As I child I loved visiting the SeaWorld park here in my hometown. Along with the San Diego Zoo and the Natural History Museum, it was the impetus of my development into the dilettante naturalist I’ve become. That luster had largely faded by the time I visited as an adult and saw the park for the overpriced tourist trap it is, but I still maintained my appreciation for the animals. Corky, the resident female lead orca (or “killer whale,” as they’re more commonly known), was still there, performing the same astonishingly graceful leaps and flips that had stolen my breath back when I hadn’t yet learned to read.
On February 24th 2010 a large bull orca named Tilikum violently attacked and killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in full view of a crowd of witnesses. Seizing her by the hair, he dragged her into a deeper section of the pool, where she died of drowning and euphemistically-labeled “traumatic injuries.”
Tilikum is named for a Cree word that alternately means “friend” or “kin/tribe.” This is the third fatal encounter with humans he’s been associated with–though the first openly hostile one–during his time in captivity, and the fourth incident of orca aggression at a SeaWorld park in the last ten years. There have been two dozen attacks at various marine parks in the U.S., Europe and Asia since the 1960s.
Within moments of the first reportage of the attack internet news and social media sites were abuzz with comments, a large majority of them summed up by this sentiment graphic novelist Warren Ellis posted on Twitter: “KILLER whales. Not Cuddle Whales. Not Soft Whales. They’re called KILLER whales. How does this point escape people?”
There was even an outcry among some that, given his anti-human rap sheet, Tilikum should just be euthanized.
My response, once I managed to wade through all the rhetoric and find some actual details on the event, could be said in only three words:
Fuck you, SeaWorld.
Neither orca nor trainer should ever have been there.
The term “killer whale” is a misleading, inaccurate and redundant misnomer. First off, they aren’t whales at all, but rather the largest species of dolphin. Further, every cetacean, from the gigantic Blue Whale to the tiny Commerson’s Dolphin, is a predator. They might filter krill by the mouthful, battle giant squid in the deep dark abyss, or just shuck mollusks from the muddy silt, but each of them hunts and consumes other organisms to survive. There is no such thing as a vegetarian whale.
Lastly, and most importantly, there have never been any documented cases of a so-called “killer whale” ever attacking a human being in the wild.*
Take a moment to think about that. Twenty-four cases of orcas attacking humans in captivity, zero cases in the wild.
This is not true of several other species of dolphin, including the generally-beloved Bottlenose.
There are two major different kinds of wild orcas: transients and residents—and the differences between them are so substantial that debate is ongoing as to whether they should be classified as two distinct sub-species. Transients fit the bill of “wolves of the sea,” loose free-roaming pelagic packs of four to twelve individuals, who feed exclusively on other marine mammals. Several transient orcas, refusing to eat the fish they were offered, starved to death in captivity before this distinction was understood.
Residents, on the other hand, feed only on fish, and spend their lives as members of close-knit, matriarch-dominated family pods within a specific home range. Each pod uses different hunting strategies for catching the fish in their range, and develops a unique “language” of sonar clicks and whistles. This behavior is not instinctual; it is taught to the calves by the older members of the pod from generation to generation, and fits the general anthropological definition of culture.
Every orca currently in captivity was either removed from a resident pod or is the descendent of one that was. So what SeaWorld and its ilk present is a collection of strangers, stolen from their families and forced to live in a pod full of other orcas who cannot communicate with each other, and who then have their natural tendencies and behaviors exploited to perform tricks for the amusement of a crowd.
While it’s true that some orcas, like Corky, seem to enjoy human interaction–she’s known as having a very sweet disposition, and for performing underwater tricks for visitors in her holding tank during off-hours—for most of them it’s the only real socialization they get. Between performances they are split into smaller groups between the holding pools. Tilikum spends almost all of his non-performance time alone, a social animal with a complex intelligence confined in an isolated holding tank for long periods.
Worse, captive orcas frequently develop behavioral and physiological pathologies, most stemming from the stress of confinement. Bullying and intra-orca violence are relatively common. Their life span, roughly equivalent to that of a human being, is effectively halved, with many not living into their mid-20s; at 40, Corky is the second longest-lived captive orca in the world, and has adopted several calves whose birth parents abruptly died—including one that caused fatal injury to itself while attacking her. The calf mortality rate alone is staggeringly high. About 90% of the males in captivity suffer from collapsed dorsal fins, something that occurs in less that 10% of wild orcas worldwide, usually due to injury or poor diet. SeaWorld has repeatedly claimed that a collapsed fin is not indicative of an orca’s well-being.
Tilikum suffers from it:
The exact provocation behind Tilikum’s attack is not yet known, but it appears as though he finally succumbed to a fit of pique and lashed out, with sadly fatal consequences. And I can’t say I blame him for that. Any kidnapped human being subjected to those living conditions and exploited for public amusement who fought back against his captors would be lauded as a hero, not vilified.
Tilikum’s fate is secure. He’s the park’s principle stud muffin, the most successful sire in captivity, with ten surviving offspring, and as such represents a profound investment in future profits. Which cuts right to the heart of everything that’s wrong with SeaWorld.
SeaWorld markets itself as a family-oriented educational adventure, as well as a safe haven for the conservation and study of marine life. But it’s not. SeaWorld is an aquatic circus, a zoology-for-profit private enterprise—one that, until recently, was owned by a massive beer conglomerate. After parking, tickets, food, and a souvenir or two, a family of four will spend close to $400 for a single day’s visit.
The orca shows are the park’s biggest draw, so keeping those orcas flipping and leaping means big money for SeaWorld; after all, popular plush toys of the “Shamu”** mascot start at around $20. You can barely walk ten feet without running into a gift shop or vendor cart selling them.
A visit to the local, nonprofit Birch Aquarium costs about $10 per person. They have one gift shop, and it’s mostly full of books.
I’m not an anti-zoo person, by any means. My appreciation and support of the San Diego Zoological Society remains constant, in part because they are everything SeaWorld pretends to be: a non-profit, scientific society dedicated to research and conservation, one which maintains remarkable transparency in the use of the funds it generates and has been instrumental in the preservation of several critically endangered species, including the local California Condor. And unlike SeaWorld, it’s also been a world leader in providing progressive, naturalized habitats for the animals on display.
I don’t mean to disparage SeaWorld’s cadre of scientists and researchers, since doubtless most of them are decent human beings dedicated to fostering scientific discoveries and educating the public however they can. And the institute has done good; it’s an inescapable irony that much of what we know about orca intelligence initially came from their captivity programs, and they’ve played a key role in rescue efforts for beached or injured marine animals. But when the Yangtze River Dolphin slipped into extinction in 2006, SeaWorld was nowhere to be seen. There was no financial gain in doing so.
I’m also aware of the irony of criticizing the very institute that inspired me to learn about marine biology, but that’s just it; most of what I know has come from my private studies or resources like National Geographic or Nature, not SeaWorld. Education and conservation are byproducts of SeaWorld’s business, not the goal.
And any last lingering affection I felt for it died the moment Tilikum dragged his trainer under water. It seems an inescapable part of the human condition that many of the wonders of our childhood turn to sadness as we slip into adulthood, but this is not one I regret. I’ll save my mourning for the trainer, and for the orca who killed her.
My last visit to SeaWorld was on a weekday in February, 2007. It was a cold, drizzly day, with sparse attendance at the park. Because of the weather, most of the shows were canceled, which was fine with me. Towards the end of my visit I wandered over to the Shamu Stadium, where Corky was entertaining herself in the large display tank. No one else was around. When she caught sight of me she corkscrewed onto her back and began swimming a series of rapid laps upside down, always cruising right next to the glass when she came near my station. Thanks to an underwater microphone I could hear some of her clicks and whistles. I stood there for a while, watching her as she played and chattered for both of us, and wondered if the surviving members of her family pod missed hearing her voice.
In case I haven’t bored you witless on orcas by this point, you can go read this fantastic article originally published in National Geographic‘s April 2005 issue.
*There is one anecdotal report of a surfer who was grabbed by a wild orca by mistake and promptly released, but it has never been substantiated, and is most likely hearsay.
**The original Shamu died in 1971 and was one of the first perpetrators of orca aggression against humans. She was permanently removed from public view after being caught on tape biting and refusing to release the leg of a trainer during a performance.