Photograph by Sandy Huffaker, Corbis/Getty
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Orcas perform at SeaWorld San Diego in 2014. The mammals are highly intelligent and swim vast distances in the wild. Research has documented stress-related behaviors in captive orcas for decades.

Photograph by Sandy Huffaker, Corbis/Getty

Orcas don’t do well in captivity. Here’s why.

The marine mammals, stars of amusement park shows around the world, have long died before their time.

In January 2019, Kayla died. She was a 30-year-old killer whale living at SeaWorld Orlando. If she’d been living in the wild, she’d likely have lived into her 50s, and possibly as old as 80. Still, Kayla lived longer than any captive-born orca in history.

It’s not clear what she died from (SeaWorld hasn’t released the results of her necropsy, and by law is not required to), but her immediate cause of death may not tell us much anyway: Often orcas technically die of pneumonia or other opportunistic infections that take hold because the animal is already weak, shows a database of necropsy reports kept by the Orca Project Corp., a nonprofit organization made up of marine mammal experts that advocates against orcas in captivity.

Seventy orcas have been born in captivity around the world since 1977 (not counting another 30 that were stillborn or died in utero), according to records in two databases maintained by cetacean experts. Thirty-seven of them, including Kayla, are now dead. Only a handful of wild-caught orcas have lived past age 30. No captive-born orca yet has.

There are currently 59 orcas in captivity at sea parks and aquariums throughout the world. Some are wild-caught; some were born in captivity. A third of the world’s captive orcas are in the United States, and all but one of those live at SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. Lolita, a 54-year-old orca who was captured in 1970 in the waters off Washington State, lives alone at the Miami Seaquarium, in a pool with an open-top roof that’s less than twice the length of her body.

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An orca named Kayla, pictured at SeaWorld Orlando in 2011, died in January 2019 at 30 years old. In the wild, the average life expectancy for a female orca is 50, and some live to be 80 or 90.

Another 10 wild-caught orcas are currently held in sea pens in the Russian far east while the government investigates their possible illegal capture. If they end up being sold to aquariums, likely in China, the global captive orca tally could jump to 69.

Whether it’s humane to keep orcas in captivity is subject to vigorous debate. They are highly intelligent, social animals that are genetically built to live, migrate, and feed over great distances in the ocean. Orcas, whether wild-born or captive-bred, cannot thrive in captivity, says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. It’s partly their sheer size. Orcas are massive animals that swim vast distances in the wild—40 miles a day on average—not just because they can, but because they need to, to forage for their varied diets and to exercise. They dive 100 to 500 feet, several times a day, every day.

“It’s basic biology,” Rose says. A captive-born orca that has never lived in the ocean still has the same innate drives, she says. “If you have evolved to move great distances to look for food and mates then you are adapted to that type of movement, whether you’re a polar bear or an elephant or an orca,” says Rose. “You put [orcas] in a box that is 150 feet long by 90 feet wide by 30 feet deep and you’re basically turning them into a couch potato.”

Rose explains that a primary indicator for whether a mammal will do well in captivity is how wide their range is in the wild. The broader their natural range, the less likely they are to thrive in confinement. This is the same reason some zoos have been phasing out elephant exhibits.

We can recreate terrestrial environments somewhat—like a savanna for example, she says—but we can’t recreate an ocean. “Not one marine mammal is adapted to thrive in the world we’ve made for them in a concrete box,” Rose says.

Those who study and work with captive dolphins (orcas are the world's biggest dolphin species) argue that it’s not about space but about whether orcas are given enough enrichment and training to get adequate exercise and mental stimulation.

SIGNS OF SUFFERING

It’s really difficult to prove what specifically shortens orcas’ lifespans in pools, animal welfare specialists say. “The thing with captive orcas is that their health is largely shrouded in mystery,” says Heather Rally, a marine mammal veterinarian at the PETA Foundation. Only people who are employed by a facility keeping orcas actually get close to them, and not much of that information is made public.

But it’s clear, say welfare specialists, that captivity can compromise orcas’ health. This is evident in killer whales’ most vital body part: their teeth. A peer-reviewed 2017 study in the journal Archives of Oral Biology found that a quarter of all orcas in captivity in the U.S. have severe tooth damage. Seventy percent have at least some damage to their teeth. Some Orca populations in the wild also show wear and tear on their teeth, but it’s symmetrical and happens gradually over decades, in contrast to the acute and irregular damage seen in captive orcas.

According to the study, the damage occurs largely because captive orcas persistently grind their teeth on tank walls, often to the point where the nerves are exposed. These ground-down spots remain as open cavities, highly susceptible to infection even if caretakers regularly flush them out with clean water.

This stress-induced behavior has been documented in scientific research since the late 1980s. Commonly called stereotypies—repetitive patterns of activity that have no obvious function—these behaviors, which often involve self-mutilation, are typical of captive animals that have little or no enrichment and live in too-small enclosures.

Orcas have the second largest brain of any animal on the planet. Like humans, their brains are highly developed in the areas of social intelligence, language and self-awareness. In the wild, orcas live in tight-knit family groups that share a sophisticated, unique culture that is passed down through generations, research has shown.

In captivity, orcas are kept in artificial social groups. A few captive orcas, like Lolita, live completely alone. Captive-born orcas are typically separated from their mothers at ages far younger than in the wild (male orcas often stay with their mothers for life), and are often transferred between facilities. Kayla was separated from her mother at 11 months old and moved between SeaWorld properties across the country four different times.

The stress of social disruption is compounded by the fact that orcas in captivity don’t have the ability to escape conflict with other orcas, or to engage in natural swimming behaviors in pools.

In 2013, the documentary film Blackfish laid bare the psychological toll of captivity, through the story of a wild-caught orca named Tilikum who had killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. The film included testimony from former SeaWorld trainers and cetacean specialists, who argued that Tilikum’s stress directly led to his aggression towards humans (he'd previously killed another trainer at a non-SeaWorld park in British Columbia, Canada). Court records show that SeaWorld had documented, between 1988 and 2009, over 100 instances of their orcas being aggressive towards trainers. Eleven of those instances resulted in injury, and one in death. (Read a Q&A with a former trainer who criticized SeaWorld for cruel treatment of orcas.)

Blackfish also included an interview with a former wild orca catcher, John Crowe, who described in detail the process of capturing juvenile orcas from the wild: the wails of babies trapped in the net, the distress of their family members that frantically crowded outside, and the fate of the babies that didn’t survive the catch. Those young orcas’ bodies were slit open, filled with rocks, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

A SEA CHANGE

The public reaction to Blackfish was swift and furious. Hundreds of thousands of outraged viewers signed petitions calling for SeaWorld to retire their orcas, or to shut down outright. Partner corporations like Southwest Airlines and the Miami Dolphins severed ties with SeaWorld. Attendance slipped, and its stock began a series of nosedives from which it’s never fully recovered. (Read more: How far will the Blackfish effect go?)

“We were a fringe campaign. Now we’re mainstream. That happened overnight,” says Rose, who has been advocating for captive orca welfare since the 1990s.

Animal advocacy groups had for years tried to take legal action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tasked with implementing the federal Animal Welfare Act, for failing to properly monitor the welfare of animals kept in captivity for entertainment. Efforts had never been successful says Jared Goodman, deputy general counsel for animal law at the PETA Foundation, who has participated in many of the lawsuits.

But in 2016, things began to change. California made it illegal to breed orcas in the state. Six months earlier, SeaWorld, which has a park in San Diego, announced that it would be ending its captive orca breeding program altogether, saying its current orcas will be the last generation to live at SeaWorld parks. Although 20 orcas and many other cetaceans continue to live and perform at its facilities, the company increasingly focuses its marketing on its amusement park rides.

At the federal level, Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, has repeatedly introduced a bill to phase out captive orca displays across the U.S. In Canada, a federal bill is poised to pass later this year that would ban all captive cetacean displays—not just orcas, but all dolphins, porpoises, and whales.

LOOKING FORWARD

But there’s the remaining issue of what to do with the 22 orcas in captivity in the U.S. and Canada if federal legislation shuts down captive facilities, or if captive facilities like SeaWorld agree to go one step further and retire their current orcas altogether. None of these animals could be released into the wild—they have become dependent on being fed by humans.

The Whale Sanctuary project, led by a group of marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, policy experts, and engineers, aims to establish large seaside sanctuaries for retired or rescued cetaceans. The idea is that the animals would able to live in cordoned-off habitats in the ocean while still being cared for and fed by humans. The group has identified potential sites in British Columbia, Washington State, and Nova Scotia. The logistics of making a sanctuary a reality will be complex, says Heather Rally, who is on the organization’s advisory board.

“We have sanctuaries for every other species,” she says. Despite the challenges, “it’s absolutely the time for a marine mammal sanctuary. It’s long overdue.”

The Whale Sanctuary Project hopes that they might eventually partner with SeaWorld in the rehabilitation process. SeaWorld opposes the concept of sea sanctuaries—referring to them as “sea cages,” and saying that environmental hazards and a radically new habitat would likely cause tremendous stress to their orcas and do more harm than good. SeaWorld has removed from its website a 2016 statement detailing its opposition, but a company representative confirms to National Geographic that SeaWorld’s position remains unchanged.

Although there appears to be some hope for the future of captive orcas in the West, in Russia and China, the captive marine mammal industry continues to grow. In Russia, the 10 recently-captured orcas languish in a small sea pen awaiting their fate. China now has 76 operational sea parks, with another 25 under construction. The vast majority of the cetaceans in captivity there were wild-caught and imported from Russia and Japan. (Read: China's first orca breeding center sparks controversy.)

China “hasn’t had their Blackfish moment,” Rose says. But she is hopeful it will come, because she’s seen it come before.

“You would not have written this story ten years ago,” she says.

Editor's Note: This story originally stated that California’s law prohibiting orca breeding was passed in 2016. It was 2017. The story has also been corrected to say that SeaWorld announced it was ending its breeding program six months before the bill was signed into law, not after. This story was updated to say that there are now 59 orcas in ocean parks worldwide, not 62. Lolita's age was also corrected. She is thought to be 54 years old, not 50. The story was also updated to clarify that Tilikum killed one trainer at SeaWorld and had previously killed another trainer at a non-SeaWorld facility in Canada. A caption has also been updated to clarify the lifespan of orcas, and information about enrichment in captivity has been added.