Blackfish tales: Stories of orcas in captivity
Recently, CNN aired the controversial movie Blackfish, a documentary that takes aim at SeaWorld and other marine parks that choose to keep orcas in captivity. The film contends that there is no humane way to keep these massive marine mammals in tanks for public amusement and observation, and it suggests that the incidences of some of the whales’ aggression toward their trainers could be a result of the frustration and misery the whales endure in their sterile, unnatural environments. It also says that the animals’ health is compromised by being kept in captivity. SeaWorld counters that it provides the best in veterinary care for its animals and that it and other marine parks provide a vital conservation and educational role via their marine mammal programs. SeaWorld also points out that, although in the early days of keeping orcas in captivity wild whales were removed from natural environments for public display, the industry now uses captive breeding programs to populate its pools. The park calls the film a piece of propaganda rather than a work of journalism.
Despite SeaWorld’s claims, though, there’s no doubt that the history of keeping orcas captive is not a pretty one. Here’s a sampling of the stories of captive orcas in the marine-park industry, beginning with the first killer whale ever captured by humans in 1961, and ending with the last whale “rescued” by her captors in 2010.
The first orca ever kept in captivity was a lone female discovered in 1961 in Newport Harbor, Calif. She was captured in a net and transported to Marineland of the Pacific, where she quickly began ramming hear head into the sides of her tank. She was nicknamed the Newport Whale, but she was also called Wanda. Three days after her capture, she died.
1964: Moby Doll
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned a sculptor names Samuel Burich to create a life-sized model of a killer whale for display. But in order to create the sculpture, Burich would first need a model. He went out on an expedition to harpoon a subject and managed to capture a one-ton whale off the coast of British Columbia. The whale didn’t die, so the aquarium’s director decided to tow it back to Vancouver using the harpoon line. The whale, which was said to be surprisingly docile, was named Moby Doll, and he lived for three months before dying of a skin disease caused by the salinity in the water he was kept in.
In July 1965, a male orca was caught in a net in Namu Bay, British Columbia. He was purchased for $8,000 by Ted Griffin, who ran a private aquarium called the Seattle Marine Aquarium. Griffin had the whale towed to Seattle in a net and named him Namu. He trained the whale to swim with humans, and Namu became the first orca to survive life in captivity long enough to perform, and he helped change public perception of the animals, believed to be vicious killers. His performances helped people see orcas as intelligent and interesting animals, and proved to owners of aquariums that crowds would come in droves to see a captive killer whale.
Namu died in 1966, just a year after his capture. May years later, the daughter of Griffin’s business partner was quoted in a Seattle paper as saying that Griffin was haunted by his legacy of keeping a captive killer whale: “I remember going to Ted Griffin’s home on the island,” she wrote. “Years later he would become a shell of the man he had been … regretting the capture and death of Namu … I believe it haunts him to this day, as it does myself.”