The most famous (non-cartoon) animals from Orlando, Florida, are likely the orcas, or “killer whales,” used at the SeaWorld amusement park. Beginning with the world-renowned Shamu in 1965, the three SeaWorld parks have exhibited killer whales in a circus-like setting, training the massive animals to work closely with humans and perform an array of impressive tricks.
Yet in 2010, one of the whales proved all too true to his name: the orca Tilikum grabbed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and drowned her during a performance of “Dine with Shamu.” SeaWorld officials claimed that the whale had mistaken Brancheau’s ponytail as a toy and that the death was a playful accident, but video and eyewitness evidence appears to refute that theory. Now, a new documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “Blackfish,” is exploring the possible scientific reasons behind the deaths attributed to killer whales in captivity.
Orcas are undoubtedly among the planet’s most intelligent mammals, with brains second in size only to those of the sperm whale. The whales are also highly social creatures, living in groups called pods that contain from 5 to 50 individuals and are usually led by the oldest female. While other mammals certainly socialize, orcas are unique in that they appear to learn cultural behaviors from their social groups.
At least three separate “tribes” of killer whales have been observed in the field: one is composed of residential fish eaters, another is made of coast-roaming mammal eaters, and the third is nomadic over the entire ocean. Even orcas in captivity have been seen to develop and share hunting strategies. Kalia, a whale kept at SeaWorld San Diego, was taught by her mother and older brother how to bait the area’s waterfowl using the fish she was given as food.
These groups even have different patterns of clicks and calls, which may compose a sort of “language,” passed down within pods. Scientists can use this language to determine the hunting habits, specific pod, and even the close family of the orca making the call. When not directed at other orcas, the clicks can serve as a sort of natural sonar, allowing the whale to determine the shape, speed and distance of other objects in the water without having to see them.
Dolphins, the close relatives of killer whales, have even been shown to develop names for themselves in the form of complex whistle patterns. A recent study by Vincent Janik of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that dolphins responded to the unique whistles of family and close groupmates while tuning out unfamiliar sounds, suggesting that these whistles serve to identify the dolphins with which an individual is closest.
By capturing orcas from the wild and placing them into captivity, SeaWorld and other parks removed the animals from their natural social context, likely causing them a great deal of stress and confusion. Although nearly all of the orcas currently on display at SeaWorld parks are now captive bred, their situation is far removed from the habitat and social dynamics for which they have evolved. Under these circumstances, outbursts of violent behavior like that which killed Brancheau seem unavoidable.
While the close encounters with marine life found at SeaWorld can inspire young scientists, there may be better ways to exhibit currently captive whales, such as a “sea pen” in a natural ocean setting. This approach may help the transition of captive whales back into the wild, a difficult process due to the need for the whales to learn the complex social behaviors of living in a natural pod. Some orcas may be too old or too damaged to be reintroduced to the wild, and captive display may be the most humane treatment. In the future, however, the display of orcas should be judged in the light of the distress it causes to these extremely intelligent creatures.