A lot can happen in 34 years. Adventure, education, love, family, friendship … the list goes on. Some people go on to accomplish amazing things. And some are relegated to a life in captivity.

Thirty-four years ago, Captain Paul Watson met a captive orca named Haida at Sealand of the Pacific. As a journalist, he was doing an investigation on Sealand, and along with his two-year-old daughter Lani, he had the opportunity to meet the whale.

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Touching Photo of Captain Paul Watson Meeting Tilikum in 1982 Tells Us Why We Need To #EmptyTheTanks

It’s been 34 years since this encounter, and Watson has since dedicated his life to saving and protecting marine animals in the wild with his organization, Sea Shepherd. Under his guidance and vision, thousands of marine animals have been rescued and spared from a life of captivity – be it in the Taiji Coves of Japan, to the Antarctic seas, to the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Paul Watson’s leadership has ignited a wave of activism to protect the seas and all who inhabit them.

Haida, the stunning whale in the photo was one of the first to be put on display for entertainment and the stress and frustration of captivity took a major toll on him. After a series of anti-captivity protests, Sealand agreed to rehabilitate and release Haida, however, in a tragic twist of fate the whale passed away a mere two days before he was to return to the ocean.

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With complex familial and social relationships, we can gather that orcas are highly self-aware, adaptable, and intelligent. In captivity, however, they receive none of the stimulation or interaction they so rightly deserve. As  highly social animals, orcas live in tight matrilineal pods, composed of grandmothers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They typically choose to remain with their immediate family group for the rest of their lives. So you can imagine the damage done to orcas, like Haida, when they’re cruelly torn from their natural habitat and forced to spend a life in captivity and isolation. Throughout their lives in captivity, orcas display zoochotic (psychotic) behaviors, similar to symptoms of prison neurosis. Some stereotypic behaviors include swimming in circles repetitively, establishing pecking orders, and lying motionless at the surface or on the aquarium floor for relatively long periods of time.

Our only hope is that thirty-four years from now – if not sooner – we will look back at this photo as a relic from a strange past where we thought it was acceptable to keep majestic animals in captivity.

How Can You Help?

  • If you want to see orcas, the best way to do so is to witness them in their wild, natural habitat.

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  • Educate yourself. If you want to be a more outspoken advocate for captive whales, make an effort to find out more about the complex legal, political, and financial factors at play in the whale captivity industry. “Death at SeaWorld,” David Kirby’s disturbing exposé of the industry, is a good place to start.

  • Support the work of Sea Shepherd. You could make a financial donation, or volunteer with initiatives such as event planning, fundraising, or petition drives.

Editor’s Note 4/28/2016: A previous version of this post stated the whale featured was Tilikum. Captain Paul Watson has since amended his comments on the image, explaining that the whale is, in fact, Haida. To read the correction from Watson, click here.

All Image Source: Captain Paul Watson/Facebook