Killer whales. Orcas. Synonyms for a single species. Both refer to the whale that is in the news right now. The whale from Seaworld that beached itself on the Canary Islands in a water park pool. Her name is Morgan and she is a captive who swims around all day in a concrete pen that is a fraction of the size of the territory she actually requires. Whales beach themselves when they are sick or hurt….or to die.
Orcas are not whales, though they look like a whale and that is what they are called. They are the largest species of dolphin. They have huge brains. They exhibit intelligence similar to the dolphins with which we are familiar and eerily similar to humans. Many animal species can pass along skills to their young which are generic in nature. In other words, birds pass along migratory routes. Big cats pass on hunting skills. But whales and dolphins go a step further. They can learn as individuals and pass individual knowledge on to their young — just like humans. Imagine a creature that intelligent swimming around all day in a pen that is tiny to them. Imagine a human being in a bathtub. Having to do tricks.
Many orcas exhibit self-destructive behavior when kept in captivity. They do things like repetitively bob their heads upwards and down. They swim faster and faster in small circles. At the Miami Seaquarium, there used to be two orcas. Lolita and Hugo. It has been reasonably well established that Hugo committed suicide in 1980 by repeatedly ramming his head into the walls of his tank until he died. Do we know for certain it was suicide? They can’t talk, at least not to us. I guess we can’t know for sure. But, no other cause was found. Some say Morgan, the whale that is in the news, was also attempting suicide.
The movie, Blackfish, is a documentary about an orca whale named Tilikum who killed his trainer while held in captivity, first at Sealand, then at Seaworld. Theories abound that whales held in captivity suffer from some sort of severe psychological trauma.
Orca whales, in the wild, swim around 100 miles per day and have a complex society. They live in several types of pod structures, all of which contain several generations of family, including children, parents, and grandparents. Their need for social interaction is high. Their needs cannot be met when held in captivity.
If we want to see orcas, why can’t we take whale-watching tours and go to them instead of making them come to us. If they come to us, they have to endure a life of captivity for which they are not suited. Seaworld announced this year that they would hold no more whales in captivity. It’s about time. Other marine parks should follow suit.
UPDATE: JANUARY 2017
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post on orca whales (SEE ABOVE), who are actually dolphins, and the problems they face in captivity, and Tilikum, the whale featured in the movie Blackfish. Blackfish is the movie that publicized the plight of the orca whales that are kept in captivity. The movie finally forced entertainment facilities like Sea World to stop using the orcas for entertainment purposes. They also stopped breeding them in captivity.
Tilikum recently passed away at the age of 36. He died from a persistent bacterial lung infection. Tilikum finally became aggressive in captivity and, in 2010, he killed a trainer at Sea World. He was implicated in the deaths of two others. There was actually sympathy for Tilikum because the stress of his captivity was seen as the major factor in his behavior. There have been reports of oracas trying to commit suicide in captivity as reported in the above-mentioned blog post.
After Tilikum died, the President of the Humane Society, was quoted as saying that his death meant the end of the orca captivity program. We can only hope. A much better alternative for us is to take whale-watching tours a few miles out into the ocean. RIP Tilikum.
*Image by Christopher Michel 2009 Born Free