A Deep Dive: Orca Whales in Captivity


Chad Sparkes

Madeline Clark, Editor in Chief

Since 1961 approximately 166 Orca Whales have been taken into captivity. Approximately 131 of these marine mammals are now dead. Orcas are continuously stripped from their home in the wild for commercial entertainment.  

As of March 2023, 54 Orcas are being held in captivity, and 29 were born into captivity. The infamous SeaWorld currently houses 19 orcas in just three parks. The Orca habitats are 36 feet deep. However, Orcas typically live in environments 65 to 200 feet deep in the ocean, and they can dive up to 980 feet. 

At least 44 Orcas have died in the hands of SeaWorld, not including the miscarried or still-born calves. The longest surviving orca in captivity is Corky. She was captured in 1969 and not one of her seven offspring has survived in captivity. She has spent 53 years of her life swimming the walls of SeaWorld in San Diego. These marine mammals are forced to live a life for the amusement of others.

John Hargrove, a former trainer, gave his thoughts to National Geographic for an article about the dark side of Sea World.

‘“It would make my life so much easier if I could say that those animals are thriving in captivity, living happy and enriched lives. Unfortunately, after all the years of experience that I had, I saw the psychological and physical trauma that results from captivity,’” Hargrove said.

Marine mammals are not built to live in the conditions of amusement parks. Orcas are generally not aggressive toward humans and are incredibly intelligent and social creatures. However, when an Orca is forced to spend most of its life in the confinement of an aquarium tank, the tables turn.

One terrifying story occurred with animal trainer Dawn Therese Brancheau and Orca whale Tilikum, the largest orca at SeaWorld Orlando. On February 24, 2010, Brancheau performed a ‘Dine with Shamu’ show. However, the event took a turn when Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water by her left arm. Tilikum quickly became aggressive. He dismembered her, tearing off her left arm. Her scalp and full head of hair were on the bottom of the pool. Tilikum severed her spinal cord and refused to give her body up. Tilikum was transferred into a small medical pool until he finally calmed down and released Dawn’s body. 

The sad truth is, Orcas are not meant for captivity. Scientists have studied the psychological damage of captive Orca whales for decades. One stress behavior is they will often grind their teeth on their tank walls, all the way down to wear the nerve endings exposed. These behaviors are proof that Orcas in captivity have no enrichment and are in too small of enclosures. 

In addition, Orcas in the wild typically live in large social groups. However, in captivity, some Orcas live completely alone. This social disruption causes extreme behavioral issues that develop and worsen over time.

According to Species Unite Kiska, an Orca Whale was taken into captivity in 1979 and spent over four decades within the walls of a tank located in Canada’s Marineland. She was eventually named the loneliest Orca in the world. She died at just 47 years old.

In captivity, Kiska gave birth to seven calves, but not one of them lived past the age of seven. However, Kiska was the last remaining whale in Canada’s captivity. In 2019 Canada passed a bill called the “Free Willy” Bill. This outlawed the trade, possession, capture, and breeding of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

SeaWorld announced in 2016 that they were ending their Orca breeding program. However, the current Orca Whales remaining at the park will live out the rest of their lives in captivity. Currently, there are 20 surviving orcas across SeaWorld’s 3 parks. SeaWorld no longer uses the Orcas for amusement but provides an educational look at the Orca Whale. They claim they no longer support the captivity of Orca Whales and are advocates for protecting wildlife. 

Funding these programs still supports the current whales that are living out the rest of their lives in captivity. In addition, Sea World is not the only aquatic amusement park that still holds Orca Whales. 

Inherently Wild provided a detailed list of every Orca that still lives in captivity. One way to support the fight against Orca captivity is by self-educating about the alarming effects of the issue.

At WDC you can support the campaign of ending Orca captivity. Donations can be made with the following link: https://adopt-us.whales.org/shop/donate-today/