J. James, Page 1 of 32
Half of the world’s forty-two captive orcas (
), or killer whales, are held in American aquariums.
These forty-two living cetaceans make up less than sixteen percent of the total number of orcas consumed by the captive display industry.
Since the first captive orca, Wanda, died on November 20, 1961, just two days after she was removed from the Pacific Ocean,
103 others have shared her fate.
On average they lived fewer than six years in captivity.
At least thirteen more died during capture operations.
Captive breeding has reduced, but not eliminated, the hunt for wild orcas. Breeding programs, however, are equally wasteful. Of the eighty captive-born orcas that have died, most lived only days.
Another twenty-eight perished before birth.
Although most captive orcas die before reaching their early twenties, others have defied the odds.
The oldest orca in captivity, Lolita, was separated from her family in 1970.
Only one orca has been held longer. Corky has been in captivity since 1969.
It is both remarkable and tragic that Lolita and Corky have tolerated captivity for so long. Confinement renders the life of a captive orca “a grotesque parody of its wild counterpart.”
In place of strong family bonds, captive orcas negotiate complicated relationships with hostile roommates.
Instead of live prey, they eat dead fish.
Sonar, which orcas use to hunt, navigate, and communicate, is virtually useless in the stark environment of an aquarium tank.
Ultimately, tank size may be the biggest stressor. Capable of travelling up to 100 miles a day, captive orcas may legally be kept in pools that are only forty-eight feet wide.
Although they can dive to depths of 100 feet, captive orcas may live in pools that are merely twelve feet deep – half the length of a typical orca.
In comparison, the average display pool is generous. Most orcas provide slightly less than twenty-eight feet of water.
Captive breeding creates additional suffering. Pregnancy is induced prematurely.
Mothers are systematically separated from their calves.
Miscarriages and stillbirths are common.
Some of these may be the result of inbreeding.
To address this problem, breeders pair orcas from genetically and geographically distinct populations, creating “hybrid” animals from Pacific and Atlantic stocks.
Males, which are on short supply, are frequently transferred on “breeding loan” to parks that are hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Even so, wild captures remain necessary to refresh the captive gene pool.
For orcas like Lolita and Corky, there are few options. There are no marine mammal sanctuaries, no retirement homes. Release is complicated, expensive, and risky.
Although captive orcas can be taught to forage and trained to swim long distances, survival in the wild ultimately requires the support of a family, or pod. Captive-born orcas have no ties to their wild relatives. Wild-caught orcas are frequently rendered anonymous by their capture, making reunification impossible. Keiko, the only orca released after decades in captivity, died of pneumonia three years after being reintroduced to his native waters.
Although he interacted with orcas that were at least partially related to him, he sought out human companionship and never integrated into a wild pod.
Many, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, consider Keiko’s release unsuccessful, in part because of this failure to achieve social acceptance.
Because her pedigree is well known, Lolita my face better odds of reintegration. She hails from one of the most studied pods in the world.
Corky’s pod is also widely studied, but it is significantly depleted.
Both Corky and Lolita recognize and continue to use vocalizations unique to their sub pods.
Corky’s mother, however, is believed to be dead, while Lolita’s may still be alive.
Since orca societies are