by Katie Palmer
Like for many Canadian children, the 1993 Warner Brothers classic Free Willy fueled my love of orca whales, colloquially known as “killer whales.” I begged my parents to give me a “whale name.” They dubbed me Katunie Whale, the lone killer whale of Markham, Ontario, the suburb of my childhood upbringing. After months of pleading for a family road trip to Marineland – a marine aquarium located in Niagara Falls, now infamous for alleged animal neglect and abuse – my parents, three older siblings, and I ventured off to the park where I had my first killer whale encounter.
Centuries before I witnessed the beauty of killer whales in the flesh, these magnificent sea mammals, which can reach nine meters and weigh up to 7257 kilograms, have long captivated human audiences ranging from Spanish sailors to Aboriginals. It was the Spanish who first identified orcas as “whale killers” after watching them prey on porpoises, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Unbeknown to those sailors and to many individuals today, killer whales belong to the dolphin family and although they can be found in all oceans, the majority navigates the eastern Pacific along the shorelines of British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington.
Fast-forward to August 2012. At 26, my killer whale obsession persists; a picture of me feeding a killer whale at Marineland back in 2006 is pinned to my office cubicle where I work as a policy analyst for the provincial government. I spent a good portion of July 2012 campaigning for somebody – anybody – to accompany me to Marineland.
Two days before the trip, however, the Toronto Star published a series of investigative news articles on the massive sufferings at Marineland. Allegedly, many of the sea mammals held in captivity at Marineland, including seals, dolphins, and sea lions, have skin lesions and impaired vision due to poor water conditions. The story of Larry the harbour seal horrified me. He arrived at Marineland in 2004 with an “amazing little personality,” according to his trainers. Eight years later, Larry is blind, likely due to ongoing exposure to unhealthy water, and his infectious personality is gone. His trainers also told the Toronto Star that Larry has been pulled from the water “for days or weeks at a time and kept in either a waterless pen or a metal box on wheels.”
Accoding to the Toronto Star, between the years of 2004 and 2011, all but one of the five killer whales at Marineland have died prematurely. Since November 2011, Kiksa has no fellow whale companions to interact with and is forced to stimulate herself instead. The Canadian Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), a non-profit professional association that promotes the welfare of animals in captivity, does not support marine parks harbouring killer whales in solitude. Killer whales are incredibly intelligent and family-oriented mammals that also demonstrate complex social connections. In the wild, killer whales travel together in pods that range in size from five to thirty whales. Marine biologists believe that each pod of whales has their own unique dialect.
Upon reading about the Toronto Star’s investigation at Marineland, I devised Plan B. What would be better than viewing a single killer whale in a man-made aquarium? Seeing a pod of orcas swimming in their natural habitat, of course! The following August, I would participate in a four-day guided kayaking tour to explore the coasts of Vancouver Island in search of the northern resident orca whales.
The year passed quickly, and one Saturday near the end of August 2013, I flew from Toronto to Campbell River, a rural town on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island – also known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.”
Upon my arrival in coastal B.C., I met up with one of the guides from the tour company, Spirit of the West Adventures, and several of the other group participants for our orientation. We learned of our proposed route in the Johnstone Strait area and of safety precautions we must follow should we spot wildlife. Provincial laws dictate that a kayaker must not go any closer than twenty kayak lengths from sea life. Lastly, our guide reminded us that there were no guarantees that we would see orcas, but he also mentioned that killer whale sightings had been plentiful this past summer. I was eager to begin the adventure.
The next day after loading our kayaks with camping gear, fresh water, food supplies, and personal belongings, we paddled away from Vancouver Island. A short two hours later we had our first sighting of a small pod of orcas swimming in the distance.
As I watched the orca whales freely navigate the ocean waters, my newfound perception of marine theme parks like Marineland and Sea World as inhumane was solidified. Since the 1960s, a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry has been built around the capturing of whales, seals, sea lions, walruses, and other sea mammals and putting them on display for public entertainment. This industry clearly values profit over the needs of the animals. Killer whales in the wild swim up to 100 miles on any given day – a distance that is not possible for those in captivity, whose exercise regimens consist of swimming in circles and performing in shows. In the United States, both the depth and width of tanks holding killer whales must be at least twice their length. By no means does this tank size allow captive whales to swim any significant distance.
The average life expectancies of whales in captivity are significantly shorter than those in the wild. According to the Orca Project, a non-profit organization committed to educating the public about marine captivity and pressuring governments to impose stricter guidelines, male orcas in the wild live an average of 30 years and females generally live to 50, and some have reportedly lived into their 80s. But the Orca Project has found that “Since the 1970s, 17 killer whales have died at Marineland of Canada with an average age at the time of death just over 8-years-old. Over the same period, SeaWorld has lost 36 orcas at its 3 U.S. parks with an average age just under 14-years-old.”
Dr. Naomi Rose argues in her article, Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should no Longer be Kept in Captivity, that captive killer whales are more likely to have poor immune systems due to chronic stress, depression, and boredom. This reduces their ability to fight off infections, such as pneumonia, and can result in their premature deaths. Moreover, orca whales in captivity are likely to have poor dental health, including tooth abrasion and breakage. According to marine experts, whales in aquariums routinely gnaw on the concrete walls or steel gates that divide tanks into sections and prevent from moving freely.
One afternoon, our 12-person group tried to keep our kayaks motionless as we watched the orca whales swim towards us. One of the guides informed us that 2013 has been particularly challenging to gauge the mobility of the orcas. Typically, they swim upstream following the salmon run, but as the salmon population in the region declines due to human pollution and excessive salmon farming, the whales are foraging for food. When whales forage, our ability to determine where they will “pop up” becomes less accurate. As a safety precaution, we tried to keep our kayaks close together to give the impression that we were one large entity.
As an amateur kayaker, I slowly drifted away from the group by about twenty feet, and one of the orcas popped up ten feet from me. It was simultaneously breathtaking and marginally frightening. To ease my anxiety, I reminded myself that according to David Kirby’s recent book Death at Sea World, there has only been one reported incident of a killer whale causing major injury to a human being in the wild, back in 1972.
Killer whales in captivity, on the other hand, make semi-frequent headlines in newspapers for attacking humans, usually their trainers. Four people have been killed by captive orcas and countless others have been seriously injured. Dr. Naomi Rose asserts, “The contrast is clear – in the wild, despite centuries of encounter between seafarers (including modern researchers) and orcas, there have been no human deaths and very few serious injuries recorded. Yet in only 47 years of placing orcas in artificial proximity to people, there have been dozens of serious injuries involving dozens of different animals and four deaths involving four different animals.”
I understand firsthand the appeal of visiting marine-based theme parks and am equally cognizant that many do not have the means to travel to coastal regions to view whales in their natural habitats. As Dr. Naomi Rose boldly argues, “It is not a matter of opinion that orcas do not adjust to captivity; it is a matter of fact. After more than 45 years of exhibiting orcas for human amusement, while at the same time studying them in the wild, we have learned enough about them in both settings to realize that orcas do not belong in captivity.”
About the author: Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She completed both her undergraduate and graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. Katie has traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times to research the effects of and responses to the flesh trade in women and children. She lived in the Philippines for five months where she completed a Canadian-government funded internship at the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). In addition to The WIP, she has written for Gender Across Borders, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine on topics relating to gender, migration, development, and women and children in prostitution. She currently works as a policy analyst for the Ontario government.