My Life As Another ‘Shamu’: The Life of Captive Orcas

Shamu (Tilikum) by milan.boers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“‘Shamu’ (Tilikum)” by milan.boers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Have you ever seen an orca at the zoo, amusement park, or any other non-wild habitat? Or, you may have seen some at all the SeaWorld locations or the Miami Seaquarium. This may have been an entrancing moment for you, but it may not have been for the orcas. Orcas are taken from the wild, separated from their family, then perform for our entertainment. 

First, when the orcas are captured, they are usually still very young. For example, the famous whale Tilikum was separated from his family at just two. He was captured using speed boats, nets, aircraft, and underwater explosives. 

Then, this non-wild habitat the orcas are taken to is very small, compared to orcas’ home waters in the whole Salish Sea. There are currently no tanks bigger than 220 feet long and 50 feet deep, according to the Inherently Wild Orcas Organization. This tiny enclosure prevents the orcas from swimming up to 62 miles a day, which is how much they swim while in the wild. Orcas can only dive 50 feet in most tanks, which is just a mere fraction of the wild orcas’ 500+ feet dives. Instead of hunting, swimming, diving, and playing, captive orcas are often seeing “logging”. Logging means to listlessly float at the water’s surface.

However, SeaWorld’s vice president of communications, Fred Jacobs, says in an interview with CNN that, “Our killer whale habitats are the largest and most sophisticated ever constructed for a marine mammal: 7 million gallons of continually filtered and chilled water.”

In addition, orcas in captivity usually suffer a collapsed dorsal fin. Dorsal fins, the top and most recognizable fin, are very important as they help orcas maintain stability while swimming. A collapsed Dorsal fin is rarely seen in the wild, while 100% of captive male orcas suffer it. According to the PETA orca association, this is probably the result of unnatural diets, which consist of thawed dead fish and gelatin. A collapsed dorsal fin also comes from having no space to freely swim 60 miles a day. 

“Ulises and Trainer” by lolilujah is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In contrast, SeaWorld says that the orcas get plenty of swim room and that the only reason they would swim so far in the wild would be while foraging for food. Fred Jacobs said “While a killer whale can and occasionally might travel as much as 100 miles in a day, it should be said that swimming that distance is not integral to a whale’s health and well-being. It is likely foraging behavior.” He went on to say that “Killer whales living in our parks are given all the food they require,” so that they don’t have to swim. 

According to Blackfish, a neutral film on the life of captive orcas, another result of orcas in captivity is orcas fighting each other and hurting themselves. They fight with each other and occasionally with trainers. “You have to go back to understand these fights,” said Dave Duffus, an orca expert. The tension that led to these brutal fights started building when the baby orcas were separated from their families using explosives. Then they lived in a tub for the rest of their life. “It probably led to what I think is a psychosis,” says Ken Balcomb, a marine biologist, in Blackfish. “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little bit psychotic?” asks CNN commentator Jane Mitchell in a CNN discussion about Blackfish. This is an example of how their whole life led to fights and killings. John Crowe, involved in the hunting and capturing of Tilikum, later has regrets. He said in an interview, “This is the worst thing I have ever done”.

In the wild, orcas within the same pod have very strong bonds that can last for life. “They are the most social mammal on Earth, and that includes humans,” says Rob Williams from Oceans Initiative in a BBC interview. “In captivity, orcas are kept in artificial social groups. A few captive orcas, like Lolita, live completely alone,” according to National Geographic. On Science Daily, Professor John Jett of Florida’s Stetson University, an ex-orca trainer, says, “We found that more than 65 percent possessed moderate to extreme tooth wear in their lower jaws, mostly as a result of chewing concrete and steel tank surfaces.”

 In contrast, when asked how Tilikum was doing, SeaWorld said, “He interacts with other whales and our zoological staff and he makes regular public appearances.” Before he died, Tilikum had starred in many shows at SeaWorld.

Captive orcas have to deal with the obnoxious noise of crowds, blasting music, and fireworks going off right over their pool. The tanks are so small that there are no quiet and peaceful areas to go to. 

“Dawn Brancheau – Riders on the Storm” by eschipul is licensed under CC BY 2.0

All the restraints that captive orcas face add up to a lifespan of ten years to 14 years. However, wild male orcas live 60-70 years and wild female orcas live 80-100 years. Since 1961, 166 orcas have been taken from the wild and into captivity. Of these 166 captive orcas, 129 have died at a young age. 

“It’s like kidnapping a little kid away from her mother… the worst thing that I’ve ever done,” said John Crowe, who took part in the 1970 Penn Cove orca capture in Washington. 



* (about the title: ‘Shamu’ is a name that’s given to many captive orcas that are the star of a show. The orcas keep their real names, but go by Shamu during their show.)*