By Samantha Booras
Senior Editor

When the movie “Free Willy” came out almost 21 years ago, somehow the story about the unlikely friendship between a 12-year-old boy and a three ton orca resonated with millions. Despite being a killer whale, Willy’s isolation, moodiness and homesickness due to being held in captivity and separated from his family incited an enormous amount of empathy. Although Willy was freed by the end of the movie, Keiko, the orca who played him, was still very much in captivity. When the public learned that Keiko was being held in captivity, living in a small, warm enclosure, breathing polluted air, they were outraged. Keiko was isolated, about a thousand pounds underweight and had a deteriorating skin condition due to his environment; in effect, he was slowly dying. Unwilling to accept this, millions of children and their parents led a campaign to return Keiko to the wild. After years of a complicated process, Keiko was deemed fit enough to return to his home and was released near where he was originally captured in the North Atlantic.

While there was incredible public support to return Keiko to the wild, he had the unique benefit of being a movie star. His visibility and fame made it possible to create a movement that was backed by not only the public, but also by many corporations and figures involved who would all benefit by the image of life imitating art. Keiko was not owned by SeaWorld (who greatly profit from their orcas) but by a small park in Mexico, who did not have the resources to properly care for him. Once the movie brought public outrage, they had no real choice but to donate Keiko to the experiment of returning a captive killer whale to his natural habitat. The orcas sill held in captivity today do not have this same benefit. While “Blackfish” has sparked the same debate about keeping orcas in captivity, the circumstances today surrounding the animals are completely different. SeaWorld will not simply give up their orcas, and the option of returning them to the wild would be a death sentence.

This debate continued at UCSD on April 7, 2014, with “SeaWorld: To Free or not to Free” where philosophy professor Andy Lamey and SeaWorld’s Corporate Director of Pathology and Research Dr. Judy St. Leger discussed SeaWorld’s practice of keeping orcas in captivity. [1] Dr. St. Leger mainly argued that the killer whales at SeaWorld serve as ambassadors for marine mammal conservation and a valuable subject for research. One topic touched upon was attributing the status of “personhood” to orcas. Professor Lamey was able to briefly mention how intelligent orcas are with social structures that give orcas a status close to “personhood.” [1] While I do not believe orcas have this exact status, they are still sentient beings with many similarities to humans especially when one looks at their culture. This is a point that I feel needs to be made more prominent in the current rhetoric about killer whales for it causes almost all of SeaWorld’s arguments about the benefits of orcas in captivity to unravel.

Orcas are intelligent. This is something that has been made clear, especially in recent years. The extent to which they have a cultural, traditional society reflective of an intelligent, emotional being is part of what makes it so cruel to keep them in captivity. Orcas are the most widespread marine mammal in the world, found in all of the world’s oceans and most seas. What is interesting is that each geographical region of orca has a distinct cultural society. Their traditions are based on the area that they live in. There are also three different types of orcas — resident (who stay mainly along one region of coastline), off shore (who are observed in the outer coast waters) and transient (who are dynamic and constantly moving like nomads).

Depending on the region that they live in they are often also divided on type lines. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, orcas have a strict matrilineal society in which they tend not to interact with others not from their own pod or related pod and will not mix with transient orcas at all for any sort of breeding or social purposes. However, orcas in New Zealand have weak and strong associations with each other and interact more with individuals outside of their own pod, regardless of type. Orcas thus can be divided into cultures that reflect geography and the type of killer whale they are. This diversity in culture, and in many cases their unwillingness to social mix paints a remarkably similar picture to the one we live in.

There are many different facets that make up orca culture including social structure, communication and hunting techniques. This teaching culture has successfully persisted for thousands of years. Social structure based on family ties is a very important part of this culture. Resident orcas tend to have a strong matrilineal society. Mothers usually spend their entire lives with their offspring, particularly their sons, for their daughters sometimes leave eventually after they have their own calf. Transient orcas, however, do not have such a strict matrilineal society. They have more fluid pods that sometimes break up and regroup.

Another advanced aspect of orca life is their communication abilities. Orcas, just like people, have different dialects and accents. Each pod has its unique dialect and related dialects that make up acoustic groups or “clans.” Their calls, which can be heard from miles away, are useful for locating each other. They also use echolocation clicks for hunting. In the Pacific Northwest transients tend to hunt mammals with relatively sensitive hearing, so the orcas use echolocation to prevent their prey from hearing them; residents who mainly hunt fish are free to call out to each other more. Also, if an orca has a different accent than their own, they tend not to interact, reflecting societal norms. Specific pod dialects have persisted for years. It is learned and passed on. Mothers teach their calves. While it is not exactly human language, it is still an advanced, nuanced form of communication that is part of their culture.

Killer whales, which are actually the largest members of the dolphin family, are named so for being apex predators. Their varied hunting techniques demonstrate their incredible intelligence and ingenuity. Again, their preference of diet comes again from their region and type. Generally, residents eat fish and transients eat mammals. However, in New Zealand, resident orcas in eat fish and mammals, their favorite being sting rays. In Norway, they have developed ways of herding schools of herring to make it easier for the entire pod to catch (they herd them into frenzied balls and then use their tails to stun the fish). Killer whales in the Antarctic have developed techniques to eat seals from a beach. Their technique of breaching themselves to catch prey, which older members of the pod must teach the young by pushing them on and off shore, obviously goes against natural survival instinct, again proving how orcas do not just behave because of their determined genetics, but also because they live in a culture that passes on tradition though teaching.

All of this only scratches the surface of the complexity of orca life. They also have a brain with an elaborate cortex and limbic lobe (linked to behavior, emotion and memory), and many other facets of emotive and empathetic behavior and culture. It is no question that a creature with this advanced humanlike culture deserves our respect. By looking at these three aspects of killer whales, SeaWorld’s arguments for captivity seem incredibly flawed.

Starting with social structure, at the debate Dr. St. Leger said herself that sometimes calves have to be separated from their mothers, because there is not enough space. [1] The strongest bond an orca has and their primary educator is thus lost to them forever. Also, being enclosed in a tank harms their acoustic abilities since they are constantly subjected to loud crowds and music, and the sounds that orcas make are constantly reverberated back at their sensitive ears as opposed to rolling for miles as they would in the ocean. Also if captured orcas are from different areas, then they have different accents and dialects. It seems logical to assume that orcas bred in captivity are developing their own dialect, or at least accent, so communication for all of them must be very difficult and frustrating. Obviously being fed by humans has eliminated the need for hunting. The main problem with this is that it limits their opportunity to actively engage their brains. By cutting off their need to hunt–a large reason for their need to communicate–we have essentially destroyed a culture.

Orcas in captivity no longer learn in the same multifaceted way they do in the wild, but mimic behavior to accomplish tricks. They are conditioned instead of learning for themselves. The tricks that trainers do with captive orcas may engage them to an extent, but those tricks are just a cheap imitation of natural behaviors in the wild. These killer whales are given an artificial environment that, no matter how much a trainer changes a routine or adds new technological toys, will never be remotely close to a real reactionary ocean. They are not reaching their full potential, and are forced into a small, fake environments not stimulating enough for them. While SeaWorld may counter and argue that instead their orcas receive medical care and live an easier life than they would in the wild, I say it is a diminished, dulled down life.

The rhetoric of SeaWorld claims that the research they conduct on their killer whales serves to protect killer whales everywhere, but one has to consider the price. [1] Orca culture, so similar to our own, in the cases of captivity has been completely erased and cheapened in order to understand it. There has been a historical tendency of humans to see a culture that is different than our own and reject it, or claim it, or destroy it in the name of bringing salvation. SeaWorld promotes their killer whales as ambassadors that will save not only wild orcas, but also the environment, [1] but in actuality they have contributed more harm to a society than good.

However, the fact of the matter is that these orcas are being held in captivity, and have been held for so long that freeing them is now impossible, given they are not aware of their culture that is necessary for survival in the wild. If anything has been learned from Keiko it is that sometimes the dependency of captive orcas on humans cannot be undone. Although Keiko was released into the wild and successfully swam about a thousand miles with a pod of orcas, he later ended up in a fjord in Norway, alone. He had been feeding himself, but he left the pod and remained in the port playing with the people there. The decision was eventually made to start feeding him to keep him alive, and Keiko spent the rest of his life there with his new human companions. Despite the support, Keiko would never be a wild orca.

Looking at today’s situation, “Blackfish” has roused anger towards SeaWorld and there is now a California bill proposed to stop SeaWorld orca shows and eventually move the orcas to sea pens, but there are still innumerable challenges before that solution can be passed and implemented. In an ideal world I would love to see the orcas transferred to sea pens, but that incredibly stressful transfer will require an enormous amount of money and political action. Maybe the sea pens could be something similar to a whale watching exhibit, that would still promote SeaWorld’s education image, but instead of seeing these awe inspiring creatures in a fake environment, the public can see captive orcas from a distance thriving as much as they will ever be able to; or maybe the best we will be ever able to accomplish is stopping SeaWorld from breeding their orcas.

While “Blackfish” has brought this issue to the forefront again, it has done so in a manner that has brought people together over something they hate — SeaWorld, rather than something they love like Keiko, whose movement was based on education. The attention now needs to be given to understanding the animal itself and its situation in the wild. As much as I wish things could happen as they did in “Free Willy,” I know they can’t, and yet as wary as I am of the barriers to saving the orcas, I still have hope given our current direction that one day, with education and support, killer whales in captivity will be a thing of the past.

Image by Bugsy Sailor


[1] Lamey, Andy and Dr. Judy St. Leger. “SeaWorld: To Free or not to Free.” UCSD. The Loft, La Jolla. 14 April 2014. Debate.


  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    “I still have hope given our current direction that one day, with education and support, killer whales in captivity will be a thing of the past.” …. so do I!!


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