Blackfish and the future for captive cetaceans

1971 Orca capture off the coast of Washington State.

1971 Orca capture off the coast of Washington State.

In 2013 the somewhat controversial documentary Blackfish was released. The programme explored the reality of life in captivity for orcas and received global attention. Confining orcas to tanks has detrimental effects both on a physical and emotional level. In the wild orcas swim up to 100 miles a day, hunt in groups for their prey and maintain life long bonds with family members. In captivity the opportunity to act on all of these instincts is denied. Alongside a heavily reduced life expectancy, orcas in captivity show signs of poor health such as a collapsed dorsal fin, which is through to result from reduced swimming activity and subsequently contact with high pressure water, dehydration , diet, or increased sun exposure causing the weakening of collagen fibres. In addition to physical ailments, orcas in captivity have displayed outbursts of aggression resulting in the injury and even death of trainers.   

Since Blackfish was released, parks and aquariums breeding captive orcas have received a backlash from animal rights activists across the world. Sales and profits in large companies such as SeaWorld have plummeted, with members of the public also refusing to support Orca captivity. Following loss of business and pressure from legal companies, SeaWorld has now officially ended its captive breeding programme and as of 2017 will no longer include orcas in performances. Whilst this is excellent news on many levels, there are still questions to be asked about the welfare of orcas currently held captive at SeaWorld parks. Whilst it may be assumed that the morally correct solution is to release captive orcas in the wild, there are good reasons as to why this is not a possibility:

·         Orcas have not learned many of the social skills needed to survive in the wild such as how to hunt, defend themselves, and parent offspring- orcas are highly social animals and learn these skills from other members of their family during childhood (in the case of orcas, a period of being juvenile)

·         Keiko, the orca who played Willy in the famous Free Willy films, died in 2003, shortly after being released back into the wild. Many scientists believe this was because he was not able to adapt to life in the wild after having spent so much of his life in captivity


Hope for captive orcas

Aware of the difficulties of releasing captive orcas back into the wild, a non-profit organisation has founded the Whale Sanctuary Project, which aims to provide a sanctuary for retired orcas with conditions similar to that of the wild. These sanctuaries would comprise pockets of ocean at least 65 acres in size and 15 metres deep that are divided from the rest of the sea.  Orcas would receive ongoing care and welfare checks to ensure they are coping well with the new environment.

Barriers to the Whale Sanctuary Project

Whilst the Whale Sanctuary project sounds a promising solution for captive orcas, there are some barriers that need to be overcome in order to achieve success.

·         Finding suitably sized areas such as bays or coves

·         Finding areas with appropriate salinity, temperature and water flow levels

·         Finding areas clear of boat traffic and commercial fishing

·         Getting SeaWorld and other companies holding orcas captive to agree to releasing their orcas into the sanctuary

Currently, areas are being shortlisted and so far include Nova Scotia, Maine and Columbia. It is hoped that once the age of captive breeding has officially died out, the sanctuary could be used to help rehabilitate injured and at risk cetaceans.

Remaining concerns for cetacean conservationists

Whilst these recent developments have been very successful in the context of animal welfare and conservation, there is still some way to go on the captive cetacean front. Alongside orcas, many other types of cetacean are kept in captivity and forced to perform including beluga whales and dolphins. Parks and Aquariums such as SeaWorld have not agreed to stop breeding or performing with these species, which also suffer in captivity. Most recently, a female beluga whale and her baby died unexpectedly in Vancouver Aquarium, fuelling concerns over the welfare of captive belugas.




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