SustainabilitySocial Issues

The Killers in the Park

A grey whale slowly moves its fluke tail up and down, propelling itself through the cold waters of the Pacific. Running out of air, it rises to the ocean’s surface when it suddenly notices a group of tall, black dorsal fins piercing the water. The whale senses danger and triples its speed in an effort to escape. But it’s already too late.

Within seconds, the grey whale is surrounded by the deadliest predators of the sea: a pod of orcas. One by one, the orcas take turns harassing the grey whale and biting chunks of flesh from its prey. The grey whale eventually loses its will to live and stops struggling. In just under a minute, the water turns a deathly shade of red and the grey whale is reduced to bits of meat.  

It’s because of this aggressive feeding behaviour that sailors long ago called orcas killer whales.

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(Image Source: Havasi Wilderness Foundation)

Growing to an average length of 25 feet and hitting the scales at almost six tonnes, orcas simply have no competition. They rule the seven seas as the apex predator and use unique methods to overcome agile prey including penguins, seals and even the terribly feared great white sharks. From using the force of waves to knock a seal off an ice floe to beaching themselves to snag a sea lion from the shore, the orca’s hunting techniques are an incredible reflection of their intelligence and teamwork. It is for this reason that experts refer to orcas as the wolves of the sea.

The orca’s fearsome reputation classes it among other terrifying predators like the lion and the crocodile. Yet, while the latter two animals kill approximately 100 and 1,000 humans each year, there have been no reported human deaths due to a wild orca. Such a fact is certainly difficult to believe. Although the reason why killer whales do not hunt humans is still unclear, studies in the past conducted by marine biologists have shown that killer whales are, in fact, playful and friendly creatures. They may not be so compatible with their prey, but they have strong attachments to their kin and seem to be on good terms with us humans.

Thus, it didn’t take long for the public to be gradually amazed by the mysterious killer whales. Aquariums and marine parks alike didn’t waste any time capturing orcas so that people could be entertained by their clever and lively nature. California’s Marineland of the Pacific was home of the first ever captive orca in 1961. Since that year, 156 wild killer whales have been taken into captivity and four people have passed away because of captive killer whale attacks.

How is it possible that an animal that never harmed us in the wild killed four people while living under our own supervision?

Howard Garrett, a seasoned veteran in orca research and conservation, claims that the pressures of living in a small tank causes the “orcas to occasionally lash out.” Garrett brings up a valid point. Like us, orcas, dolphins and other marine mammals also experience stress.

27 of the 60 captive killer whales in marine parks and aquariums today were captured from the wild. In the open ocean, those 27 orcas swam with their pods, hunted their own food and travelled almost 100 miles every day. But in captivity, they are isolated in separate tanks, they are hand-fed and there’s only so much swimming they can do in a 35 foot deep artificial tank.

Experiencing a drastic change in habitat and living conditions can be traumatizing for orcas. Their poor health while in captivity only adds to the pressures that they face. Many killer whales in marine parks suffer from broken teeth, kidney disease and collapsed dorsal fins, which is a tell-tale sign of an unhealthy orca.    

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(Image Source: Defend Marine Mammals)

The conditions that orcas experience in captivity pile stress upon them and cause them to be much more aggressive with humans than their wild counterparts. Popular marine parks such as SeaWorld state that they have policies put in place to ensure the safety of their trainers. “Forbidding individuals from entering the pool without attendants ready to provide assistance and equipping trainers with oxygen-supply systems to protect them from drowning,” is an example of one their new policies. But what use are they going to be against a massive killer whale that is stressed and agitated after being subjected to horrible conditions?

In 2010, an orca named Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau during a Dine with Shamu show at SeaWorld. Tilikum, who was responsible for two human deaths beforehand, had dragged Brancheau under the water and stayed below the pool’s surface. Employees desperately used nets and food to distract the orca, coercing him to let go of Brancheau’s body. Tilikum finally released the trainer and was separated in a different pool where he was pacified by other staff. Unfortunately, it was too late. Dawn Brancheau passed away from drowning and blunt force trauma, having had her spinal cord detached and her left arm completely torn off. She had been a skilled trainer and had gotten along well with Tilikum, so the sudden attack by the killer whale was inconceivable.

Orcas are incredibly intelligent creatures, but their minds, too, can be clouded by stress and other pressures. No matter what policies marine parks put in place, trainers will always be at risk. The simplest solution is to free the captive orcas, but that’s a path that parks like SeaWorld will never embark upon.

Photo: CTV News

(Image Source: Their Turn)

They are aware of the negative effects of captivity on killer whales but deny that any such effects are impacting the orca’s physical and mental health. Yet, when it’s at the point where trainers are dying because of killer whale attacks, are marine parks willing to gamble lives just to continue filling their pockets with money? Clearly, they are because they’re quite adamant on keeping the orcas in their tanks.

However, it’s a choice they have to rethink not only for the sake of their trainers, but also for the killer whales. These majestic animals deserve to be admired in their natural habitat, where they frolic with joy. They shouldn’t be in tiny, miserable tanks where they have to appear to the audience as if they’re content with their home. Because, as Howard Garrett says, “animals in captivity is essentially deprivation and brutality presented as fun.”


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