Killer Whales in Captivity

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder

While killer whales are today seen as sentient and intelligent creatures but this has not always been the case. Indeed, killer whales were once seen as aggressive predators – similar to the contemporary view of sharks. In the year 70 AD Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder referred to the species as “loathsome pig eyed assassins.” This view appears to have persisted for almost twenty centuries, with killer whales being considered to be predators which were a threat to humans around much of the world, with commercial fishermen especially fearing the creatures. However, in 1964 an event took place which changed the world’s perception of killer whales – a killer whale was captured and placed on public display. The killer whale, which became known as Moby Doll, was harpooned off the coast of British Columbia, Canada and dragged back to shore. However, when the killer whale was revealed to still be alive a pen was hastily created by sealing off part of a dockyard. Moby Doll appeared to be suffering from shock when first placed into her pen, but after a few weeks began moving and behaving in a more active manner and started eating several hundreds of pounds of fish a day. Soon her enclosure was opened up to the public, making her the first ever captive killer whale placed on public view.

SeaWorld captive killer whale Katina

Modern killer whales shows are big business. In this photo from 2008 a trainer in SeaWorld, Orlando surfs on top of Katina, a female killer whale, as part of a show. Katina was captured in Icelandic waters in 1978 and as of winter 2013 she was still living and performing in SeaWorld.

Unfortunately Moby Doll’s fame was to be short lived. After only eighty-seven days in captivity Moby Doll was found dead in her pen. However, during her short time in captivity Moby Doll had sparked huge public and media attention throughout both North America and the world. Realising the huge crowds which killer whales could draw the demand for live specimens grew steadily, especially when it was discovered that this species could be trained to perform tricks and shows. Large scale marine theme parks began to spring up around the world, often with killer whales as their centrepiece. This led to brutal captures of killer whales, the most controversial of all is described below.

The Penn Cove Roundup

One of the most controversial captures happening in Penn Cove, Washington, USA in 1970. This so called “round-up” of killer whales was organised by a marine theme park which wanted the creatures for public display. A pod of around eighty killer whales was sighted and tracked by boats and helicopters. Speed boats and even explosives were used to force the killer whales into shallow water where they were eventually encircled with a purse-seine net. The net was then closed, trapping the killer whales inside and allowing the young calves (which the marine theme parks wanted) to be forcibly removed from their mothers. By the end of the operation seven calves had been taken, with another four and a female dying after becoming tangled in the nets and drowning. The people responsible for the capture, and the marine parks, did not want the bad publicity of dead whales and so slit open the bodies of the dead killer whales and inserted rocks and tied weights to the whales and allowed them to sink to the bottom of the sea. Their deception was eventually discovered when three of the whales washed up on a nearby beach. The fallout from the incident led to strict laws and restrictions on the capture of killer whales within American waters. However, Iceland was much more tolerant of killer whales being captures in their territorial waters – mostly because commercial fishermen blamed them for reducing fish stocks. Killer whales continued to be captured in Icelandic waters until the late 1980s, when pressure from the international community led to Iceland also banning the capture of killer whales.

As of Summer 2013 there are eight nations which keep killer whales in captivity: Japan, USA, Canada, Russia, China, Argentina, France and Spain (with Argentina and Canada holding just a single killer whale each). Today the bad publicity of capturing killer whales means that the younger killer whales in marine theme parks were born in captivity, with only the oldest killer whales being originally caught in the wild.

SeaWorld, San Diego

Shamu stadium houses the killer whales at SeaWorld, San Diego.

Keeping killer whales in captivity is immensely controversial as it is believed that these intelligent and sentient creatures simply cannot adapt to life in captivity and suffer extreme stress and psychological disturbance from being confined within small environments. Organisations such as Greenpeace and Save the Whales, along with many others, campaign to ban the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

Issues with Captive Killer Whales

It is believed that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel for the following reasons:

Captive environment: There is no tank or aquarium in the world which is large enough to keep killer whales in anything even approaching their natural environment. In the wild killer whales swim distances of up to 100 miles a day and can easily dive to depths of around 100 metres – killer whales in captivity have to adapt to living in conditions a fraction of the size of this. Campaigners believe this is inherently cruel and compare keeping killer whales in artificial tanks to keeping a human being in a bathtub for their entire life.

Social structure: Like other marine mammals killer whales live in pods of many whales which can have complex social structures. Young whales will often stay with their mothers until they are old enough to give birth to young of their own, and the oldest female whales often effectively act as the leader of a pod. It is often a matriarchal social structure with the full-grown males often staying at the outskirts of the group. In captivity killer whales are kept in groups of just a few whales and have no option other than to mix together. This does not allow them to form into their natural social structure or develop any of the social bonds and relationships which they would in the wild. Some killer whales have been known to be “bullied.” For example Tilikum, a famous captive killer whale held in SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida was forced to live in very close proximity to the two female killer whales he was kept with. He was repeatedly chased around his tank and was at times bitten and raked by the teeth of the other whales to such an extent he had to be housed separately.

Health and life expectancy: One of the most striking physical differences between wild and captive killer whales is the dorsal fin. In wild killer whales the dorsal fin stands upright from the body and can be almost six feet tall in a fully grown male killer whale.

Collapsed dorsal fin

Captive killer whales usually display a collapsed dorsal fin.

However, in captive male killer whales (and sometimes, although less often, in females) the dorsal fin collapses meaning it no longer stands erect but droops over to one side. While the exact reasons for dorsal fin collapse are unknown but it is though to be related to the collagen within the fin. The collagen hardens as killer whales grow which supports the fin (there are no bones in the fin). It is believed that the amount of time which killer whales spend on the surface with the fin out of water means that the fin is never supported by water and so the collagen softens and the fin collapses. Marine parks such as SeaWorld maintain that a collapsed dorsal fin is no indicator of the overall health of a killer whale. In most captive animals life expectancy is longer than in the wild, due to the fact that they are protected from predators, have illness, infections and disease treated and have a constant source of food. However, this is not the case with killer whales. While killer whales in the wild can live for up to seventy years and may be able to live for up to one hundred years, in captivity killer whales rarely live past their mid thirties and often die in their twenties or younger. Indeed, the thirty-six killer whales which have died in US SeaWorld theme parks had an average age of just fourteen years old, while the seventeen which have died at Canada’s Marineland had an average age of just eight years.

Lack of hunting: Captive killer whales are given no opportunity to hunt, which is a natural form of behaviour for this species. Instead they are fed fish, up to 200lbs (90kg) a day, which has often been frozen and then defrosted. It is not known what effect this has on captive killer whales, but it is speculated that the lack of hunting which is the usual behaviour of killer whales adds to the frustration and confusion that captive killer whales suffer from.

Breeding issues: For unknown reasons captive killer whales are able to breed much earlier in life that wild killer whales and can also breed much more often. With capturing wild young killer whales now unacceptable it is only the largest and captive oldest killer whales which wild caught and all other captive killer whales are the offspring of these killer whales. With only around seventy killer whales in captivity in the world, interbreeding, and the problems this brings, is inevitable. For example Tilikum – a killer whale caught as a calf in the early 1980s who is currently held at Orlando Seaworld – has sired twenty-one calves with a number of females (through artificial insemination), although at least seven of these calves were stillborn or died within the first few weeks of life. This article highlights the inter-relations of captive killer whales – two killer whales at Seaworld California named Ikaika and Nakai are blood related to nineteen of the twenty six killer whales Seaworld owns. Indeed, most of Seaworld’s killer whales are blood related to one another. With such as small population it is believed that interbreeding issues and genetic defects which are associated with this are inevitable in the future.

Stress and psychosis: The aggressive behaviour of captive killer whales is often put down to stress. All of the issues listed above are thought to make the killer whales frustrated and confused, leading to them attacking and acting aggressively towards humans in a way that they never would in the wild. In this newspaper article killer whale expert Ken Balcomb explains that captive killer whales can suffer from psychosis and display deeply unhealthy behaviour such as grinding their teeth against metal pool gates, opening their eyes extremely wide for no apparent reason and emitting vocal noises which are associated with distress.

Releasing Captive Killer Whales

Killer whales which have been born in captivity, or those which have spent decades in captivity cannot simply be released into the wild as they will have lost the ability to hunt and may be rejected, or even attacked, by pods of wild killer whales. The only real attempt to rehabilitate and release a captive killer whale ultimately ended in failure. Keiko was the star of the hugely successful 1993 film Free Willy. The publicity this film generated led for calls to Keiko to be released back into the wild.


Keiko being transported from America to Iceland in 2002. A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster had to be used as no civilian aircraft could carry Keiko and his tank which weighed around forty tons.

A multi-million dollar rehabilitation facility was built for Keiko at the Oregon with financial help from the US telecom billionaire Craig McCaw. By 2002 Keiko was ready for release and he was transported to Iceland and he was re-introduced into the wild. However, Keiko did not join a pod of killer whales and instead swam from Icelandic waters directly to Norway where he appeared to be seeking out human interaction in shallow waters. In December 2003 began showing lethargy and beached himself, dying one day later. Keiko was twenty-seven years old, an average age for a killer whale being kept in captivity but well short of the lifespan this species has in the wild.

Aggression and Trainer Deaths

There has never been a human death caused by a wild killer whale in the wild and attacks on humans are few and far between (and usually consdered to be caused by mistaken identity when they do happen). However, there have been a number of captive killer whale attacks on humans and several deaths. This is put down to the stress and psychosis which captive killer whales suffer and the unnatural life cycle which they are forced to endure.

Notable Captive Killer Whale Attacks

Cuddles – Britain’s captive killer whale: In Britain there are currently no killer whales in captivity. However, there have been in the past. Dudley Zoo in the West Midlands housed a killer whale called Cuddles in the early 1970s. Cuddles was reportedly aggressive, with The Sun newspaper stating that a member of staff called Donald Robinson was pulled into the water by Cuddles while being fed, inflicting injuries which required minor hospital treatment. Cuddles became increasingly aggressive during his life and staff were eventually only able to clean the tank from the protection of a shark cage. The pool that Cuddles lived in was very small, being designed for the much smaller bottlenose dolphins rather than killer whales. Planning permission regulations and cost issues prevented the pool from being expanded and so plans were made to sell Cuddles and an £11,000 fee was agreed with a much larger marine park in France. However, Cuddles broke a rib in a training accident and the wound became infected. Cuddles died before the transfer to France was completed. Cinefilm footage of Cuddles performing at Dudley Zoo (and the tiny size of the pool) can be viewed from 0:41 on YouTube here.

Dudley Zoo

Dudley Zoo housed one of Britain’s killer whales in the 1970s.

Other killer whales and dolphins have been kept in the UK, but since the early 1990s marine theme parks such as those at Brighton, Morecambe and Windsor have been closed. There are currently no killer whales or dolphins on public display in the United Kingdom and due to the strong pubic opposition to keeping these animals in captivity it is highly unlikely that these creatures will ever be held in captivity in Britain again.

Shamu – the original captive killer whale: Shamu was the first orca to survive for an extended period of time in captivity. She was captured in Icelandic waters in 1965. Much of the current popularity of killer whale shows can be put down to the success of Shamu’s shows in the late 1960s. Such was Shamu’s popularity that the name Shamu is currently used for shows throughout SeaWorld parks across America, and the name Shamu is lent to whichever killer whale is taking part in these shows. However, despite the popularity of the original Shamu – and the image of her as a happy and placid animal – she was involved in an incident where she injured a human and led to her retirement from performing.

In 1971 the staff at Seaworld San Diego organised a publicity stunt where secretary Annette Godsey would ride killer whale Shamu around a pool. The events would be filmed and be used as promotional material for the park. However, after riding on the back of the whale for a few seconds things went wrong. Shamu threw Godsey into the water and pushed her against the wall of the tank. Staff lowered a pole into the pool for Godsey to grab, but she was unable to get out of the pool as Shamu bit down on her leg. Eventually more staff members pushed another pole into Shamu’s mouth and managed to prize the killer whale’s jaws apart, freeing Godsey. The injuries to her leg required over one hundred stitches, although she made a full recovery. The reason why Shamu attacked remain unknown, but one theory is that Shamu had always been ridden by trained staff wearing wetsuits, while Godsey was completely untrained and was wearing a bikini which may have confused Shamu. Following the attack Shamu was retired from public shows at SeaWorld and died less than a year later, although as stated, the Shamu name lives on to this day.

A short interview with Annette Godsey, as well of footage of the attack, can be viewed on YouTube here.

Tilikum – the killer whale involved in three deaths: Tilikum is one of the most infamous killer whales in the world, having been responsible for the death of one trainer, and involved in the deaths of two other people. Like most wild-captured killer whales Tilikum was taken in Icelandic waters in 1983, when he was about two years old. He is now seven metres long and weighs 12,000lbs. Initially Tilikum was kept in a low-budget Canadian park called Sealand of the Pacific. Here he where he was bullied and harassed by the female orcas in the park as he did not fit into the matriarchal family structure he was forced into. Furthermore Sealand of the Pacific did not have the funding to make aquariums or tanks for their killer whales. Instead they were dispalyed in a netted off section of the sea. The park owners, however, were fearful that overnight when the park was unattended the killer whales would either escape through the netting, become tangled up and die in the nets (this head already happened to a killer whale calf called Miracle in the 1970s), or conservationists would cut through the netting and allow the killer whales out. For this reason Tilikum and all of the other killer whales in the park were moved overnight in a ‘storage module.’ This was essentially a metal container in which the killer whales were kept overnight. For periods of up to fourteen hours the killer whales would have to stay in an area approximately 6 metres by 10 metres in complete darkness. The long term effects of this on the killer whales has never been established.

While at Sealand of the Pacific Tilikum was involved in his first incident in 1991. A twenty-year old student and high-level competitive swimmer named Keltie Byrne worked at the park part-time. Shortly after completing a show Byrne slipped and fell into the pool containing Tilikum and two other killer whales. Tilikum took Byrne in his mouth and dragged her around the pool and held her underwater for extended periods of time, with the other killer whales also involved in the attack. Despite the other trainers attempting to distract the killer whales by throwing fish into the water and using commands to tell the killer whales to stop they were not able to stop the attack and Byrne drowned.

Shortly after this Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld Florida. He was not initially used for shows as officially he was classed as being too big, although it was believed that the incident in Sealand of the Pacific played a part in this decision. Eventually the correct permits were gained and Tilikum began to take part in shows. However, in 1999 he was involved in his second incident. A man named Daniel Patrick Dukes evaded staff and security to stay in SeaWorld after the park had closed. The exact details of what happened next remain unclear to this day but what is apparent is that Dukes entered the water and possibly attempted to swim with Tilikum. The following morning the staff who opened the park to find the dead body of Dukes – which was covered in bite and scratch marks – draped over Tilikum’s back. The cause of death was officially recorded on the Office of the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report as drowning (not hypothermia as many reports state). Officially the death was recorded as an accident.

In February 2010 Tilikum was solely responsible for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau – an incident which made headlines across the world and can be seen as being responsible for much of the current debate over the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity. The issues surrounding this incident were featured in the 2013 documentary film Blackfish.

Blackfish Documentary

The 2013 documentary film Blackfish took a critical view of killer whales in captivity and focused on Tilikum.

40-year-old Brancheau was an experienced trainer who had worked with killer whales at SeaWorld for many years. She was taking part in a ‘Dine with Shamu’ show where Tilikum would be fed herring and swim close to the audience of the show to allow them to take photographs. At the close of the show Brancheau was required to lie in shallow water alongside Tilikum. At this point Tilikum grabbed Brancheau and dragged her into deeper water. The exact series of events at this point is a matter of debate. SeaWorld maintain that Brancheau was pulled into the water by her hair and state that Tilikum may have mistaken her hair – which was tied back in a ponytail – for a fish. However, other reports claim that SeaWorld were incorrect in their claims and Brancheau was in fact dragged into the water by her arm. Once Brancheau was in the water Tilikum held her in his mouth and began to swim around the pool, shaking her from side to side. Staff attempted to command Tilikum free Brancheau but the calls were ignored. Nets and poles were used to try and separate Brancheau and Tilikum but the killer whale held on. After some time – some reports state that the whole incident took as long as thirty minutes – Tilikum was guided into a shallow medical pool, where he eventually released Brancheau. Despite attempts to revive her by paramedics and medical staff Brancheau died. The Office of the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report stated that the cause of death was “drowning and traumatic injuries”, specifically blunt force injuries of the head, neck and torso. The autopsy also noted that she had fractured vertebra and a dislocated elbow and knee.


Tilikum featuring in a Shamu show in Seaworld Orlando, 2009.

Killer whale shows resumed shortly after Brancheau’s death. However, these shows did not feature waterwork – trainers being in the water with the killer whales and often riding on top of them of being propelled out of the water on the nose of killer whales. Instead, trainers remained out of the water and instead guided the killer whales to perform using hand signals. Later in 2010 SeaWorld was fined $75,000 for the safety violations which led to Brancheau’s death and were given a further fine in 2013 for “repeat violations” of safety procedures. Restrictions were also placed on trainers at SeaWorld performing with killer whales, although SeaWorld launched legal action to get waterwork reinstated.

In January 2016 SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died. Tilikum was estimated to be thirty-six years old at the time of his death. No cause of death was given by SeaWorld.

Kasatka – multiple attacks on the same trainer: Kasatka is female killer whale currently housed at SeaWorld in San Diego, California. She was captured as a one year old calf in Icelandic waters in 1978. In 1999 she was involved in an incident with a trained named Ken Peters when she reportedly grabbed him by the leg and shook him from side to side. Prior to this she had also bitten a trainer, giving her a reputation as being unpredictable and aggressive. However, a much more serious attack took place on the same trainer in 2006. Peters was taking part in a show with Kasatka and her calf Kalia in front of hundreds of people. Kasatka – who is around 18ft long and weighs 6000lbs – took Peters foot in her mouth and bit down on it before swimming to the bottom of the pool and holding Peters there for around a minute. Kasatka then returned to the surface briefly but then took Peters to the bottom of the pool a second time for another minute. On returning to the surface for a second time Peters was seen stroking and attempting to calm the killer whale. After a few more minutes Kasatka eventually released Peters and he swam to the edge of the pool where he was able to scramble to safety, while Kasatka could be seen pursuing him as he made his escape. Kasatka had been described as acting in a distressed manner prior to the show, but had been used as two of the park’s other killer whales were unavailable (Corky had been injured by being bitten by Kasatka and Orkid was not performing as she had also attacked a trainer).

As of 2014 Ken Peters is still employed by SeaWorld.

The Impact of the Blackfish Film and SeaWorld’s New Direction

The influence of the Blackfish film first became apparent in April 2014 when it was revealed that attendances at SeaWorld were down 15% compared to the same three-month period in 2013. SeaWorld put this down to seasonal factors but it was widely reported in the media that this was caused by the ‘Blackfish Effect’ which was seeing people begin to turn their backs on paying to see killer whales perform in captivity. It was also announced that Disney/Pixar were planning on changing the plot of their film Finding Dory which eventually came out in 2016. The film, which is a follow up to 2003’s Finding Nemo which took $1 billion at the worldwide box office, had originally intended to portray a marine theme park in a sympathetic light, but this changed following the impact of the Blackfish film and the corresponding change in public attitudes.

The impact of the Blackfish film continued throughout 2015. In summer SeaWorld – suffering from declining visitor numbers and a falling stock price – attempted to stem criticism of its treatment of killer whales by announcing that the size of the tanks which they live in will be almost doubled. The expansion will begin at SeaWorld San Diego and will see the tank increase from 5.6 million gallons to almost 10 million gallons as part of a $100 million project, and it will also feature running water so that the killer whales can experience swimming against the tide. The news did little to appease campaigners and marine biologists who stated that it would not change the fact that the killer whales were still kept in captivity.

In November 2015 there were rumours across the international media that SeaWorld was going to phase out its killer whale shows. This turned out not to be the case but it was confirmed that SeaWorld was changing the format the shows. SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby explained that the “theatrical performance” which the killer whales took part in would be replaced with a new show featuring “activities that the whales tend to do in the wild.” This was seen as ongoing evidence of the ‘Blackfish Effect’ which is forcing SeaWorld to alter the way it treats its killer whales.

A months after Tilikum’s death SeaWorld announced that it was ending the captive breeding of killer whales. As SeaWorld no longer takes killer whales from the wild this means that the current generation of killer whales will be the last held captive within SeaWorld parks. This was accompanied by a national advertising campaign on US national television explaining why SeaWorld was phasing out the breeding of whales, and also stating that releasing killer whales which had only known life in captivity would likely be fatal for the whales. In April 2017 SeaWorld’s final captive-born killer whale was born at their park in San Antonio, Texas.

In June 2016 the campaign to free captive killer whales gained more momentum when Morgan, a killer whale owned by SeaWorld which was on loan to Loro Parque in Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, appeared to attempt to ‘commit suicide’. Following a show the killer whale deliberately left the water and lay on a concrete slab by the side of the pool for around ten minutes. Being out of the water for long periods of time can be life threatening to killer whales as they rely on the buoyancy of the water to support their internal organs and also begin to rapidly overheat outside of water. A further video emerged showed the same whale taking part in disturbing behaviour when she was seen repeatedly banging her head against a metal gate separating two pools in April of the same year. Such incidents add further weight to the belief that killer whales are completely unsuited to life in captivity.

While SeaWorld had already said it would phase out killer whale shows and their breeding programme the state of California officially banned the practice of breeding killer whales in captivity and running shows with killer whales in September 2016. What was already a year filled with negative publicity for SeaWorld ended with further bad news when it was announced that they would be laying off around 320 staff across the organisation due to declining attendances and a need to cut costs. SeaWorld also announced that it would be building its first park which would not feature killer whales. The new park will be built on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi and will open in 2022. It will not feature any killer whales at all with SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby saying that the new park will be an “important step” in the company moving away from the use of killer whale shows as a main attraction and the new direction for SeaWorld would “…position the new SeaWorld in a very strong way, repositioning it from a company that’s only about certain species to a company that is focused on ocean health.”

In July 2018 Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s largest travel and holiday companies, stated that they would no longer sell trips to marine parks such as SeaWorld and Loro Parque which had captive killer whale displays. Thomas Cook’s chief executive Peter Fankhauser said that the decision had been taken due to customer concerns over animal welfare.

The news that SeaWorld has completely changed its ways of operating and will eventually completely phase out keeping captive killer whales has been welcomed by conservationists and animal rights organisations. The film Blackfish has undoubtedly been the decisive factor in forcing SeaWorld to change its ways due to the public and political pressure the film generated. It remains to be seen if killer whale-free SeaWorld is as popular with the paying public as the old SeaWorld was, although the positive changes made by SeaWorld do appear to be working. The company’s share price had plummeted in the years after Blackfish was released, but had regained much of its value by summer 2018 as visitors returned to SeaWorld parks. However, the corporate side of the company has faced a turbulent time since the release of Blackfish, with six different CEOs (some who worked on an interim basis) serving between 2014 and 2019.

However, just as SeaWorld is phasing out killer whales China may be planning to increase the number it uses in its marine theme parks. In February 2017 it was announced that China was putting its first captive killer whale breeding programme into action using killer whales which have been captured by Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk and then sold to China. The killer whales are currently held at a marine themed park called Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Guangdong Province in the south of the country which currently contains five male and four female killer whales. The theme park already contains beluga whales and whale sharks in an aquarium which is believed to be the biggest in the world.

Whale Shark Aquarium

Display outside of the whale shark aquarium in Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, China.

The theme park is part of a wider complex which contains hotels and a circus and is currently being developed into a ¥50 billion (£5.85 billion) entertainment and holiday complex. There are fears that just as Western nations are turning against keeping killer whales in captivity China is about to massively expand its own marine theme parks using killer whales as the main attraction. In 2019 the Independent reported that China was planning to build dozens of marine theme parks across the country, and expand their captive breeding programme to provide killer whales for the parks.

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