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Our love of orcas is making them miserable

Whales and dolphins are smart, social, and thrive in the open sea. Why do we force them to live in tiny pools?

An illustration depicts two oversized people staring at an orca. One is holding their hand up to the orca. Vartika Sharma for Vox
Tove K. Danovich is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Ringer, Eater, NPR, the Guardian, and many other outlets. Her latest book is Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them.

Tokitae, stage name Lolita, was less than a year from freedom when she died. She had been captured in 1970, when she was 4 years old, and spent the remaining 53 years of her life performing for enchanted audiences at the Miami Seaquarium theme park, in what has been described by some as the smallest orca enclosure in North America. She was 22 feet long; her enclosure was only 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep.

For a while, she had another orca, Hugo, as a companion, but he died in 1980, at just 12 years old, after a brain aneurysm many believe was caused by his habit of repeatedly bashing his head against the sides of the pool. Though orcas in the wild form close social bonds with family members whom they spend their lives with, Tokitae lived alone and, at times, with dolphins after Hugo’s death.

Since the 1990s, animal rights activists pushed for Tokitae’s return to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, to her mother and her family. She was a wild animal, a member of an endangered species — but she was also property. There wasn’t anything animal advocates could do as long as the Seaquarium didn’t want to let her go.

But after Miami Seaquarium was acquired by a new owner in 2021, the park reversed course. Tokitae was to be released to an ocean sanctuary in the Salish Sea, where she would be able to properly swim and dive for the first time in 50 years.

Like for most of the 166 orcas captured from the wild since the 1960s, mostly in the waters around Iceland and Puget Sound, that freedom never came. Tokitae died in captivity at the Seaquarium this past August from old age and multiple illnesses. (Miami Seaquarium did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.) All this because humans had fallen under the spell of marine mammals like orcas and wanted them in a place where we could see them on demand.

An orca jumps in the air above a pool.
Tokitae performs a trick during a training session at the Miami Seaquarium.
Matias J. Ocner/Getty Images/TNS

Tokitae’s death renewed public outrage over the conditions in which cetaceans — highly intelligent, social marine mammals like whales and dolphins — are confined for human entertainment. In the US, such sentiment has been brewing for at least a decade, since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish — an exposé of the marine park industry. It was prompted by the 2010 killing of Dawn Brancheau, an animal trainer at SeaWorld, the country’s biggest and best-known marine park chain, by one of the park’s orcas, Tilikum, in front of a live audience in Orlando. The film alleged that the inadequate environments and lack of natural social connections in marine parks were driving the animals to madness.

SeaWorld Entertainment has called Blackfish inaccurate since its release. In an emailed statement to Vox on behalf of SeaWorld, Libby Panke, senior vice president for the PR firm FleishmanHillard, vehemently denied the claims made in the film, calling it “dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” SeaWorld also claims that some of the subjects appearing in Blackfish were “disgruntled former employees,” including some who “had never even worked with whales.”

Nevertheless, the film struck a chord with the public. Twenty-one million people tuned in when it premiered on CNN. Musicians pulled out of performing at SeaWorld, and corporate sponsors like Southwest Airlines ended longstanding partnerships. Attendance and profits declined after Blackfish, and the year after the film, SeaWorld announced plans to double the size of its orca tanks.

Now, the days of captive orcas are, at last, coming to an end — for the most part. China is the only country where orcas are still bred for entertainment in captivity. The last wild-caught orcas were captured and confined in Russia in 2018 and later released; in North America, the capture of wild orcas had ended by the 1980s.

But thousands of other cetaceans, mostly dolphins and beluga whales, remain in marine theme parks across the country and the world, entertaining humans; for these species, there is no end to captivity in sight. Meanwhile, marine parks are struggling to justify their existence, increasingly couching their purpose in terms of education and conservation goals that appeal to present-day consumers. Panke pointed out that SeaWorld does conservation work that benefits wild populations, including wild animal rescue and rehabilitation, which, she said, has helped more than 40,000 injured or orphaned marine animals (although in some cases, SeaWorld’s website states, animals deemed nonreleasable are kept in captivity). But many critics still believe that these parks are about bringing in money, no matter the cost to the animals.

A cetacean in captivity is “stripped of everything that makes it magnificent,” Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told me. “We are not being truly educated about these animals when we see them in small tanks.”

Parkgoers love watching marine mammals perform flips or splash them with their giant bodies, Cowperthwaite said. “Because we’re having fun, we imagine they must be having fun, too.” But the animals are just working for their keep.

“Our whole lives, we’d been hearing animal rights folks and their protesting,” Cowperthwaite said. After Blackfish, the public was finally willing to hear what the anti-captivity crowd had been saying all along.

Westerners used to hate orcas. Captivity taught us to love them.

Americans have been paying to see cetaceans since 1861, when showman P.T. Barnum, a founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, captured nine beluga whales off the East Coast. They were transported by train inside boxes filled with salt water, and eventually placed in tanks in the basement of Barnum’s New York City American Museum for spectators to view. Seven whales died one after another from the poor conditions; the final two died in a fire.

In the late 1930s, tourists flocked to Marine Studios in Florida (originally opened to allow film directors to shoot underwater footage) to see the first captive bottlenose dolphin, author Jason Colby writes in his book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator. By the 1950s, dolphin trainers were teaching the animals to do increasingly elaborate tricks like jumping over hurdles and through hoops or taking a fish dangling from a human’s mouth. Marine Studios rebranded as Marineland, the world’s first “oceanarium.” More soon followed. Between 1960 and 1970, aquariums and marine parks sprung up across the US, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere, displaying animals like dolphins, seals, walruses, and beluga whales. The first captive dolphin in the UK was displayed in the early 1960s; by the end of the 1970s, over 30 UK facilities were keeping cetaceans.

Orcas, though, were still more commonly seen as pests. Pacific Northwest Indigenous tribes like the Lummi considered them part of their family, but Western fishers feared them or saw them as competition for salmon. Even their Latin name, Orcinus orca, is foreboding, translating to “belonging to Orcus,” a Roman god of the underworld. All cetacean species are carnivorous, but orcas were long singled out as hunters and killers, best to be dispatched before they could hurt human beings (though they’re colloquially called “killer whales,” they’re actually the largest species in the dolphin family). As a result, writes author David Kirby in his book Death at SeaWorld, “nearly one-quarter of all orcas captured for display during the late sixties and early seventies showed signs of bullet wounds.”

The first orca to survive in captivity for longer than a few days was a result of one of these killings gone wrong. In 1964, Kirby writes, the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned an orca sculpture. Seeking out a model for the artist to work from, hunters shot a wild orca in nearby waters with a harpoon gun but missed his vital organs — so they towed the injured animal to shore using the harpoon rope as a leash. Thousands of visitors came to see the orca at a makeshift pen by Vancouver’s Burrard Dry Dock Pier, marveling at how docile the “killer” was. He died after 87 days in captivity.

The orca, it turned out, wasn’t dangerous, but misunderstood — and people clamored for the chance to see one themselves. By then, many marine parks had captive dolphins or seals, but an orca would offer spectators something novel. In 1965, Kirby recounts, when a fisherman caught a male orca calf in a fishing net in Puget Sound, the Seattle Marine Aquarium paid $8,000 for the baby, whom they named Namu. Orca hunter and aquarium owner Ted Griffin became the first person to swim with and ride a captive orca — something that later became a staple at marine theme parks — when he got in the water with Namu.

A few months later, a young female orca named Shamu (She-Namu) was captured to be a friend for Namu, but the two didn’t get along. She was sold to a marine park that opened in San Diego earlier that year and had already proven an immense success: SeaWorld. There, visitors watched trainers swim with captive orcas, igniting a dream the public never knew they had about taming these giant, magical animals.

A black-and-white photo of an orca jumping into the air from a pool.
Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego in 1969. Her name was later trademarked by SeaWorld and used as a stage name for multiple performing orcas at the park.
Avalon/Getty Images

In the orca frenzy that followed, over a hundred were captured from the wild and transferred to various parks’ pools. Ted Griffin’s well-documented Pacific Northwest orca captures led to the accidental deaths by drowning of a number of orcas, who were tangled in the nets used to catch them and couldn’t reach the surface to breathe. In Penn Cove, off the coast of Washington state, where Tokitae was captured, four babies and one adult orca were killed this way.

Captivity enabled scientific study of orcas — which fueled calls to set them free

Marine parks enabled the scientific study of live cetaceans — leading to revelations about their remarkable intelligence that would ultimately contribute to calls to shut down the industry. Before captivity, scientists could only learn about orcas by killing and dissecting them, Colby writes.

“We learned an awful lot about dolphins and whales from research with captive animals,” said Lori Marino, a scientist and president of Whale Sanctuary Project, which works to rehome captive cetaceans into seaside sanctuaries. Captivity taught us about cetaceans’ gestation periods, their sensitivity to human-created noise, and more about their physiology and life cycles — knowledge later used to monitor their population health in the wild. We also learned that dolphins and orcas are among a small number of species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror — a test often used as a proxy for whether an animal has a sense of self.

But now, Marino argues, captivity just isn’t necessary. “If you study what a dolphin or whale can do [under experimental conditions] in a tank, it tells you about captivity. But if you want to know what they do, you have to go to where they are doing it, and that’s in the wild.”

Research on captive cetaceans drove interest in the animals in their natural habitats, too. The first scientific survey of Puget Sound’s orca population took place in the 1970s, an era when the wild whale-watching industry — now worth over $2 billion a year globally — got off the ground. Virtually everything we know about cetacean social and family relationships, culture, and tool use is from field study, Marino said. This past summer, for example, Iberian orcas started ramming into yachts, in what many scientists believed was a new cultural fad.

After years of seeing the amazing things orcas and other cetaceans could do in marine parks, and having the chance to stand on the other side of thick glass and look into a killer whale’s eyes, the public wanted to protect them in the wild, Colby writes. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, providing ecosystem-level protection for aquatic mammals and making it illegal to harass or kill them. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that came after centuries of intensive commercial whaling in the US drove many whale species to endangerment. It was also a moment when the public was primed to care about conservation, with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

But that didn’t mean the public was clamoring to release cetaceans from marine parks, where they were kept in pools that represented a small fraction of the range they would swim in the wild. It wasn’t until the death of the orca trainer at SeaWorld in 2010, as depicted in Blackfish, that a turning point came, said Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for the marine life program at the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been advocating to improve conditions for marine mammals for 30 years.

The public reaction to Blackfish was so strong, Rose said, because it showed a side of captivity that wasn’t apparent before. The public perception had been that these mammals were happy to perform. “Not just happy, but thriving!” Rose said.

An orca flipping in the air in front of a large stadium crowd.
An orca performs at SeaWorld San Diego in 1989.
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Blackfish alleged that orcas at marine parks frequently hurt their trainers — information that, some ex-trainers have said, was downplayed by SeaWorld. While there have been at most a handful of encounters with orcas in the wild that have resulted in injuries for humans, there has never been a documented example of an orca in the wild killing a human — but orcas have done so when kept in a concrete pool. In 2010, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) brought a case against SeaWorld for “willful” safety violations (later downgraded from “willful” to “serious”). An OSHA news release stated, “SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities.”

In response to claims that the company kept information about staff injuries from its trainers, SeaWorld told Vox that “there were only 12 incidents” of injury to its orca trainers between 1988 and 2009, most of which were not caused by orcas, and that “any claim that these injuries were somehow hidden from trainers is absolutely false.”

In the wild, orcas live in stable, matrilineal family groups and have dialects and calls that are specific to their home range. Marine parks had little regard for these complex social arrangements, regularly moved animals around, mixed orcas from Iceland with ones from Puget Sound, and separated calves from their mothers. In the wild, they travel an average of 40 miles a day and dive up to 500 feet, but regulations for captive orcas only require that they have pools that are twice as wide as the orca’s length, and half their width in depth.

SeaWorld employees has told guests that the average lifespan of an orca in the wild was only 25 to 35 years, Blackfish showed, making their lives in captivity seem better by comparison. In reality, they can live far longer lives, with females often living between 50 and 100 years and males living for 30 to 60.

After the groundswell that followed Blackfish, California banned the breeding of captive orcas and the use of orcas already in captivity in theatrical presentations (educational programs are still allowed). In 2019, Canada made it illegal to keep any cetaceans in captivity; the country’s last captive orca, Kiska, died earlier this year after spending years alone in a concrete tank.

In 2016, SeaWorld ended its captive breeding program for orcas, and the organization told me in a statement that all of its newly built parks will be “whale-free.” Experts say killer whales in marine parks more broadly will soon become a thing of the past. Despite a few breeding programs at other parks outside the US, more orcas are dying in captivity than are being born. Eventually, the only orcas humans will be able to see are those in the wild. But what does that mean for other marine mammals still living in captivity?

Today, marine parks are struggling for relevance

Today’s marine mammal parks have overhauled their taglines. They now state that orcas and other cetaceans aren’t there for entertainment, but rather serve as ambassador animals that play an important role in research and education, with the ultimate goal of helping wild populations.

An orca show at SeaWorld today both is and is not different from what visitors might remember from before the early 2000s. There’s still a “splash zone,” where the water displaced by a large orca’s splash can get people in the front rows soaking wet. The orcas still do various tricks in exchange for food. Cinematic orchestral music still plays. The main difference is that, for their own safety, trainers no longer get in the water with the animals. Humans and orcas no longer perform “dances” together; trainers are not rocketed out of the water and into the air by the animals. It’s not as spectacular, but it’s still a spectacle.

On a large screen above the pool, a video plays about orcas’ habitats, physiology, communication and hunting styles, and distinct sub-populations and cultures. At the end of the show, SeaWorld details some of the research their captive whales have participated in and how it helps wild whales. Watching a video of one of these “educational encounters,” I notice that the part people still cheer and clap for are the big splashes and the waves that leave small children soaking wet.

SeaWorld told Vox that the changes made to its orca shows “reflect the evolution of how accredited zoos and aquariums care for and display animals, informed by experience and scientific understanding. These changes were not related to Blackfish … Evolving animal presentations into more of an educational experience for guests is consistent with a more contemporary view of how best to inspire the public to conserve wild species.”

To me and others, this feels like a rebrand rather than a meaningful change in how marine parks treat their animals. “The reason they’re focusing on research and education is they know they can’t justify keeping these animals in tanks just for entertainment,” said Marino. In California, the only way to legally display orcas is by making the shows educational. Other cetaceans aren’t included in California’s law, but, Marino believes, the benefits of performances for those species is just as dubious. “It’s hard to find solid evidence that … seeing a dolphin jump in the air has educational value or translates to conservation of any kind,” she said.

Because Blackfish focused on orcas, and because orcas’ size relative to the size of their enclosures can make people uneasy, most of the backlash to keeping cetaceans in captivity has focused on that species. Today, there are fewer than 60 orcas alive in captivity worldwide, compared to roughly 300 beluga whales and 3,000 dolphins. In the hierarchy of how cetaceans adjust to captivity, orcas do the worst, followed by beluga whales, and, finally, bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are smaller, often swim in shallow waters, and live in fission-fusion societies where they are socially gregarious, Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute explained. Where orcas prefer to spend their whole lives with their families, dolphins in the wild mix and match who they spend time with.

Three dolphins leap in the air out of a pool, surrounded by a stadium audience.
Dolphins perform at SeaWorld Orlando in 2020.
John Raoux/AP

“They cope better with captivity,” Rose said of dolphins. “It doesn’t mean they cope well.” Dolphins have higher mortality rates in captivity than in the wild, and are still forced to live in environments that are small and sterile compared to their natural habitat.

“Safari parks can put zebras in a savannah and they have no idea they’re not in the wild,” said Rose. “But you can’t give cetaceans the ocean.”

The Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, a nonprofit research and education facility, feels more ethical to visit than a marine mammal park because of its apparent scientific orientation. Some of its 27 dolphins are rescues who were injured or orphaned in the wild, while others were bred in captivity. The center’s research focuses on dolphin cognition, behavior, and husbandry, marketing director Allie Proskovec explained in an email.

Some of its studies — like one showing that interaction with a trainer can improve welfare outcomes for an isolated dolphin — seem only applicable to captive animals rather than to their health in the wild. Another Dolphin Research Center study that found human-made noise makes it impossible for dolphins to communicate, impairing their ability to socialize and hunt — the kind of finding that could lead to meaningful changes in marine policy. But we’ve known underwater noise is disruptive to marine life since the 1980s.

Whether or not it’s worth keeping dolphins in captivity for findings like these is debatable — especially when some animals aren’t just involved in research. The Dolphin Research Center also offers “dolphin encounter” experiences for $225 per person. Such “swim with dolphins”-style programs are still quite popular among tourists, whether at a research-oriented facility or a vacation package in the Bahamas. Cetaceans are, admittedly, not inexpensive to feed and care for; maybe performing tricks or swimming through the water while a person holds onto a dorsal fin are just part of life under capitalism (although the Dolphin Research Center, as noted previously, is a nonprofit).

Even anti-captivity activists recognize the role that marine parks have played in changing our view of cetaceans, particularly killer whales. “The fact that [wild] orcas are now totally protected by law and the slaughter of other whales has decreased is, to a large extent, because the public was given the opportunity to meet, know, and love whales,” Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit that has employed radical direct action tactics to stop whale hunting, wrote in 1982.

But why did humans need to put these animals in cement and glass pools to care about them in the first place?

Humans love to see and be seen by our fellow creatures. What if we simply stepped away?

“We always coexisted and never thought of [orcas] as a threat. We never thought of them as taking our fish,” Tah-Mahs Ellie Kinley, president of Sacred Lands Conservancy and an enrolled Lummi tribal member, told me. “It was all creatures’ fish.” The Lummi name for orcas can be translated as “our relatives under the waves,” Kinley explained, and there are many stories where killer whales become human. Yet for many Westerners, orcas were creatures we had to learn not to fear.

“We don’t love anything we don’t know. We don’t protect anything that we don’t love,” said Richard Louv, author of Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs. Humans, he told me, are desperate not to feel alone in the universe. We want to not just appreciate the natural world around us, but to have some kind of connection with it. Often this means harming the very things we’re trying to connect with. National Parks are being “loved to death” by tourists. Snorkelers can damage coral reefs through physical contact and runoff from sunscreens. Even whale-watching trips (boats that take tourists to see whales and other marine life in their natural habitats) are contributing to underwater noise pollution and potentially disrupting the animals with their very presence.

“We’re well-meaning in so many ways, but our love is clumsy and can be disastrous,” said Cowperthwaite, the Blackfish director. Think of how visitors at the zoo, looking at our primate cousins, often can’t help but tap on the glass, she said. “We’re not only there to see them — we’re dying for them to see us.” It’s that desire to be seen in return that made so many children go to SeaWorld and dream of becoming orca trainers, what makes us imagine that animals would love us back if we only got close enough for them to have the chance.

But “to truly understand a species and what a species needs, maybe the greatest thing we could do is step away,” Cowperthwaite said.

Today, there’s a movement to free captive cetaceans from marine parks and bring them to sea pens and sanctuaries, where they can have an approximation of their normal lives. Because the animals have lived in captivity and rely on human care, they can’t survive fully in the wild. The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to establish a site in Nova Scotia that could become home to orcas, belugas, or a mix of both. Their hope is that it will become a model for more sanctuary projects — perhaps some even run by organizations currently putting the animals on display, Marino said.

A large orca is seen dramatically jumped out of the water in the ocean across a wide horizon
A wild orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound.
Elaine Thompson/AP
Birdseye view of a large orca and a small one swimming together
A wild mother orca and her baby swim in Puget Sound.
NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP

In September, I went on a whale-watching tour near where I used to live, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, where so many orcas were captured a half-century ago. Our boat communicated with others to find out where the whales were. We sped over to the orca pods like paparazzi. At first, it was magical. Three generations swam and hunted together, including a young calf who was learning from her elders. Ten minutes passed, and then 20, and when the whales moved on, we followed them to a second and then a third location. I felt like we overstayed our welcome.

Our boat drifted as we snapped pictures next to a few other boatfuls of passengers doing the same. Both the benefit and the drawback of seeing whales from a tour is that it’s on our schedule; many tours offer to let customers return for free if there aren’t whale sightings. I began to wonder if seeing animals on our terms took something away from the experience — whether in a cement tank surrounded by other people, or on a boat in the ocean, cameras and binoculars at the ready.

A few times, the killer whales hunted close to shore. I saw kayakers who happened to be in the right place as the animals swam beneath them. People walked out from their homes to the beach to watch the orcas, who were no more than a few hundred feet away. A few hikers, ambling along the coast as the orcas passed, sat on the cliff to enjoy the moment. What a gift to encounter a wild animal by accident, just two species sharing the same part of this immense planet for a moment, before we go our separate ways.

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