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The Fate of Captive Orcas

Killer whales, more properly known as orcas, have been kept in captivity since 1961, helpless victims of a blatantly commercial experiment which has seen dozens of wild orcas plucked from their families and forced to live in artificial social groupings which bear scant resemblance to their natural order.
Morgan, held in captivity at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain.

Unaware of their plight, millions of people flock each year to watch the orca show, seduced by the extravagant promises of the display industry. Glossy brochures herald a spectacle which will simultaneously 'entertain and educate the whole family'. Visitors are invited to enter a fantasy land, where orcas weighing several tonnes circle, leap and tail-slap seemingly out of sheer high spirits. Highly-choreographed show routines, performed to a background of tired old rock songs, are presented as 'natural behaviour'. Entranced, many of the spectators fail to register the bare concrete walls of the tank. At show's end, as they file out, few people notice the endless circling of the captives in the holding pools or the drooping dorsal fins of the males.

Clever marketing and showmanship have, however, failed to completely conceal the reality behind the razzmatazz. Visitors may experience feelings of disappointment, distaste and disillusionment after watching the orcas perform, finding it hard to articulate these feelings precisely, but aware that the docile, playful orca portrayed is far removed from the real animal. Similar emotions have been reported after seeing captive tigers or elephants - an awareness that the animal's dignity is demeaned and that, in 'taming the spirit of the great beasts', we, too, are somehow reduced in stature.

Orcas in captivity infographic
Orcas in captivity infographic

This growing uneasiness with the concept of keeping orcas in captivity has only been increased by the renowned documentary Blackfish, documenting the reality of the captives' existence. Despite the best attempts of the display industry to blow a smokescreen over such negative publicity, the wider world is now increasingly aware that all is not well in fantasy-land. In recent years, first a trickle, then a steady torrent, of incidents have been reported. A growing catalogue of 'accidents', illnesses, failed pregnancies and premature deaths that have helped to show up this industry for the cruel circus that it really is.

As of December 2014, a total of 57 orcas are held in captivity (22 wild-captured plus 35 captive-born) in at least 14 marine parks in 8 different countries.

Read about the orcas held in captivity

orcas-in-captivity-2014.pdf (or see table below)

So what has happened to the orcas that have been captured?

  • At least 148 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961 (including Pascuala and Morgan).
  • 126 of these orcas are now dead.  
  • In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years (maximum 50-60 years) and 46 years for females (maximum 80-90 years).
  • At least 160 orcas have died in captivity, not including 30 miscarried or still-born calves.
  • SeaWorld holds 24 orcas in its three parks in the United States and owns (at least) a further four at Loro Parque in Spain (ownership of Adan and Morgan not verified). At least forty-four orcas have died at SeaWorld.

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