Why are killer whales flourishing in the wild but languishing, and dying much earlier, in the human controlled aquarium enclosures?
Humans have been hunting whales for at least 8000 years but starting in the 17th century it quickly became a full-fledged industry that over the next next 250 years drastically reduced whale populations to critical levels. Whalers would track many species and kill them to sell the meat, skin and any other valuable parts, but their oil was the biggest prize. Killer whales, however, weren’t particularly targeted until the larger, more oil-rich and easier to kill whales had been decimated by the early to mid 1900s. It wasn’t until 1961 that killer whales began to be captured for display and entertainment purposes in North and South America. Eventually researchers realized that life spans for these captive whales was notably shorter than their wild counterparts and attributed the difference to their way of life. Decades of evidence have made it clear that whales should not be kept in human controlled environments, they can only flourish in the wild.
The 1960s brought a change to how people saw and used whales. On November 18, 1961, in Newport Harbor, California, civilians stood by and watched as the now abandoned Marineland of the Pacific captured their first live Killer Whale; they named her Wanda. Even back then, not all the on-lookers supported the entrapment of Wanda. Before the end of the day she was officially the first whale to be captured for entertainment purposes. Though she only lasted a few days, it is believed that she died by smashing herself against the glass walls of her tank. However, the quick death of Wanda didn’t stop efforts to use whales for their own personal entertainment.
The next whale to be taken was Moby Doll. In 1964, The Vancouver Aquarium had decided it wanted to be the best in the world by introducing a new Killer Whale exhibit. At the beginning it was supposed to just be a model, not a live animal. At the time it was believed they were too dangerous to study alive so the owner, Murray Newman, took his rifle and planned to go kill one himself and use to help build his model. It took a while to get one but eventually one was caught, but it did not die from the shot. Newman decided that it would be more valuable to him alive so a makeshift cage was built to hold the whale until a proper pen could be constructed. Fairing better than Wanda, Moby lasted a few months, unexpectedly as the keepers thought since the whale had been eating it was healthy. The whale died three months after being shot and captured but left humans with an intriguing impression, they now didn’t see the killer in the name Killer Whale. After this realization, 30 other aquariums set up to incorporate the “blackfish” into their exhibits, while would ultimately hurt the breeding population of wild whales and had been shown to be detrimental to the health of the whales. But at the time, the public was enthralled and part owners were more worried about exhibit revenues income than the whales’ life quality.
Since Wanda’s death a total of 144 whales have been put on display, but as of 2014, of the 53 whales in enclosures only 19 are from the wild, thanks to captive births. However, according to NOAA, in just the first decade of capturing killer whales the population dropped 30 per cent. The public consciousness has been shifting over the years, with family films like Free Willy (which used a live performing whale) exalting the virtues of freeing a captive whale, to the harder hitting, even disturbing documentaries such as Blackfish that are being made to expose the truth about whales’ lives in aquariums.
The life span expectations of killer whales differs based on the gender. In the open ocean males are expected to live 30 years, but there is the possibility they can live between 50 and 60 years. Females usually live to 50 but have been known to double their years and get to 100. They are social animals that prefer to live in the deep oceans. Due to their social behaviour they live more commonly in groups called pods, these can range from two to five whales. Their diet can range from small fish to sharks and sea birds. The diet they follow depends on what is available in their geographic area. Whales are use to living in open water and being able to do as they please and eat when they want. They weren’t made to be kept in small pens and live on a schedule.
In the human controlled pens it’s a very different lifestyle. A study done shows that captive whales don’t live as long as the whales in the wild. In this study they found that the median number of years a whale lived was twelve. This number is 18 years less than male and 38 less than female life expectancy. With recent research scientists have found that one of the most popular amusement parks, SeaWorld, has particularly fallen short of lifespan expectations. More disturbingly, the numbers the park gave out to convince people that their whales are healthy don’t match the government’s data.
There are many reasons why the killer whales in captivity live a shorter life span. Whales in captivity typically live in a shallow 40-foot tank and because of this they suffer from sunburns, so the parks often cover them with a zinc that matches the black of their skin so people can’t see it. Male whales are trained to float so that trainers can masturbate them to collect sperm, females then are artificially inseminated. Though when this happens many of the females are way under the age of when they should be getting pregnant and some females are being given sperm from their own sons. All of the males in amusement parks have collapsed dorsal fins, this means they are unhealthy and living in an unnatural environment. Though SeaWorld is the park usually signaled out, they aren’t the only ones to mistreat their whales. This happens in a lot of marine parks. Marineland in Ontario also has a poor reputation for how they care for their animals. Their whales only average the age of eight. Through years of research and calculations it is proven that the environment whales need to live can’t and have not been properly constructed. Amusement parks to this day know what the whales need but still fail or are simply unable to meet these standards.
So why are whales flourishing in the wild but not in the human controlled aquarium enclosures? Whales flourish in the wild because all their physical and social-emotional needs are met. They can swim as deep as they like, can eat when they want and get pregnant when they are ready. In captivity they are in too small of pens, have to live on a schedule and are bred too young and are bred with their own family members. Whales need to be where they belong, out in the oceans where they get to live their life happily.
References, compiled by Meghan Weatherall
Cronin, M. (2015, April 21). SeaWorld’s Claims About Orca Life Span Just Got Blown To Pieces. The Dodo.
Kirby, D. (2014, April 11). SeaWorld Loses (Again) in Fight Against OSHA. Death At SeaWorld.
Messenger, S. (2014, April 5). Remembering Wanda, The First Killer Whale Taken Into Captivity. The Dodo.
Weiland, M. (2013, May 26). Moby Doll: The Whale That Changed the World. Orca Watcher.
Killer whale (Orcinus orca). NOAA FISHERIES.
Marineland of Canada Exposed: Former Animal Trainers Discuss Lawsuit in Exclusive Interview. The Orca Project.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About SeaWorld. SeaWorld of Hurt.