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October 24, 2013

"Blackfish" and the Plight of Orcas at SeaWorld

Orca-&-baby-near-PetersburgOrca and baby near Petersburg, Alaska. Photo by Elisabeth Keating.

"They're an animal that possesses great spiritual and emotional power. They are not to be messed with." 

                                                                            - David Duffus, Orca Expert

Elisabeth Keating is a Seattle-based writer and former Communications Chair of the Sierra Club's Washington State chapter.

August 2012: Petersburg Alaska — My friends and I are on a small boat, traveling through Wrangell Narrows to the lodge where we will spend a week of meditation, kayaking, and reflection. I stare at the inky blue water, thinking of human concerns—wondering if I brought enough warm clothing, wishing I had found a Starbucks during the layover in Ketchikan.

The water shifts, along with the sleepy energy of the humans on our vessel. White ripples grow broader. Four dorsal fins are soaring up on our left. A massive black back breaks the surface two feet from where I'm standing and suddenly I'm facing an adult orca whale. He dives under our boat and pops up on the other side, playful and curious. Our boat erupts with cheers, clapping and cameras snapping.
Our companions: four orca whales. There are three adult fins and one small fin. They float and dive under the boat for 20 minutes until they fall back, circling a fishing boat. The orca baby's fin is always protected within the larger tribe. The calmness and grace of these majestic creatures sailing beside us lifts us. We humans feel welcomed and sustained. At no moment do we feel anger, aggression, or danger from our whale companions. Beneath the surface, though we couldn't hear them, the orcas were talking to each other. The sounds of orcas talking were captured recently in Washington State waters. Listen.

No wild orca has been known to kill a human. Yet at places like SeaWorld, where orcas are held in captivity in extreme conditions, human deaths are increasingly frequent.

Blackfish—a new documentary that premiers on CNN starting October 24—delves into the subject of orca captivity and its psychological effect upon orca whales.

Captive-orcaPhoto courtesy of Dogwood Films.

Focusing on an orca named Tillikum who has killed three people since his capture in 1983, the filmmakers ask, "What happens when you take a ten ton whale that's meant to travel as far as 75 miles in a day, and confine it in a tiny tank for years, deprive it of companionship and food, and force it to perform on cue day in and day out?"

The answer: Extreme psychological pressure that probably led Tillikum to become psychotic. The miracle to me after watching the film is that more orcas don't kill their trainers.

In turn chilling and fascinating, Blackfish asks important questions.
- What are we teaching our children about nature when we confine a whale to a tank, starve it, and coerce it into performing tricks for us?

- Do we have the right to take a whale, a highly social animal, separate it from its clan, separate mothers from babies, and essentially torture an animal for our own entertainment?

"It's the modern equivalent of a Roman Circus," says one commentator.

Captive-orcaThe dorsal fin of virtually every male orca whale held in captivity has collapsed. This is partially due to loss of collagen from exposure to the sun (captive whales spend too much time on the water's surface), and lack of hydration. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Films.

Tillikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in November 1983 as a three-year-old. He was first sent to live at Sealand of the Pacific, now closed, in Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada. There, he lived with two older females. Tortured by his cell mates who left him with long raking scars, Tillikum suffered daily. In the ocean, orcas can swim away. There's nowhere to run in a pen.

As the largest whale in a tiny pen, he had no way to escape. Trainers used food to motivate him. The whales were fed when obeyed commands; starved when they didn't.  At night the whales were moved to a pen 20 feet deep and 28 feet wide.

After he killed his 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, by dragging her underwater, drowning her and eating her arm, Tillikum was confined to a solitary tank. There he floats today: often spending days lifeless and motionless. His teeth have rotted from knawing on the metal cages that enclose him. His dorsal fin has collapsed-like many captive orcas' have: eroded from exposure to the sunlight (captive orcas spend too much time near the surface) and lack of hydration and collagen.

Some of the footage in Blackfish is tough to watch. The conditions Tillikum and other orcas in captivity experience are extreme for any creature. For an orca whale—now known to be one of the most intelligent and social animals on the planet—it seems outrageous.

Captive-orcaPhoto courtesy of Dogwood Films.

Orcas are social animals. Brains of orcas have a highly developed paralymbic region, suggesting they process complex emotions.

The identity of orcas seems to be based on the group, not on the individual. When orcas look for food they often work together. There's a fascinating segment in Blackfish where three orcas work in tandem to create a wave that will push a seal off an ice floe. And orcas in trouble don't abandon each other.

SeaWorld puts orcas together by decision of upper management. They create artificial tribes that don't speak the same language. Mother orcas are separated from their babies.

I talked to Howard Garrett, an orca whale expert from Washington State who is interviewed in the film, to learn more about orcas and their emotional and social lives. A sociology major, Howard tells me that each orca community around the world has its own language and culture. "Southern orcas breach a lot, more than any other community of orcas. Northern residents love rubbing on rocks to massage themselves. All orcas have learned techniques for getting food, and each culture enjoys a slightly different diet."

What I learned from watching Blackfish at the first annual San Juan Island Film festival makes it clear that while the captivity orcas are experiencing at SeaWorld is extreme for any animal, however intelligent, for an orca whale, it must be excruciating.

Whales talk to each other. They may even share babysitting duties. "Their sense of identity is based upon their tribe, not their identity as individuals," Howard tells me. "They live in big extended families, with lifespans similar to human lifespans."

"I just read SeaWorld's response to questions about captive orcas," he says. "SeaWorld asserts that orcas adapt very well to life in a zoological setting. It's not true. The irony is that they try to adapt, because they are highly evolved to be members of their societies and families. They are predisposed to be cooperative and eager to learn what is expected of them. That's the glue that keeps their families and communities together, more so than any other mammal known to science, and it's in their brain anatomy, in the paralimbic lobe neurologist Lori Marino describes in Blackfish. So they try to do the routines and behaviors asked of them, but the evidence clearly shows they suffer severe stresses and tend to die in their youth in captivity, whether captured or captive-born. The survival rates, which have not improved in recent decades, show that."

We probably can't save Tillikum. But we can save Lolita, an orca captured off Whidbey Island in 1970. Howard and his brother, whale expert Ken Balcomb, have a plan to return her from the pen where she lives alone in Florida to Washington State waters where she can reunite with the clan, the L pod of the San Juans. Her battle is currently in court and she has a legal team.

Orcas-in-San-Juan-IslandsWild orcas swimming in Washington's San Juan Islands. If Lolita's legal team succeeds, she will soon return to these waters and reunite with her family. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Films.

When I contrast the lives of the wild orcas I saw coursing with conviction through Wrangell Narrows in Alaska 14 months ago, with Tillikum floating silently and motionless in a tank at SeaWorld, there's no question in my mind where Lolita should end up.

Blackfish will be shown on television Thursday at 6 and 9 p.m. on CNN. Host Jane Velez-Mitchell will hold discussions about the movie on her program each evening on HLN, sometimes called CNN Headline News. Her series "Beyond Blackfish" begins tonight and continues through Friday at 4 p.m. each day.

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