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Fate of orcas in captivity

The fate of captive orcas

Today there are more than 3,600 whales and dolphins held captive in aquariums, zoos, and marine parks.

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 life in the wild.

As of March 29th, 2024 there are:

At least
Orcas held in captivity
were captured in the wild
were born in captivity

At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961 (including Pascuala and Morgan).

  • 133 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 179 orcas have died in captivity, not including 30 miscarried or still-born calves.
  • SeaWorld holds 18 orcas in its three parks in the United States. At least 44 orcas have died at SeaWorld.
  • One of the most infamous capture incidents saw over 80 whales from the Southern Resident population of orcas in Washington State rounded-up at Penn Cove in 1970. Seven were taken into captivity while as many as five whales died. Today this population is recognized as endangered.
  • At least 19 orcas have been taken from the wild into captivity since 2002, most recently in Russia. 10 individuals illegally caught in 2018 and held in a holding facility in Srednyaya Bay near Nakhodka were released back into the wild in June, July and August 2019.

The 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 catalog of 'accidents', illnesses, failed pregnancies and premature deaths that have helped to show up this industry for the cruel circus that it really is.

The story of Corky and Fife

The longest surviving orca in captivity is Corky, captured in 1969 from the Northern Resident population that inhabits the waters around Vancouver Island, Canada. She is held at SeaWorld in San Diego. None of her seven offspring in captivity have survived. Her family (known as the A5 pod) continue to thrive in the wild, including Corky's brother, Fife, who you can adopt to help support our work.

orca swimming through the surface of the water

History of orca captures

Orca captures in Russia

Since 2012, at least 29 orcas have been captured alive in Russian waters. While only three remain in Russia, at least 15 have been exported to China for display in aquariums there. Narnia, Nord and Naja (also known as Malishka or Juliet) are three wild caught orcas from the Sea of Ochotsk displayed at Moskvarium in Moscow.

In 2018, the infamous "whale jail" made headlines around the world. At least 11 orcas had been captured illegally and together with 90 belugas they ended up in a holding facility in Sreadnyaya Bay near Vladivostok. One orca and three belugas later disappeared and it is not clear whether they escaped or died. A group of scientists representing a range of international organisations, including WDC, sent a letter to the Russian authorities. They offered expertise and demanded the safe release of the orcas and belugas. A team consisting of Russian and international experts was given access to the holding facility in March 2019. There were great concerns about the health of the individuals due to the cold weather and the poor quality holding conditions.

The experts came to the conclusion, that with the right kind of rehabilitation and a robust plan, the orcas and belugas could be returned safely to their home waters. An agreement was signed by Governor of Russia's Primorsky Region to begin the process of evaluating them to determine when and how to release them. After further negotiations  the first two orcas were released into the Sea of Okhotsk at the end of June 2019.Three orcas were released in July followed by three more in early August. The remaining two individuals were brought back to their home waters at the end of August 2019. Between June and October, 37 belugas from the whale jail were also returned to the Sea of Okhotsk. By mid November, all belugas were released.

The Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), co-founded by WDC research fellow Erich Hoyt, has conducted research on the orca populations in Russia for many years. FEROP, together with other experts and organizations, has recommended to stop issuing official capture quotas due to the lack of information regarding population structures and sizes.

Orca in whale jail

The Penn Cove orca captures

More than 80 orcas were captured in Penn Cove (near Puget Sound in Washington State, USA) in August 1970. Seven were sold to marine parks. At least 5 orcas died, the others were either released or escaped. Partly as a result of these captures, the Southern resident orca population is now critically endangered.

The last remaining orca from these captures died in August 2023. Lolita (Tokitae) had been held at Miami Seaquarium in Florida, USA, since 1970. Lolita’s family is the L25 matriline of the “L” pod of the Southern Resident orca community. Lolita’s mother is believed to be L25, Ocean Sun (estimated birth year 1930), who still resides with Lolita’s family swimming freely in the open waters where Lolita was captured. In 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated the Southern Resident orcas as an endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act. In 2015, Lolita was officially included in the endangered listing of the Southern Resident orca population by NMFS.

The footage is disturbing and depicts the brutal, extremely stressful, and haphazard methods utilized in capturing orcas from the wild. It also features the first-ever TV interview with diver John Crowe, who worked on the Penn Cove capture and was in charge of secretly disposing of the carcasses of the dead (or suffocated) orcas, to avoid them being counted in the total numbers taken during the capture.

This video shows original and shocking footage of the captures. Thank you to Baby Wild Films for providing us with permission to share this video.

Captures in Iceland and Japan

Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. 17 of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks in the USA. The captures in Iceland started after they were prohibited in the US Pacific Northwest in the mid 1970s. The most famous orcas captured in Iceland were Keiko and Tilikum. Keiko, star of the movies "Free Willy" was released into his home waters in 2002. Tilikum's story was the focus of the movie "Blackfish". He died on January 6, 2017 after 34 years in captivity.

In 1997, ten orcas were captured in Taiji, Japan. Five were taken into captivity, the other five were driven back out to sea. By June 1997, two of the captured orcas had already died. The other three passed away in 2004, 2007 and 2008. Although captured under a permit for "scientific research", all orcas were on public display at the three Japanese aquaria they were purchased from.

Tilikum the orca

Orcas held in Marine Parks

At least 55 orcas (killer whales) are held captive in marine parks around the world. Use the links below to access pdfs which show the full genealogy of the orcas at each of the parks.

map of all the continents


Kiska, the last orca held in captivity in Canada, died on March 9th 2023 at Marineland in Ontario.

map of all the continents

Europe and Russia

Marineland, Antibes in France holds two orcas. Loro Parque in Tenerife holds four and Russia has one on public display in Moscow.

map of all the continents

North America

SeaWorld holds more orcas than any other marine park. Tilikum, whose story was told in the movie BLACKFISH, was held at SeaWorld Orlando, Florida.

map of all the continents

South America

Mundo Marino in Buenos Aires, Argentina has just one solitary orca, Kshamenk. He is used in breeding programs with other parks overseas.

map of all the continents


 There are currently three Japanese facilities; KamogawaNagoya and Kobe Suma SeaWorld (not yet open to the public) keeping a total of seven orcas. One of them was wild-caught.

map of all the continents


Chimelong Ocean Kingdom holds 14 orcas, Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World another six and two more individuals are at Wuxi Changqaio Ocean Kingdom. Fifteen were caught in Russian waters between 2013 and 2016, 7 were born in captivity.

The current list of orcas in captivity, when they were captured or born, and where they are currently held.

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