Orca whales in their natural habitat are not usually considered a threat to humans. Of the two dozen cases of orcas attacking humans, all but 2 or 3 were perpetrated by whales in captivity. Orcas, also known as Killer whales, are the largest species of the dolphin family. They are considered to be intelligent, social animals. In the wild they have no known predator except, perhaps, humans.
The practice of keeping whales captive is very controversial. Because of a recent incident in Orlando, Florida’s Sea World the controversy is sure to grow. On Wednesday, February 24, 2010 Tilikum a 12,000 pound male killer whale drowned an experienced Sea World trainer. Dawn Brancheau, a 40 year old trainer at Sea World since 1994, was pulled off a poolside platform by the whale. According to an Associated Press article in the Tampa Tribune, the whale grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and violently pulled her into the water where she drowned. This was not the first death for which Tilikum was responsible. He was involved in the death of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia in 1991. Shortly after this drowning Tilikum was moved to the Orlando Sea World. In 1999 the naked body of a man was found drowned in the Orlando Sea World. The man apparently hid in the park until closing and died in Tilikum’s pool of drowning and hypothermia. It appeared that the whale bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks perhaps thinking the man was a toy.
Marine parks have long been criticized for keeping whales in captivity. Because of their size, it is difficult to capture Killer whales and then to provide a healthy environment for them. The first attempts to capture the whales was in the 1960’s. There were many deaths and injuries. Those who endeavored to capture the whales learned through experience, however, and by the 1970’s there were fewer deaths and injuries. Live capture is now rare as the parks have learned how to breed the whales in captivity through artificial insemination.
Whales in captivity run the risk of developing physical problems and contracting disease. One physical problem of captive whales is the collapse of the dorsal fin. There are several theories why the majority of whales in captivity have this problem. Some researchers feel it is due to a dietary change. Whales in the wild eat about 3% to 4% of their body weight daily. This translates into 500 pounds of food for a six ton whale. In the wild they eat whatever is available which includes fish, seals, penguins, sharks and smaller whales. In captivity their main diet is fish and they only get between 140 and 240 pounds of food a day. Another theory for dorsal fin collapse is lower blood pressure due to the decreased amount of exercise they get in captivity. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society feels that the whales swimming in small circles due to the smaller space of their confinement causes the dorsal fin to collapse. Whatever the reason for the condition, it seems to occur mainly in captivity. Dorsal fin collapse is rare in the wild and due to a serious injury of the fin when it does happen.
The life span of a whale in captivity appears to be lower than a whale in the wild. A whale in captivity has a life span of about 20 years. In the wild the average life span is 30 years but some whales have been known to live much longer. It is speculated that the reason for the shorter life span is greater occurrences of disease. Living in small tanks increases the risk of bacteria and infection. Although the marine parks must conform to regulations regarding tank size, the tanks can not compare to being in the wild.
Orca whales are undoubtedly beautiful animals that are wonderful to behold. Their intelligence and social-ability make it very tempting to capture and train the whales. However, due to recent incidences of captive whale attacks on humans, perhaps it is best to observe the magnificent beasts while on a boat out in the ocean.
Sources: The Tampa Tribune