding it.
Courtesy of Empty The Tanks. #50YearsOfStolenFreedom #Retire Lolita

Refusal to Relinquish Lolita/Tokitae

“I don’t want these hippies stealing my whale.” -Arthur Hertz former owner of the Miami Seaquarium, referring to animal rights activists in 199617

The main obstacle to this project is the Miami Seaquarium’s refusal to do what is best for the orca. They have repeatedly refused to relinquish Lolita/Tokitae. They argue that she is better off in its care despite well-documented evidence and eyewitness reports of neglect. In 2015, they said: “Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take. There is no scientific evidence that the 48-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she was returned to the ocean.” They refused to discuss all proposals of her sale or transfer to another park or aquarium, despite that her tank is way too small.18

In 2019, the Miami Seaquarium’s general manager wrote to the Seattle Times that the company had no interest in relinquishing her to another aquarium, marine amusement park, or sanctuary.19 Further, they have argued that she would not survive the long journey to the Pacific Northwest.

Close up of Lolita/Tokitae's face popping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

What’s Next?

Most have speculated that The Dolphin Company will keep Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. An activist told The Palm Beach Post that she emailed The Dolphin Company about Lolita/Tokitae’s release. They responded that they were not yet in charge of Seaquarium operations but that it would soon ‘explore the best options for Lolita’ in the near future. While the activist found hope in their response, I find this response to be the wording of typical corporate avoidance speak. Further, the company did not respond to emails from The Palm Beach Post about Lolita’s future.20 So we’ll see what they do. Meanwhile, activists are still protesting.

Lolita/Tokitae is not performing right now, because allegedly, the Miami Seaquarium’s whale stadium is temporarily closed for repairs.21 Hopefully she is being fed the right amounts of fish, receiving veterinary care, and swimming in clean water. If you want to advocate for this orca, please sign any of the pledges/petitions I’ve listed under Additional Resources below. Stay updated on news related to her situation. Share her story. Most importantly, don’t buy tickets to marine amusement parks! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Lolita: Fame and Misfortune,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed November 21, 2021.

Page, “Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut: also known as Tokitae or Lolita,” sacredsea.org.

Book, A Puget Sound Orca in Captivity: The Fight To Bring Lolita Home, by Sandra Pollard, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2019.

Article, “Dark waters, dark secret: Untold story of failed bid to free South Florida orca Lolita,” The Palm Beach Post, October 13, 2021.

Film, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.

Pledge, “FREE LOLITA: Urge The Dolphin Company to Retire Lolita to a Seaside Sanctuary,” PETA.org.

Petition, “Lummi elders: “Free our Relative!” Save endangered orca held captive at Miami Seaquarium,” Change.org.

Petition, “Take the Pledge NOT to Buy a Ticket To a Dolphin Show,” The Dolphin Project.

Website, savelolita.org.

Footnotes:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

An orca through round viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo.
An orca through a viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today, I want to tell you about an organization that is very dear to me: The Whale Sanctuary Project. This sanctuary will allow captive cetaceans a chance at retiring and living freely. I love the organization’s work, research, scientists, and hold the utmost respect for this project. This is one that I’d appreciate your help in supporting!

If you’ve read my Orca series, then you understand why it is wrong to make them perform for humans and keep them in captivity. Cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete tanks. There just isn’t enough space for them to swim and get enough physical exercise. Years of breeding and artificial insemination caused cetaceans to breed too young, too inexperienced, and without the choice of when and with whom to breed with. Mothers and calves are regularly separated when the calf is only a few years old. Some cetaceans are forced to live alone, causing depression in these highly social, intelligent, and emotional creatures. After decades of observation, it is obvious to many how cetaceans are suffering in marine amusement parks. But now we have a chance to make it right.

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

A beluga whale on display at Marineland with people viewing it through the acrylic tank.
A beluga whale on display at Marineland. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We
Animals Media

Purpose of a Sanctuary

There are sanctuaries for all kinds of animals including horses, elephants, primates, pigs, dogs, and birds. Many animals retired from farm life, circuses, and zoos reside in sanctuaries. But there has never been a sanctuary for whales and orcas. What better time than now?

The Whale Sanctuary Project “is the first organization focused solely on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins, and porpoises who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care.”2 Most people now understand that cetaceans in marine amusement parks are akin to performing circus animals. However, even if these animals are retired from performing, there is no place for them to go. A sea sanctuary will completely change that.

“Our vision is of a world in which all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are treated with respect and are no longer confined to concrete tanks in entertainment parks and aquariums.”-The Whale Sanctuary Project3

About The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP)

Bird's eye view of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site.
View of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP formed in 2016. In 2020, after years of research, exploration, and fundraising, the WSP selected a 100-acre site for the sanctuary at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. This is an ideal location because it fulfilled the WSP’s principal considerations: “It offered an expansive area that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that’s open to the ocean but was sheltered from storms. It had access to necessary infrastructure and plenty of room along the shore for the facilities that would be needed to care for the animals.” And the Sherbrooke area locals are very supportive.4 

The seaside sanctuary will be 300 times bigger than the typical concrete tank. It will be more natural than tanks in terms of acoustics, water quality, and habitat surroundings (plant and animal species that share the space).5 The cetaceans will be able to swim further and dive deeper, thus getting the exercise their bodies need. “The goal is to offer captive orcas and beluga whales a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.”6 They’ll be able to make their own decisions, feed themselves, and most importantly – they won’t be required to perform like circus animals.

“We can’t undo all the harm we’ve inflicted on cetaceans by keeping them in captivity, but by providing them with seaside sanctuaries, we can improve their quality of life. That is our goal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose7

Orca performing at Marineland.
Image by Victor Cardella from Pixabay

Sanctuary Squashes Argument For Captivity

SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have always indicated that it would be cruel to set captive orcas free into the ocean because they have been in captivity too long. This is partially true. Like animals in other sanctuaries, captive cetaceans cannot be returned to the wild. They may not be able to survive without some care and monitoring. They may not know how to hunt or socialize, and they may never find their original familial pod. Captive cetaceans may be attached to humans for food and social needs. Many captive orcas have dental problems and other health issues. Obviously, captive-born whales are not candidates for release into the wild. But a sanctuary is another story and is a real possibility.8

The Whale Sanctuary Project will change everything.

“The science tells us that these animals – dolphins and whales – cannot thrive in concrete tanks and theme parks and aquariums.” -Dr. Lori Marino9

Setting The Example

Human riding two dolphins in a performance at marine amusement park.
Image by JensG from Pixabay

“There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. To end captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. But it’s not easy. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to re-learn the skills they will need to survive.” -Whale and Dolphin Conservation10

There are 58-60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine amusement parks and aquariums. Other species include different species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Hundreds of dolphins are held at vacation resorts that offer “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy” and “Swim-with-Dolphins” programs.11 Most of the orcas at parks are candidates for the sanctuary, but it cannot provide a home to hundreds of cetaceans. “While our primary focus is the creation of the sanctuary in Nova Scotia, every aspect of it is designed with the larger purpose of its being a model for other and future sanctuaries around the world.”12

The WSP will provide additional support for cetaceans in situations that do not include its sanctuary through its Whale Aid programs. These programs “range from rescuing and rehabilitating ocean-going whales to developing complete plans for other organizations that are working to retire captive whale and dolphins to sanctuaries. Our Whale Aid team comprises experts from around the world in fields ranging from veterinary care to transport to construction and engineering.”13 The Whale Aid program will assist Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Working with the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, she will be returned to the Salish Sea from which she was born, if the Miami Seaquarium ever relinquishes her.14 

If marine amusement parks and aquariums partnered or even just participated with the Whale Sanctuary Project, they could have a huge impact on the whales’ lives, conservation, and even their own public relations. It “would be a powerful legacy for the marine park that released them – a real example of conservation and education in practice.”

“If seaside sanctuaries function as intended, eventually they will no longer hold any retired captive cetaceans. However, they will also serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans, even during the period when they have ‘retirees’ as residents. And they will be able to serve this purpose in perpetuity.” -Dr. Naomi A.  Rose16

Orcas swimming at the surface with a mountain and sunset in the background.
Image by Chris Amos from Pixabay

Support This Project & Learn More

“Sanctuaries strive to go out of business.” -Dr. Ingrid Visser

Though a new movement, the WSP isn’t the only sanctuary in the works. Clearly, there’s a need for sanctuaries for marine mammals. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary opened in Iceland in the spring of 2019. They care for two female beluga whales who came from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. In addition, they partner with another organization to rescue puffins.17 There have been proposals for a Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy and for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.18

“We’ll spend less on building a sanctuary than a marine park would…spend building the next small concrete tank.” -Charles Vinick, Whale Sanctuary Project19

Image of The Whale Sanctuary Project's new Operation Centre, a white historic house on a street.
The Whale Sanctuary Project’s new Operation Centre. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP had the grand opening of the Operations Centre on October 29, 2021. It is located in the small town of Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site in Port Hilford Bay. This center, to which I proudly donated a small amount toward its opening, is the WSP’s home base for all of the design, engine­ering, and construc­tion of the sanctuary. It will also serve as a welcome center and it has lodging for two visiting staff members and advisors.20 Going forward, they will focus on the construction of the sea pen.

I encourage you to continue to learn more about the problem of captive cetaceans, and I hope you can support The Whale Sanctuary Project with me! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

The Whale Sanctuary Project logo
Logo courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.” -David Neiwert21

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Orca Series, to learn more about captive orcas.

Video, “Whales Without Walls,” Charles Vinick, TEDxSantaBarbara, December 18, 2017.

Page, Deeper Dive, The Whale Sanctuary Project. Features scientific studies on cetaceans.

Page, “Live Series” of Webinars and Conversations, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

 

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Final Thoughts

Orca swimming inside of a lightbulb, lying on its side on a green forest floor with autumn colored foliage and trees in the background.
Image by Burak Erk from Pixabay

I want to end this series with some final thoughts and ideas for the future about orcas in captivity.

The Impact of Blackfish

My own interest in orcas began with the film Blackfish and my education about orcas grew from there. I found the documentary moving, educational, and enlightening. While some charge that Blackfish was one-sided, the producers, as indicated in the film, requested interviews with SeaWorld multiple times and SeaWorld declined all requests. Further, many other sources support the information in the film. SeaWorld spent years fighting against the film’s revelations, calling it propaganda, and even dedicating an entire website to trying to debunk the film. That website has since been taken down and their current website does not make a single reference to it that I could find. 

According to David Neiwert, “The marine-park industry attracts more paying customers than even the most popular sports leagues. In 2012, orca facilities around the world drew over 120 million people, more than the combined attendance of Major League Baseball, National Football League, and National Basketball Association games. Orcas are Big Money now.”1 Of course, the Blackfish effect permanently altered the course of the marine amusement park industry on the western side of the world. There have been many articles written about the film’s significant long-term effects, some of which I’ve included under Additional Resources below.

Still, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment alone had annual attendances of over 22 million in both 2018  and 2019.2 It is difficult to determine if SeaWorld has experienced a continued decline in recent years since 2020 and part of 2021 were affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Entertainment as Cause

Brochure cover advertising a trainer swimming on top of an orca.
1970s Marineland Niagara Falls brochure, image from Cetacean Collective on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In my article about wild orca captures, I explained how the marine amusement park business model developed over time. Killer whales were once feared and believed to be dangerous. “Then someone got the clever idea to capture one of these terrifying creatures and to put it on display. And that changed everything…The public’s fascination with orcas was remarkable, considering that less than a generation before, these creatures had mostly elicited shudders of fear.”3 Humans discovered how intelligent and easy it was to train killer whales to perform, much like circus animals, for the purpose of entertainment.

“Ironically, it is their intelligence that has made these animals desirable for public display—their ability to understand human commands and learn  complex behaviors or tricks has been exploited to provide humans with entertainment.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Two orcas swimming in a marine amusement park pool.
Image by M W from Pixabay

The Argument For Captivity

In Of Orcas and Men, David Neiwert talked about his experience taking his daughter to SeaWorld when she was very young. He asked, “These parks deserve great credit for providing people the opportunity to actually see, in the flesh, one of these great creatures, but do they truly show orcas as they really are?”5 Of course, the answer is no. I have struggled with that exact point throughout my whole orca series: the parks allow people to see orcas, and most of us don’t have the opportunity to see one otherwise. Isn’t that one of the same arguments in favor of zoos? To allow people to see and learn about the animal kingdom so that they will want to protect them?

“Captivity has been a catastrophe for most killer whales taken from the wild. Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild.”8

Orca jumping out of the water near a coast with golden colored grass.
Photo by Shawn McCready on Flickr, Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Façade of Science and Education

Many marine amusement parks in the U.S. are AZA-accredited. But many have not contributed to science, conservation, and education to the extent that zoological parks have. As whale researcher, Erich Hoyt, noted in 1992, “Marine parks do not measure up to the best zoos or environmental groups in terms of supporting or conducting science.”“If science were a primary goal at marine parks, rather than display, much better scientific results could have been obtained with a fraction of the number of captive orcas and in a fraction of time.” Then the orcas could have been released. Hoyt argued that “science” was an excuse to keep captive orcas.

Marine amusement parks also do not educate their patrons about cetaceans in the wild, or at least not very accurately. SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks sometimes portray the ocean as a scary place that orcas face a lot of challenges within, which is misleading. “However, that does not mean captivity is a better place for them than the wild. It only means that the people who fear for their well-being in captivity, and wish to see it ended, also need to be engaged in helping killer whales to thrive in the wild.”11 SeaWorld and the other parks have an opportunity to inspire their patrons to help protect the natural world.

“There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.” -Jacques Cousteau

An Example in Morgan the Orca

Morgan the orca swimming in his tank
Photo by Annemieke Podt, found on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0)

Morgan is a female orca at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands whose captivity is very controversial. Accidentally separated from her family when she was about 3 years old, she was captured off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. She was taken to Dolphinarium Harderwijk to receive medical care for starvation and dehydration. Morgan was supposed to be rescued, rehabilitated, and released back to the ocean. However, the marine amusement park transferred her to Loro Parque instead where she has become a performing orca and was integrated into the park’s breeding program in conjunction with SeaWorld. The original agreement stated that she would not be put on public display but that part was ignored. There was a year of lengthy court battles but in the end, Morgan sadly remains at Loro Parque. She is an example of a captive orca that could be released to a sanctuary, if not back to the wild.

“Children know conservation is important, but what more powerful lesson than to show them how to put conservation into action by returning something to nature? It would be a noteworthy gesture from marine parks that have earned so much money from cetaceans.” -Erich Hoyt

“If captive [cetacean] facilities were serious about trying to conserve the species that they possess, they would be focusing on protecting the habitats of populations in the wild and would actively be trying to ensure that their captive-bred animals could be reintroduced, and survive, in the wild.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Orca jumping out of the sea.
Photo by Adam Ernster from Pexels

The View of Captivity is Changing

The view of orca and cetacean captivity is changing, though more on the western side of the world. As David Neiwert noted, “When we are forced to concede, as with orcas, that we are not unique in our intelligence, that we may not be the only creatures worthy of being considered persons, then we likewise have to reconsider our previous, Western-grown position as special beings somehow separated from nature.”14 But the marine amusement park industry is growing on the eastern side of the world, as I wrote about in a previous article. We, as human beings, have a long way to go in spreading the information and educating others about the problems of cetacean captivity.

“Growing awareness about the problems associated with captive cetaceans have led marine parks around the world to shut down or redefine themselves,” including India and Switzerland, both of which have banned orca captivity.15

The Future of Orcas in Captivity

There are many possibilities of drawing visitors to marine amusement parks without necessarily having real animals, especially ones that do not fare well in captivity. Several scientists have promoted the idea of having visitors view live feeds of wild whales, or offering virtual reality productions. Erich Hoyt wrote in 1992, “Anyone will then be able to experience life in an orca pod, to get a taste of life among wild whales at sea. With such possibilities, marine mammal shows which feature performing orcas will seem as passé as those spectacles of the Roman Colosseum. As public attitudes change, we believe that SeaWorld and other marine parks could make the transition to these new ways of ‘exhibiting’ marine mammals without any loss in admissions.”

Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with people in background.
Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Examples

The Vancouver Aquarium was the first to start changing its programming surrounding orca exhibition. In 1986, the programming featured information about the daily life of orcas and was perhaps the most educational show at any marine park at the time. Then, in 1991, they discontinued scheduled performances, moving away from the circus-like show, and instead offered limited training demonstrations.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which focuses on the complex marine environment of Monterey Bay in California, is a highly successful aquarium with no large captive cetaceans or marine mammals. They have life-sized models and wildlife viewing from their facility.

Blue whale model at the Natural History Museum in London
Some museums offer full-scale models of all types of cetaceans, such as this one. “Blue whale model” at the Natural History Museum in London. Photo by Matt Brown on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Viewpoints

“We need to realize that these are beings that suffer the same as we suffer, they want freedom the way we want freedom.” -Russell Simmons, music executive19

Orcas were once feared and called ‘killer whales.’ But orcas in captivity changed the view of millions of people. People started to view them as more like playful dolphins that were fun, loveable, and intelligent. “Studies of wild orcas followed – some of the first were to help regulate the number of live captures – and this research gave insight into the lives of the free, wild orcas and led some to question whether orca captures and the practice of keeping them in marine parks should continue.”

I don’t believe so. Humpbacks, blue whales, and other large cetaceans aren’t kept captive and people are still drawn to those animals. Interest breeds education and education breeds understanding. Also, the destructive wild captures have decimated some ecotype populations of orcas. Those populations might be fine if the marine amusement park industry hadn’t tried to capture so many, killing some unintentionally along the way.

Orcas swimming near Alaska, snowy mountains in background.
Photo by Christopher Michel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Where do we go from here?

I encourage you to read books, articles, and publications, and watch documentaries about the issues in my Orca Series. I’ve listed many resources throughout my articles in this series. You can follow the organizations trying to help both captive and wild cetaceans and the scientists who work with those organizations. For example, the Whale Sanctuary Project is a proposal to build a large sanctuary for retired cetaceans in Nova Scotia. They have a large team of scientists and professionals and have conducted extensive research in order to build the sanctuary once fundraising is complete. Cetaceans from marine amusement parks will have a safe ocean area to retire to, where scientists will care for and monitor them.

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project has operated for decades to free dolphins from captivity. They’ve worked tirelessly to close down or prevent from opening dozens of facilities that would have held captive dolphins and whales.

Don’t support marine amusement parks if you aren’t sure about their practices and ethics. If you don’t want to support a company, don’t buy tickets to any of their parks, as some companies own multiple. SeaWorld Entertainment, for instance, owns 12 parks. Though SeaWorld seems to be improving its practices and being supportive of the ocean and wildlife, they have a ways to go. But they claim that every ticket helps support their rescue operations. What do you think?

“Humans, despite a poor record of respecting the rights of other humans, as well as whales in general…are now in the position of helping or hurting all life on Earth. The question may well become: Can humans be good managers without assuming the traditional role of exploiter?” -Erich Hoyt

Thank you for reading this series. I hope it’s helped you understand the issues, problems, and potential solutions regarding orca captivity. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Blackfish:

Article, “SeaWorld’s ’69 Reasons you Shouldn’t Believe Blackfish’ – My Rebuttal,” Inherently Wild, accessed April 7, 2021. This website also features a full database of captured orcas, deceased orcas, pregnancies, and mother and calf separations.

Webpage, “Blackfish Reviews,” Blackfishmovie.com, accessed April 1, 2021.

Article, “The Blackfish Effect,” The Nonhuman Rights Project blog, December 27, 2013.

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau:

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” NPR, March 23, 2015.

Manuscript, “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity,” Dr. John S. Jett and Dr. Jeffrey M. Ventre, The Orca Project, January 20, 2011.

SeaWorld Curator: Ponytail Likely Caused Fatal Killer Whale Attack,” ABC News, February 25, 2010

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Morgan the orca:

Article, “Morgan the Orca: a Tale of Betrayal,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, December 9, 2017.

Website, The Free Morgan Foundation, accessed April 4, 2021.

Other:

Film, “Voiceless,” A Blue Freedom Film, 2016.

Page, “SeaWorld Cares,” SeaWorld Entertainment Blog, accessed July 20, 2021.

Organizations:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Empty The Tanks

Save The Whales

The Orca Project

International Marine Mammal Project

The Orca Research Trust

Animal Welfare Institute

The Humane Society of the United States

Footnotes: