Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Whale Facts - Q&As

Posted: 22 February 2017. Updated: 22 February 2017


Q. Have any studies been done on orcas in captivity?

In 1992 Erich Hoyt authored a report entitled ‘The Performing Orca – why the show must stop’[i], which involved a study of marine parks around the world that kept orcas. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) sponsored the comprehensive investigation and stated that “we have visited most of the 17 marine parks around the world that keep orcas. This includes parks in the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Argentina and France, where we examined the conditions under which orcas are kept”(pg V). The report highlights some key findings concerning orcas and the stark difference between their lives in the wild compared to those in captivity.

Q. Are orcas social creatures?

Orcas exist in close-knit pods consisting of their extended family, often for their entire lives, resulting in them having incredibly strong, long-term social bonds. Despite the above report concluding that “keeping an orca alone is inexcusable”, it is thought that there is at least one lone orca in captivity today[ii].

Q. Are wild orca populations affected by capture?

The capture of wild orcas can have a significant impact on those animals left behind in the pod. This is especially the case for smaller pods, where “if the pod is small (fewer than six animals), as in the transient pods of the North Pacific, then capture of even one individual may affect the pod’s ability to survive”1. It is therefore clear that “while some argue that the public display of a relatively small number of cetaceans only encompasses welfare or ethics concerns, public display clearly has implications for conservation”[iii]

Q. How much space does an orca need?

Hoyt uses data from another study to estimate that an orca passes through over 45 billion (thousand million) gallons of water in a 24-hour period. He compares this to a pool at a marine park and calculates that the pool is 1/9000th the size. Indeed he states that he is not suggesting that marine parks build pools to the same size as the oceans, but rather to “show the extent of the adjustment orcas must make when they enter captivity and to question the practice of keeping them in any size pool”. One marine park states how its pool is between 8m and 12.5m deep, describing it as a ‘fantastic home’[iv]. In the wild, however, tagging data reported how one two-year old orca had been observed making three dives over 150m deep within an hour, reaching a maximum depth of 242m[v].

Q. Do captive orcas die younger?

In the wild, female orcas have an average life expectancy of 50 years, with some living as long as 90 years. Male killer whales typically live to about 30 years and may live as long as 50-60 years[vi]. With the first orcas being captured in the late 1960s, not enough time has passed to assess whether these animals will survive to the age they would have in the wild. What can be said, however, is that “as of January 1992, only one captive orca, Orky, survived to the mean age for orcas in the wild”[vii]. Of orcas in captivity, it has been said that that “Most captives die before they reach their early 20s,” ( – accessed 31/03/10)

Q. Are there any risks to humans working with captive mammals?

In 2004, researchers from the University of California, Davis, prepared a report for the U S Marine Mammal Commission examining the risk of work-related injuries and illnesses in marine mammal workers and volunteers. Of those surveyed, 54% reported having at least one injury or illness which they believed was caused by their contact with marine mammals[viii].

Q. Can orcas be released after time in captivity?

Hoyt stated in 1992 that “No orca, once captured and sent to a marine park, has ever left captivity alive”. This situation changed in 1998 when an orca named Keiko was released into the wild after a period of rehabilitation and a review by a medical panel to confirm he was healthy and exhibiting normal behaviour patterns. After a wonderful journey and over 5 years in freedom, Keiko passed away in Norway on December 12, 2003 at age 27 – a free animal[ix]. This case shows that it is possible to successfully rescue, rehabilitate and release orcas back into the wild.

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