A ground-breaking and thrilling documentary, Blackfish, has been making its way around internationals film festivals and receiving rave reviews for its frank and revealing portrayal of the little-known details of a huge industry: whale captivity at marine amusement parks. The film chronicles the story of Tilikum, a 32 year-old orca taken from the wild in 1983 and seeks to explain the events leading up to SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010. Dawn was the third death Tilikum had been the disputed cause of or directly involved in.
The film chooses not to solely focus on Tilikum, but instead touches upon the incidents that have taken place over the years behind the scenes at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks between whales, their trainers, and the industry as a whole. Through interviews with previous SeaWorld trainers, Blackfish offers a unique and unseen viewpoint into the lives of the animals that have captivated our attention for years- as we have held them captive in marine parks.
While the legitimacy of the evidence and reasons behind Tilikum’s aggressive attacks on people are debated throughout the film, one point remains clearly agreed upon: whales are not meant to be captive for human entertainment. Some orca in particular travel up to 100 miles a day searching for food- a natural behavior that plainly cannot be carried out in the confinement of a marine park. An impressive and roaming species that depend on their acoustic capabilities, the bare, baby-blue aquarium tanks that house orca in marine parks will never do justice to the wild, stimulating, and open space from which they came.
Additionally, the entertainment captive whales provide for us is at the sake of their health. Collapsed dorsal fins (which do not occur commonly in the wild), sores from rubbing their heads against the sides of their tank, and even worn down teeth due to the nervous and agitated behavior of gnawing at concrete enclosures have all been documented in captive whales.
I am encouraged by the much needed conversation about the ethics of keeping whales in captivity that Blackfish has sparked. Although the film does not reveal a “silver bullet” solution to ending the imprisonment of these impressive marine mammals, it does help to highlight the plight of several individual orca and will hopefully bring awareness to the hundreds of other whales being kept in captivity.
I have a special connection to the case of one of these orca, a five year-old female named Morgan. In 2010, Morgan was found underweight and separated from her pod in her native waters of the Netherlands. She was collected via a permit that allowed her to be held in captivity at Dolphinarium Harderwijk under the condition that she would be returned after regaining her health. However, in 2011 Dutch authorities allowed Morgan to be transferred to the Spanish marine park Loro Parque, despite her return to good health. Orca specialist Dr. Ingrid Visser, myself, and many others have fought vigilantly in the Amsterdam Court for the release of Morgan back to the wild. Despite our best efforts, Morgan remains captive in Loro Parque, but it does not change the fact that she remains a perfect candidate to be released. Experts have been able to match Morgan’s vocalizations to a pod in Norway, which greatly increases the chances of her being reunited with her family. We can not give up on Morgan. We have to give her a chance at freedom. Through my involvement with Free Morgan Foundation, I will continue to lend my voice, support and do any thing possible to get her out of jail. Morgan’s next hearing will be at the High Court in Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands on the Tuesday 3rd of December 2013 at 10:45 am.
For four and one-half years, I was directly involved with the release of Keiko, the male orca made famous in the film, “Free Willy.” Public outrage at his continued captivity and poor health resulted in a movement to rehabilitate and free him. Millions of dollars in private donations made that possible in an unprecedented experiment with scientists, animal husbandry experts and my team and others.
Like many of the orcas now in captivity, Keiko was captured at a young age. The belief was that if we could identify and find his natal pod, we could release him and he would be accepted back into the wild in the company of other orcas. That never happened. After years of training, at great expense, Keiko was finally able to catch and eat live fish and was returned to the waters in Iceland near where he was captured. He never integrated with the wild whales he encountered. He often swam back to the boat for protection and waited at the gate of his enclosure to be let back in.
Keiko finally left his constant human caregivers and swam over 1,000 miles, feeding himself, from Iceland to Norway, where he entered a fjord and stayed, dependent again on human attention, until his death by a pneumonia-like disease in December of 2003.
If we know the location and pods from which individuals were captured, every effort should be made to create a safe enclosure for them there and to observe whether they are recognized and possibly accepted by the orcas associated with the pod when they were captured. Such proposals have been made for Corky and Lolita and are possibly worth considering. I think there would be tremendous public support for a humane, experimental program like this as we read comments by our Ocean Futures Society members.
But one way or another, we are totally responsible for the care and wellbeing of all captive orcas for the rest of their lives, especially those born into captivity.
My dream would be that it be illegal to capture any orca anywhere for any reason. The orcas now in captivity could be prevented from reproducing and would live their lives in retirement under the best conditions we could provide. There would be no “shows,” no entertainment, only activities to keep the orcas active. They would die of premature death like all captive orcas. A sad chapter in the history of our treatment of sentient, intelligent, complex animals like orcas would finally close, with the recognition that captivity of these animals has moved and changed us as well.
My dream would also be that we honor the lives of these captive orcas by assembling an international group of brilliant scientists, animal cognition and behavior experts and human psychologists and that they devise humane studies to understand as best we can the intelligence and mental capabilities of these temporary ambassadors of the sea. We are in the presence of alien intelligence and we are asking them to jump. It is a tragedy of a different magnitude.
With the proper effort, we might open new frontiers we barely even dare to dream about—confirmation of another thinking, intelligent being with whom we share the planet. Yes, it is a dream but how can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?
Our efforts need to be spent on educating people with the emerging 3-D technologies or eventually, as my father dreamt, using holograms to instill wonder and awe in observing images of these truly majestic orcas living a life free and wild in the vastness of the ocean. They are our counterparts in the sea.
An animal as social, dynamic, and intelligent as the orca deserves its natural right to roam the sea freely. Who are we to imprison such majestic creatures for our own entertainment? The time has come to view captivity of whales and dolphins as a part of our history – not a tragic part of our future. It is necessary that we acknowledge the captive whales that can still be released to their families in the wild, or at least allow them to live the more stimulating environment of an ocean pen, rather than continue to breed and hold caged some of the world’s most awe-inspiring creatures.
First Image: Blackfish movie poster courtesy blackfishmovie.com
Second Image: Morgan in the Dolphinarium Harderwijk. © Dr. Ingrid Visser, freemorgan.org/
Third Image: Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko of “Free Willy” fame at the bay pen that was constructed for Keiko in Iceland, where he continued to be rehabilitated for release into the wild. Courtesy Ocean Futures Society