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Freedom for Orcas

Remember the 1993 blockbuster Free Willy, which tells the story about a young boy who forms an unusual friendship with a killer whale and helps it to escape a corrupted amusement park? This popular film in some way raised awareness about the plight of whales held in captivity.

Captive orcas, also known as killer whales were first captured in 1961 for the sole purpose of entertainment. With a little incentive they are forced to perform highly choreographed routines in front of masses of people. These animals are considered as the top aquatic predators that roam the oceans and by far the largest predator in captivity. So why shouldn’t they be kept in captivity?

  • To date there are 45 killer whales living in amusement parks around the world (America, Japan and Europe), with the majority have been bred in captivity.
  • At least 134 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, 107 of these have died. The most common causes are pneumonia, septicaemia and other types of infections.
  • Of the 59 pregnancies in captivity, only 38% of the calves have survived.
  • Survival of the wild population based on approximately 250 non-calves is significantly higher than non-calf captive whales
    • Males in the wild: 50 – 60 years yet in captivity the oldest male reached 30 years of age.
    • Female in the wild: 80 – 90 years yet in captivity the oldest was 40 years of age.
  • They are confined in a comparatively small pool surrounded in concrete, inhibiting their natural behaviour. For a human this is similar to being locked in a white room with a few other people and being fed for doing tricks. Confinement can lead to chronic stress, psychological depression and boredom.
    • Forced association between orcas, which can lead to aggressive behaviour.
  • Orcas grow up to 9 meters and weigh 7 – 9 tonnes – they are just too “big, complex and intelligent” for captivity.
  • Although they reach sexual maturity at the age of 14, female orcas in captivity become pregnant as young as 9 years of age.

So why are they kept in captivity? One of the main reasons is for research. Very little is known about these creatures, understanding orcas can help to protect them in nature, and also raise awareness about the dangers they may face. However, wouldn’t it be more efficient to study them in their natural environment? Let’s be realistic, the only reason theme parks like Sea World continue to breed orcas in captivity is because of the large amount of profit it gains from the tourism industry.

Aggression between two female orcas in captivity (source: Google creative commons)

Aggression between two female orcas in captivity lead to a fatality (source: Google creative commons)

Although orcas in the wild are no longer captured for public display, they are still being bred in captivity. Their sheer size, large home range and their highly complex social behaviour make it blatantly obvious that orcas are unsuited to a life in captivity. Since these creatures are completely dependent on humans, it seems cruel to release them into the open sea. Therefore, the most practicable solution I believe is to stop breeding orcas in captivity and release the orcas in captivity into large sea pens, allowing them to live out the rest of their lives in a semi-natural habitat.

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