August sees us celebrating one of the most iconic of all species of cetacean - the orca, or killer whales as they are more commonly known. Orca are the largest of all dolphins and their striking black and white colouring ensure that they are never confused with other species in the wild. Orca are found throughout the world's seas and depending on the type of social group and location, orcas will hunt fish, squid, seals, sea lions, seabirds and even whales much larger than themselves. Until recently the long-held belief is that all orca belong to the same species however recent genetic studies have revealed there to be at least 3 separate species. Much more work is needed to determine the actual number of species of orca but it just goes to show that we truly are only just scratching the surface of what there is to know about these magnificent creatures.
To begin our journey into the world of the orca, Cathy Williamson, WDCS's Anti-Captivity campaigner, tells us more about the unfortunate fate of some of these animals at the hands of humans.
The beauty and intelligence of the Species of the Month for August, the orca, has sadly resulted in their exploitation for profit. Their speed, acrobatic ability and striking appearance has made individuals of this often favourite cetacean species the stars of the show at aquaria and marine parks in several countries across the world.
It was at one of these, Sea World in Florida, perhaps best known for its orca shows, now remodelled into a theatrical spectacular called “Believe”, that tragedy hit in February this year. 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, while interacting at the pool side with adult male orca Tillikum, captured in Iceland in 1983, was dragged into the pool by her hair and soon after died, the autopsy reporting drowning and traumatic injury as her cause of death. Ms Brancheau’s was the third human death to have implicated Tillikum, an orca who features regularly in Sea World’s circus style shows, a huge male who sweeps across the show pool creating a huge wave which spills water over the pool sides, soaking spectators who’ve chosen to sit in the ‘soak zone’. One morning in 1999, Sea World employees arrived for work to find the naked body of a man draped over the back of Tillikum. It was thought he had sneaked into the park during the night and tried to swim with the orca. In 1991, Tillikum was one of three orcas involved in the death of another trainer, Keltie Byrne, who fell into the tank at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific in Canada.
Ms Brancheau’s death has raised many questions about the dangers associated with keeping such large predators in captivity and also about whether the orcas themselves suffer from their confinement. You only have to look at orca survival rates in captivity to realise something must be wrong with the practice. Of 136 orcas taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, 123 are now dead, surviving an average only four years in captivity. Even orcas born in captivity survive on average only seven years. And yet in the wild males live an average 35 years (to a maximum of 50-60) and females an average 50 (to a maximum of 80-90). “Safe” – as the aquarium industry would have us believe - from the “dangers” of the wild (pollution, boat traffic, habitat degradation) captive orcas are still living highly shortened lives in their concrete tanks. Something else must be killing them and what it appears to be is the stress of confinement in captivity. For these are animals supremely adapted to their environment, the top predators in the food chain and one of the most highly social animals found on earth, animals that travel together in the same group throughout their whole lives. Captured for our entertainment, imprisoned in artificial surroundings, fed dead fish, their wild nature destroyed. No wonder they suffer from stress and die so young.
In spite of what we know about their suffering in captivity, orcas are still threatened by capture from the wild as the Russian government grants annual quotas for such captures. Others are born only knowing stark concrete walls and removed from their mothers at a young age. Others are kept alone. It’s time to end the suffering and phase out the keeping of these animals in captivity for good.