Killer Whales in Captivity

When a top predator becomes a top attraction, it's an invitation for trouble.


Nathan Fulgado, Writer

artwork by Rianna Gonsalves

Humans have had an unusual fascination with using animals as a means of entertainment. Zoos, aquariums, bird parks and nature parks have kept wild animals in captivity which has had severe consequences on the animals and their species. The spectacle of watching a wild animal, maybe even a predator, being tamed by its human master is a sight to behold in the entertainment industry. The dangers posed by the capturing of such animals has led to some truly tragic moments.

The killer whale, or Orca, is one of the largest predators in the sea. The creature weighs almost two tons and is as large as a sailboat. It hunts in packs, similar to wolves. These packs are called pods, and each pod can contain up to thirty killer whales. A single killer whale is able to hunt an agile seal or penguin, but a pod can take down a humpback whale.

These whales, in spite of their hunting prowess and incredible size, are huge attractions in marine parks. There are more than sixty killer whales in captivity. More than half of those have been born in captivity. These magnificent animals are incredibly intelligent as well, which humans have taken advantage of. They are trained to perform stunts and tricks that wow audiences who pay hundreds of dollars to see them perform.

People who saw the movie (Free Willy) were shocked to find out that Keiko was also a captive killer whale. To create a movie about a whale escaping captivity, the filmmakers had to violate the fundamental premise of the movie.

In a report by The New York Times on this issue was featured one such whale called Keiko. Keiko was the star of the 90s hit movie Free Willy. The movie revolves around a boy trying to free a captive killer whale from its enclosure and return it to the sea. People who saw the movie (Free Willy) were shocked to find out that Keiko was also a captive killer whale. To create a movie about a whale escaping captivity, the filmmakers had to violate the fundamental premise of the movie. Keiko was an attraction in a Mexican marine park. A killer whale that swims the open ocean according to its free will has an upright dorsal fin. Keiko’s dorsal fin started to droop and eventually curl up due to swimming around in circles in his tiny tank.

Keiko was only one of many killer whales that were captured from the open ocean and thrust into a man-made environment. He became the first captive killer whale to be returned to the wild. The operation was expensive but through crowdfunding and aid from Warner Brothers, they were able to fund Keiko’s return to his home. The problems did not end there for scientists and activists who were working towards his release. The whale had to be trained to live in the wild once again. Years of living in captivity had made the whale dependent on humans. He would not be able to survive in the ocean if he could not be re-oriented with the behavior of wild killer whales.

Keiko died a year after he was released. The movement was strong, but it was not enough to keep him alive for longer. Unfortunately, his death was not enough for marine parks to understand the consequences of keeping a whale in captivity. The ignorance led to a string of terrifying incidents that shook the animal entertainment industry.

Dawn Brancheau was a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. On February 24th, 2010, Dawn was found dead in a killer whale tank. Eyewitness reports claim seeing her body in the mouth of a killer whale named Tilikum. The SeaWorld employees tried their best to make Tilikum let go of the body, but Dawn was already dead. She had been dragged underwater and drowned. Ken Peters, another trainer at SeaWorld was also dragged underwater by a giant killer whale. He barely managed to escape with his life, but not without harm. He ended up suffering from a broken foot due to the attack.

These creatures are severely misunderstood and misrepresented by marine parks. Unlike dolphins and beluga whales, killer whales are not friendly and docile. They are incredibly intelligent, weigh as much as a Hummer, can move through water like a missile and have sharp conical teeth that resemble screws without the grooves.

There have been dozens of instances of former employees blowing the whistle on SeaWorld. The working conditions at marine parks are extremely dangerous, whether you’re dealing with a tiny but deadly jellyfish or a massive killer whale. Tilly, the whale that killed Dawn was previously involved in two more trainer deaths. Her death inspired Gabriela Cowperthwaithe to make the documentary Blackfish. It focused on the life of Tilly, the ‘killer’ killer whale, from its capture off the coast of Iceland to the harassment it faced from other captive killer whales. It highlighted every dark aspect of keeping an animal like this in captivity.


Nathan Fulgado is a BMM student at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. They can be reached at instagram.