back to top

11 Facts Everyone Should Know About Orca Captivity

Recent events have reignited controversies surrounding captive orcas.

Posted on

SeaWorld's Vice President of Veterinary Services defends the practice, saying humans would miss out if there were no orcas in captivity, as "we’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that."


1. Orcas kept in cramped spaces can develop violent and/or psychotic behavior.

Gerardo Mora / Getty Images

The most publicized account involved Tilikum, SeaWorld's oldest living orca, who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

2. And breeding captive whales can pass on these developed and dangerous traits.

Getty Images

Tilikum's sperm was used to impregnate other female whales at SeaWorld. One of his offspring, Kyuquot, also displayed violent tendencies and later attacked a trainer in Texas. "[Tilikum] should never have been allowed to breed," said a former SeaWorld trainer. "It’s completely unethical to breed an animal that’s shown a history of aggression. It comes down to money — killer whales are worth millions so you are not going to put one down,”

4. Earlier pregnancies among orcas lead to higher calf mortality rate.

Captive orcas tend to give birth at a much younger age than in the wild, and many of the mothers have trouble raising their young. On top of this, the calves have a very low survival rate. There is also speculation that the young mothers are more likely to reject their calves because they have never seen one before.



5. The stress of captivity causes them extreme oral health problems.

Flickr: 63943575@N00

Often, orcas will bite down on the horizontal metal bars in their enclosures in order to demonstrate aggression toward other whales or just out of boredom. This leads to broken teeth, exposing their mouths to bacterial infections as well as making it near impossible to ever return to the wild.


6. Limited swimming space, stress, and warmer water temperatures can cause their fins to collapse over.

Mathieu Belanger / Reuters

Water pressure from swimming rapidly across long distances is what keeps the fins on wild orcas straight. Dorsal fin collapse is found on almost all quarantined whales who are confined to a relatively small pool and spend a lot of time above water. Other possible causes of the fin collapse include a change in diet as well as above-normal exposure to air.

SeaWorld defended their lack of exercise to CNN, "While a killer whale can and occasionally might travel as much as 100 miles in a day, it should be said that swimming that distance is not integral to a whale's health and well-being. It is likely foraging behavior."


10. Aquarium orcas are fed monotonous food while their diets require a variety of prey.

AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau

Captive orcas are usually given dead herring. In nature, these creatures can feed off of 30 different species of fish, sharks, squid, seals, sea lions, walruses, sea otters, and birds.


Think about a 22-foot, 10,000-pound creature being confined to a glorified SWIMMING POOL.

Think about it.

Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly stated the average lifespan of a wild orca was 30 years.