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Orcas, another name for Killer whales, are mighty creatures of the sea. They live in pods where members are strongly bonded to one another. Communication, personalities, and behaviors within pods are unique. Members of the pod can communicate with each other distinctly through calls, clicks, and whistles. Orcas, like humans, have feelings of “love, joy, and grief”, but at a significantly higher level. After knowing and understanding this information, there are many captive orcas around the world, especially in the United States.


Capturing wild orcas began in 1961 and was popular in several locations around the world including Washington State, British Columbia, Iceland, Japan, California, and Argentina. Don Goldsberry, the “corporate director of collecting” for Sea World, and Ted Griffin, owner of Seattle Marine Aquarium were the first orca capturers, primarily in Puget Sound. 



Today, there are 59 orcas living in captivity around the world and the majority of them reside in Sea World’s park locations in Orlando, FL, San Diego, CA, and San Antonio, TX. Throughout the day, the orcas perform in shows to entertain visitors. During the show, trainers show tricks the orcas have learned, ride and stand on the orcas' backs while they swim around the pool, and perform other stunts in the water with the orcas. In the United States, orcas in captivity must have at least a 15-meter horizontal length and 4-meter depth enclosure. Captive orcas are unable to behave naturally due to the constrained space they must live in daily for years. In the wild, they are able to roam and travel at different distances and depths which is critical to the mental well-being of the species. Captive orcas begin experiencing “acoustic stress”caused by sounds that would normally be muffled in the ocean. Shows, fireworks, microphones, and other loud sounds can cause extreme stress because captive orcas stay at the surface of the water in their enclosures. Vision changes and possible blindness can occur due to the chemicals and quality of water the orcas live in, increased sun exposure, and trauma that may have led to ocular damage.


Juvenile orcas are separated from their mothers in the wild and in captivity. The social structure the orcas have been born into is broken and instead, they are placed in “artificial” social groups or live in solitary which is completely unnatural for the species. Transfers between different facilities multiple times reflect the unpredictable life orcas in captivity face. 


Many orcas in Sea World engage in “stereotypical behavior” which reflects the immense amount of suffering they endure. When the orcas become bored or lack stimulation, they begin chewing metal gates surrounding their enclosures. Biting on metal continuously leads to broken teeth and dental procedures to prevent infections. Due to the lack of adequate space, many orcas in Sea World have been found immobile and lying at the bottom of their enclosures.  


Several injuries have occurred due to orcas becoming aggressive toward trainers. Forced into confinement, living with other orcas in the same space, performing shows, being underfed, lack of stimulation, and increased boredom can lead to aggression. Additionally, in Sea World where trainers would ride, stand, and swim with the orcas. 


Lolita the orca, also known as Tokitae which means shimmering water” was captured from Penn Cove, WA in 1970. She was brought to the Miami Seaquarium where she would spend decades in captivity. In 1980, Lolita’s mate, Hugo, passed away. After Hugo’s passing, Lolita stayed in an 80 ft by 73 ft enclosure alone. Lolita’s trainer, Marcia Henton began noticing Lolita showing signs of depression. Marcia reported Lolita had low energy levels during shows, remained immobile as she lay at the bottom of her enclosure, and every so often looked to see when her trainer would return. The Tokitae Foundation is pushing for a “gradual release program” which involves several steps to help Lolita join her pod once again. First, connecting Lolita’s enclosure to her pod could help her communicate with other members of the pod and rebuild bonds. Second, with a partnership between Ocean Futures, The Humane Society of the United States, Miami Seaquarium, and other orca experts, Lolita could return to Puget Sound and live in a “sea pen” where she would have ample room to roam and hunt live fish while being monitored closely. Hopefully, with time and progress, Lolita may be able to fully return to the wild, but if she isn’t capable of surviving without close monitoring, she would live in the sea pen where she would still be able to behave naturally in the wild.


Edited by: Kavya Venkateshwaran

Photo by: PETA


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