Set the Killers Free: A Whale Expert Argues Against Orcas in Captivity

The orca Tilikum performs as “Shamu”; he would later kill a trainer leading some to question the appropriateness of killer whales in captivitiy. © Milan Boers

The killer whale shows have returned to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, following the death of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau.The six-ton male orca known as Tilikum will not be featured in the acts, after he pulled Brancheau underwater by her ponytail on February 24 and drowned her (making it the third death he was responsible for in his 30 years), but SeaWorld officials have not ruled out that possibility. And while Tilikum is out, other killer whales will be used to perform tricks for the delight of audiences, despite messages from animal experts that such confinement for these whales is both unnecessary and dangerous.

Below, Deborah Giles, a marine biogeographer at the University of California, Davis, with 20 years” experience observing wild killer whales, explains to E why there is little scientific and no conservation value in keeping these ocean giants (Orcinus orca) in captivity.

1. E Magazine: Are orcas endangered, or merely threatened?

Deborah Giles: Currently, all killer whales worldwide are classified as a single species, Orcinus orca; however, this will likely change as we now understand that there are very distinct populations of killer whales in different parts of the world that are genetically, morphologically, and culturally distinct from any other group of killer whales on the planet.

In Washington State and British Columbia, Canada, where I conduct my research, some of the most comprehensive protections have been put into place to help protect the three unique “eco-types” of killer whales that frequent those international waters. The whales I research are members of a “Distinct Population Segment” (DPS), collectively known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). These whales, currently 89 individuals, are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Different killer whale groups who ply the same waters but never intermingle with the SRKW’s are also protected to some degree. For example: the Northern Resident Killer Whales (NRKW), who frequent the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are listed as threatened under SARA.

2. E: What are the greatest threats to orcas in the wild?

D.G.: It differs depending on where they live in the world. For some whales a lack of prey might be the biggest threat to their survival. For other whales, the greatest threats are the bio-accumulated toxins they ingest when they eat their prey.

Killer whales are apex predators; as such they are the final recipients of all of the toxins that were ingested by their prey and that prey’s prey all the way down the food chain to the smallest zooplankton and phytoplankton. For example, mammal-eating killer whales are among the most toxic animals on the planet. Vessel presence and the noise they create may also be disrupting biologically significant behaviors such as foraging in wild killer whales. A combination of these or other threats would be the worst-case scenario for a given population of whales.

3. E: If humans encountered orcas in a wild setting, would they be dangerous?

D.G.: There has never been a recorded fatal attack on a human by a killer whale. There have only been two recorded incidents with whales and humans coming into physical contact with one another in the wild and in both cases the human was spared serious injury.

The first instance occurred in the 1970s when a killer whale bit a surfer but released the man immediately. The second occurrence was in 2005, when a boy wading in four feet of water near Ketchikan, Alaska, was bumped in the chest by a rushing killer whale; in this instance, the whale immediately turned behind the child and rushed back out to deeper water. Again, the human was not injured. The boy’s amazing account was reported in the Seattle Times:

4. E: Is there any rationale for keeping orcas in captivity—for research, breeding or other scientific purposes?

D.G.: Efforts to rationalize the captivity of orcas are commonplace. Facilities that keep killer whales in captivity are in the business to make money, so for them it is rational. If the whales were not profitable to the marine park they would be phased out.

One claim commonly made by marine parks to rationalize keeping whales in captivity is that they provide an environmental or conservation message to the viewing public that helps killer whales in the wild. Because there is no scientific evidence to support the claim by some exhibitors that the environmental or conservation education provided to spectators is effective in changing people’s behaviors in ways that actually benefit wild whales or their habitats, captive breeding should be terminated and captive whale shows should be phased out as a form of for—profit entertainment.

Research on wild whales is not contingent on any information we may learn from captives. In fact, it can be argued that the captive whale does not make an appropriate proxy for their wild counterparts given the artificial environment of a marine park including the chlorinated water in their tanks, the lack of space needed for optimal whale health and the altered diet of dead and frozen fish and vitamin supplements.

5. E: What is the rationale against such captivity?

D.G.: Killer whales are highly social animals that have evolved to swim in the open ocean and catch live prey which they share with their family members. The Southern Resident Killer Whales that I study are members of an extraordinarily close-knit clan—made up of three pods—where both male and female offspring remain with their mothers for their entire lives. These whales mate outside of their natal pod but always return to their mother for the bulk of each day.

This is an amazingly rare trait for mammal species, and one that illustrates just how bonded these animals are to one another. Members of the same pod share a unique dialect that can be distinguished from the dialect for other pods from the same clan. Amazingly, captive whales who were removed from the wild still vocalize using their birth language, even after 40 years in captivity.

6. E: Once they’ve been kept can an orca be successfully released? Arguments against releasing Tilikum include that he’d been in captivity too long and is part of the breeding program. Are those valid?

D.G.: I believe there are a number of captive whales that could be successfully reintroduced into the wild. The whales with the best chance of being successfully reintroduced are those whose family members are known to researchers and who are still living in their home ranges. For example, Corky in San Diego is a Northern Resident Killer Whale, and Lolita in Florida is a member of L-pod from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Clan. Both of these females still speak their natal languages and they are both healthy enough to begin a physical therapy regime to condition them for life in the wild. I believe their families would accept them ba

ck and that they would adapt to life outside of a tank. The amount of useful research that could be gleaned from the release of these whales would be invaluable. For example, we might finally be able to determine where on earth L-pod whales go during the winter months when the leave their summer range in Puget Sound, Washington.

The capture date and location of all wild caught captive whales is known. What is potentially unknown is whether their immediate family members are still living. If this information could be determined, then those animals with wild living relatives might also be successfully returned to the wild after rehabilitation.

Regarding Tilikum specifically; the reports of Tilikum having drilled teeth and other dental issues makes it unclear to me what condition he is really in. Nevertheless, if he could be allowed to build up strength, muscle mass, stamina to hold his breath, etc., I could imagine that he would be a potential candidate for release, IF his family could be located in Iceland— again, this point is critical for successful reintroduction.

The whales that are deemed poor candidates for release should be moved to open sea pens where they could be cared for and studied but not bred and not made to perform tricks for the public. Allowing them to live out the remainder of their lives in a more natural and dignified manner would be a real education for people who wanted to pay to view them and would allow scientists to work with them to learn more about them and their wild counterparts.

7. E: In terms of the attack on the trainer—what do you attribute this to? The fact that the animal is being confined or more that it is being used as a performer?

D.G.: I cannot answer the question about why Tilikum attacked his trainer, any attempt would be pure speculation and unverifiable. As a scientist studying wild killer whale behavior, I believe there were likely multiple factors involved and I believe we will never know the answer to this important question. What I do know is that if Tillikum was not in captivity then he would not have killed Ms. Brancheau.

CONTACT: University of California Davis.