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What's Next for the World's Captive Orcas

10/12/2014 19:02 GMT | Updated 09/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Killer whales may have a bad reputation - their name attests to that! - but, in reality, they are highly intelligent and social animals. After the first orca captured for exhibition purposes in 1965, the popularity of these animals caused the business to boom, resulting in today's 52 captive orcas worldwide. However, despite reassurances by marine parks and their staff, the general public has grown increasingly worried about the unethical and scandalous treatment these animals receive in captivity.

Killer whales, not mindless killers

Video made for WDC by Nanna Paskesen

Orcas - also known as killer whales - are toothed whales of the dolphin family found in a wide range of areas, in oceans all over the world. Three distinct subspecies can be distinguished: the resident orcas eat fish and live in large matriarchal groups, the transient orcas eat marine mammals and cetaceans, and travel in smaller, less stable groups, and little is known about the last type, the offshore orcas. Due to differences in behaviour, diet, vocalisations ("dialects") and genetics, scientists have started suspecting these could in fact be three different species entirely.

Orcas are highly social animals, with social structures comparable only to that of elephants and higher primates. They can be seen travelling in groups called "pods" formed of one to four matrilineal lines, comprising on average 5.5 animals per line.

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Image courtesy of Mark Gunn

Orcas are "self-aware beings that routinely make decisions and choices about the details of their lives" (Johnson W., 1990, Bellerive Symposium on Whales and Dolphins in Captivity in Geneva), and are very intelligent animals. Their brains have extensively developed cerebral hemispheres and deep folds in the cerebral cortex, comparable to the brains of humans and other more cognitively able animals. The ratio of their brain to spinal cord ('encephalisation quotient', which is used to give a rough estimation of an animal's intelligence) is roughly 3 - compared to chimpanzee's 2.3, human's 7.6, and dog's 1.2.

Orcas in the wild

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Image courtesy of digicia

Exact numbers are uncertain but the wild orca population is estimated at no lower than 50,000 individuals worldwide, though half of that number is made up by the Antarctica population. Their IUCN conservation status is currently "data deficient" due to concerns that there are actually three separate species instead of one. However, until 2008, the status was "conservation dependent", meaning conservation efforts were required to prevent orcas becoming endangered, and local populations are considered threatened.

Orcas in captivity

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Image courtesy of Jason

As of today, there are 52 orcas in captivity around the world, 27 of which are held in SeaWorld resorts across the globe. Most were born in captivity as only 13 of those were captured - including 7 from Icelandic orca populations. Two orcas were captured from Russia recently, in summer 2012 and September 2013, despite the absence of orca capture quotas for Russia - making this capture effectively illegal. There are fears that capturing wild orcas with no concern for different groups (ie. transient and resident orcas) will severely harm local wild populations.

These orcas fell off the public radar for months as they were being transported and their fate was still unknown. It was suspected they would be displayed in the Sochi Olympics but remained in Moscow instead. They are currently held in temporary facilities, and have been for over 10 months, in the VDNKh exhibition centre in Moscow, awaiting the opening of a new aquarium in December 2014 - though construction works are rumoured to have been extended into 2015. Word is that the people in charge of the VDNKh admire SeaWorld's style, so it is expected that these two orcas will be trained to do tricks and perform for the public as well as be encouraged to breed.

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Image courtesy of Spencer Wright

There are currently no orcas held captive in the UK, as no holding facilities - including large commercial ones like Seaworld's - fit the standards defined by the Department of Environment in 1991.

Does captivity suit orcas?

So, with "only" 52 animals in captivity and over 50,000 in the wild, what's the big deal? Since Free Willy in 1993, public concern for living conditions for captive marine mammals has been increasing. The documentary Blackfish in early 2013 renewed public campaigns to free orcas from marine parks such as SeaWorld, claiming that these majestic animals are not meant for captivity. So what exactly happens to orcas in captivity?

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Image courtesy of Thilo Salmon

In a word, they wither. Captive orcas commonly show physical and psychological symptoms from being held captive, generally due to boredom, lack of space, sensory deprivation, and proximity with animals they would not encounter in the wild.

Orcas have been shown to display stereotypic and repetitive motions out of stress and boredom, such as bumping their heads against their aquarium walls, often damaging themselves, or chewing concrete tank walls and steel gates. This wears their teeth down, exposing the tooth pulp and forcing trainers to drill through their teeth, to remove the pulp to wash them daily to avoid infections and death.

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Image courtesy of Eye Steel Films

No matter how large, a tank cannot compare to the open ocean in terms of sensory stimulation. The walls hamper echolocation, there is little visual stimulation, and there are no live fish for them to hunt. Dr Paul Spong, an orca specialist, argues that this sensory deprivation is the root cause of some orcas' aggressive behaviour, possibly accounting for the cases of trainers killed by captive orcas. Indeed, orcas in the wild display no aggressivity towards humans, and in fact have even been shown to help them hunt other mammals! This could also explain the agrgessivity captive orcas often show each other. Captive orcas are often forced to socialise and interact with orcas they would not encounter in the wild, and with whom they don't even share a common 'language' - causing aggressivity and brutal encounters sometimes leading to death.

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Image courtesy of Geoff McHugh

Simple facts also attest to the damage captivity does to orcas. In the wild, life expectancy is, on average, 50 (reaching as high as 80-90) years for females and 29 (reaching as high as 50-60) years for males. The average life expectancy once captured and in captivity is 3-9 years. Captive orcas are also bred at a much younger age than in the wild, starting breeding programs as early as 8 years old, compared to an average of 14.5 years in the wild. Gestation period for orcas in 17 months, and most wild orcas reproduce about once every five years, but captive orcas are sometimes reinseminated 12 months after giving birth. Inbreeding is also a serious concern in captive orca breeding programmes, and these programmes show a disturbingly high number of stillbirths.

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Image courtesy of Ben Yanis

All in all, it seems that these large, highly intelligent apex predators do not belong in tanks. Arguments can be made for the benefit to education and scientific research and advancement, but the reality seems to be that no significant research benefitting wild orcas has come out of SeaWorld's research programme, which seems to focus on artificial insemination for orcas.

Public awareness and hope for a future change

So what can you do to help stop captivity programmes for orcas? First and foremost, avoiding marine parks and aquariums displaying orcas - the main ones being SeaWorld, Loro Parque and Marineland - will make a difference. There is no stronger message to the corporate world than a sharp decrease in sales and stock prices plummeting. In fact, since Blackfish in 2013, SeaWorld's attendance has been steadily dropping, with a decrease of 13% this year.

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Image courtesy of Eye Steel Film

Second, speak up. Share what you know, spread the word, make some noise and your voice will be heard. The movie Blackfish is one example of this: portraying the story of Tilikum, an orca who killed three people over the course of his life, it sparked outrage and shock at the state of captive orcas, particularly in SeaWorld. It even inspired an online petition with over 1 million backers and celebrity support. Though SeaWorld claims the movie is "inaccurate and misleading", they have repeatedly declined to take part in its production. A new legislative bill in California making it illegal to use orcas for entertainment and performance purposes has gained momentum, also in response to the movie.

There are many ways for you to help: you can sign petitions online (see a list below), or you can donate and support orca research trusts and ethical labs, like the Orca research trust, the Orca lab by Dr Paul Spong, Whale Research, or Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

List of petitions you can sign:

"Save Narnia, the captured Orca, and her companions who were stolen from the ocean!" here.

"Russia, stop wild orca captures!" here.

"SeaWorld: end captive orca breeding program" here.

"Lolita the orca needs us again" here.

"Enact the Orca Welfare and Safety Act to make it illegal to hold orcas in captivity for performance or entertainment purposes" in California, here.

"Please Release SeaWorld's Animals to Sanctuaries" here.

And many more over the internet!

The state of orcas in captivity is a very contentious debate. Anti-captivity proponents argue fiercely that these animals are not meant for an artificial life, and that keeping them captive brings no benefit outweighing the unethical treatment they receive. On the other hand, many marine mammal trainers and veterinarians argue that captive orcas are well cared for, that many of them would not survive a reintroduction in the wild, and that the benefit they bring to research is tangible. The only way to know for certain would be to directly communicate with these animals, so we must rely on available facts and make a decision on where to stand. Experience orcas the best way possible - in the wild. Check out Frontiers Orca Kayaking Adventure in Canada!

Check out Frontier's blog 'Into the Wild' where you can read more articles like this!

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