Orcas (also known as killer whales) are truly incredible creatures. They possess brains four times larger than our own, and MRI scans have revealed that the lobes that deal with the processing of complex emotions are also larger in an orca’s brain than our own. In the wild, they swim up to 100 miles per day, and typically live in tight-knit matriarchal pods, spending their entire lives close to their family members. The compassionate bonds that these animals share run deep: earlier this year, a series of heartwarming pictures emerged, which showed a group of orcas looking after their disabled brother who was unable to fend for himself as well as they could.
The average life expectancy for wild orcas is 46 years for females and 38 years for males. However, their lifespans can extend considerably longer than that. When Granny – the head matriarch of J-Pod – was spotted off the coast of Canada in 2014, she was believed to be 103 years old!
When orcas are held captive, however, a very different fate awaits them. The typical orca tank comprises only 0.001 percent of the territory these animals would experience in the wild. Lolita, a long-time resident of Miami Seaquarium, has had to endure forty-five years of her life in the tiniest orca tank in the world. Last year, a photograph that revealed the size of the orcas’ enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego, relative to the park’s gargantuan parking lot, went viral and provoked outrage among animal lovers all over the world. Dorsal fin collapse is almost unheard of amongst wild whales, but the condition afflicts nearly every male orca who is held in captivity.
Last October, it was revealed that one of SeaWorld’s mother orcas was in such a deep state of depression, she was unable to feed her calf. Depression, self-harm, and abnormal, repetitive behaviors are also rife among captive populations. SeaWorld has had to resort to medicating their orcas with psychoactive drugs in an effort to keep these problems at bay. Captive orcas are also prone to bouts of unpredictable aggression, as evidenced by the story of the famous SeaWorld orca Tilikum, who has been involved in the death of three humans since his capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983. Sadly, he is now suffering from a serious lung infection and is widely believed to be dying from the condition.
A spontaneous, up-close encounter with a wild orca – who has chosen to approach humans in their own way and on their own terms – is always going to be far more thrilling than watching one float listlessly in a small tank.
An incredible picture taken by Ruana Singh, a naturalist with Steveston Seabreeze Adventures (SSA), makes this very clear.
According to SSA, the kayakers initially failed to notice the orca, as they were “all looking the wrong way!” Once they noticed what was going on, however, they were delighted. It must have been an honor to receive a visit from one of the most awe-inspiring animals of the sea!
This beautiful, spontaneous moment shows us that all orcas should be given the chance to live in this way: free to explore the open sea, travel wherever they choose and only get close to humans if they feel inclined to do so. Luckily, documentaries such as “Blackfish” have helped to change the public’s perception of cetacean captivity, while the work of committed activists and organizations has ensured that the entire captivity model is starting to fall apart. Following intense public pressure, SeaWorld recently announced its intention to end captive breeding across all of its parks and has also decided to end their elaborate shows in San Diego.
However, the fight to empty the tanks and ensure that all captive orcas are given the opportunity to be retired to a sizeable sea pen, where they could enjoy their lives without unnecessary human interference, continues. As we celebrate recent victories that may help bring about the end of cetacean captivity, let’s never forget those who still languish in tiny tanks.
Image Source: Steveston Seabreeze Adventures/Facebook