I have always had a fascination with killer whales. It may well have come from seeing Winnie, the infamous and always seemingly good-natured resident of Windsor Safari Park when I was a child. What I never knew was that Winnie, like most whales in captivity had been born in the wild and was captured just off the coast of Iceland in 1977. She ended up being one of the longest-lived whales in captivity, nearly 25 years old. But when she died, her small enclosure at Windsor had already taken its toll by stunting her growth and allowing her to ingest some 12 lbs of plastic material that remained in her gut and prevented her from absorbing nutrients from her food properly. Her move to SeaWorld did her some good as she did put on weight, but her small size meant that she was often bullied by other whales and it took a further two moves before Winnie was settled and found a companion she could get on with, Kayla.
This and other stories of whales in captivity are found in Death at Sea-World, a fantastic book by David Kirby that I have just finished. I literally could not put it down, reading in my lunch breaks and late at night in bed until I reached the end. The stories it brings to light are often shocking and upsetting. I for instance as a child never knew Winnie had been born wild, as most of the whales I’ve seen in captivity have been.
One of the things that becomes clear very quickly is that killer whales are one of the most intelligent animals we have ever encountered who get bored very easily. To the point that it is often them training the trainers. Take the whale that was given a choice of two cards to test visual acuity. One card had a single line on it, the other two. In order to test the whale, the card with two lines was replaced time and time again with a card where the two lines were closer and closer together. Each time the whale chose the card with two lines, it was rewarded. The whale learnt the trick quickly and only had difficulty picking out the two lines when they were approximately 1mm apart or less. It got it right something like 98% of the time, a score equal to an eye exam I recently had. The next day, the whale scored 1%. There was nothing wrong with her vision, she was just bored. It was the whale equivalent of putting her fingers in her ears and chanting ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’. Or take the example of the whale that would literally stick its head in the corner gate of its tank if it was played songs it didn’t like. In both examples, the whales were showing almost unprecedented levels of intelligence and finding ways to communicate with us. They went on to teach their trainers which reward they were happy to take and when.
What then becomes clear if it wasn’t obvious already, is that killer whales are not really happy in captivity. They are apex predators being taught to do performance showpieces they find repetitive and mundane. Their health is at risk. Most captive whales are fed large quantities of antibiotics daily, suffer sunburn and insect bites and suffer from collapsed dorsal fins due to the fact that they are forced to spend nearly all of their time at the surface in shallow pools, where they cannot dive to the depths and lengths they can in the wild to escape the sun or insects.
Further to this, whales that wouldn’t usually tolerate each other in the wild are forced together. Transient whales that wander the ocean are kept in pods that include settled resident whales. In the wild, they would avoid each other and it has even been documented where resident whales aggressively confront transients. Residents tend to be fish eaters whereas transients are more likely to eat marine mammals. Tilikum was most likely an Icelandic transient, although Iceland does have some residents as well. The bullying he experiences from other whales certainly at least suggests a difference in culture between him and other whales. This bullying is relatively common in captivity and often documented as different whales assert their dominance or frustration. Whales regularly have to be moved as Winnie and Tilikum both experienced (Winnie also being an Icelandic transient) to protect them, although I use the term ‘protect’ loosely in the context of SeaWorld procedures.
On top of all this, the whales typically show signs of depression (including logging at the water’s surface almost motionless), lethargy and violent mood swings.
I have visited both Sea-world and Windsor Safari Park and seen the whale and dolphin shows. I’ve paid my money and I’ve enjoyed the experience and being up close to the whales. But I’ve also seen the signs that things weren’t right. Most notably was the whale that posed cutely at the viewing window at sea-world, waited until a crowd of adoring fans had gathered and then rammed the window violently in order to literally scare the tourists. This is a behaviour described in the book and I now know that the whale I saw was one particular whale or a whale that had learnt that specific behaviour from the whale in question. The whale does this because she is bored and has invented a way of keeping herself amused. They are also quite good at swimming slowly and cutely past guests as they leave the shamu stadium, only to send just enough water over the top to soak anyone who dawdles. Again, this is something I have experienced myself personally! The intelligence involved here is considerable and should not be under-estimated.
The issue I have most with is the attitude and lack of recognition on the captors part that there are issues with keeping these animals in captivity. If they recognised that captive whales live shorter lives it would go a long way. If they showed more respect for the maternal bond between mother and calf and how long it lasts (all their lives. Male whales are mummy’s boys suspected never to venture further than half a mile from their mother’s side), less behavioural problems could be a result. If residents and transients were kept apart. If whales weren’t forced to mate before they would in the wild. If tanks were designed to be more interactive and engaging for the whales, rather than on a basis of how easy they are to clean. If incidents were documented and the danger of working with an apex predator was at least recognised then things like the “Tilly talk” (in short, get in the water with Tilly, come out a corpse) would be less of a surprise for trainers and not something that they feel had to be kept from the public. If real educational material was made available at SeaWorld parks then marine conservation could become a real part of their work. Most importantly, if sea-pens could be built where whales could retire and still be viewed and adored by the public, where natural behaviour is more likely to be seen, where care and attention can still be given to human-accepting whales by trainers then there could still be a future for captive whales in a de-escalating programme that moved away from exhibitions and performing. But whilst there is even a hint that the truth is hidden or not recognised by such corporations, whilst they are promoted more as circus animals than intelligent, individuals (every animal is called Shamu not just for show purposes but because if you were given their real name, you’d be able to track how often they died) then things will inevitably get worse and equally inevitably, it is only a matter of time before a killer whale kills its trainer again.
I don’t think that releasing captive whales into the wild is always a viable end for some whales in captivity, which is why I am holding off damning SeaWorld completely and rallying for their all out closure tomorrow. Whales have personalities as diverse as ours. Keiko for instance, the most famous whale other than Tilikum and the star of Free Willy was generally thought of as one of the most kindly, compassionate whales in captivity who literally adored human company. When a caretaker’s toddler fell into his inhumanely small pool, Keiko, covered in warts and blisters and emaciated from living under the harsh Mexican sun, rescued the child and kept him at the surface until he could be rescued. His wild release was pretty much a marketing ploy and ultimately resulted in Keiko never really acclimatising to life in the wild, seeking out human company in both Iceland and Norway. He died of bacterial pneumonia, ultimately possibly because his immune system had been irreversibly compromised by living in captivity. Although it was almost irresistable given the movie to try the endeavour with Keiko, he was not a suitable whale for release in my opinion.
Expansive sea pens where whales can receive medical care but also have the opportunity to feed naturally or go for wild walks as Keiko did are where I think the future could lie for most captive whales. There is no reason why corporations like SeaWorld couldn’t build such enclosures with viewing windows and charge the public to visit as they do their parks. Imagine seeing a whale like Tilikum from the deck of a boat, seeing him feed on wild herring or being taken for a walk by a SeaWorld support ship into the open ocean. Wouldn’t he be happier? Wouldn’t you?