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Orcas – Ruthless Killer Whales or just misunderstood?

I’ve been fascinated with Orcas since I saw the movie Orca in the 90’s, and over the years, that fascination has not subsided.

A while ago there was a story about a New Zealander that was surfing with Orcas in the water around him, and I did some research about Orcas at that stage (There was a lot of comments about how stupid he was to stay in the water).

Now with the incident where Dawn Brancheau were killed, Orcas are in the news again. Let me give you some background information on killer whales. I’m going to show you:

  • Types of killer whales
  • Social behaviors, hunting strategies and traveling ranges.
  • Then I’ll talk about conservation and how whaling has impacted on their numbers.
  • After that we’ll move on to interaction with humans in the wild
  • And finally, we’ll get to the crux of the matter – What happens when you put them in captivity?

Because this post turned out much longer than I anticipated, I’ll show you my conclusions first, and then the backround killer whale facts that led me to those conclusions. Even if you are too lazy to read it all, the conclusion should still make sense.


Well, the most obvious conclusion is that Orcas don’t do well in captivity… I think there are several reasons.

Why I believe Orcas should not be captive

We can see that Orcas are highly intelligent. They use sophisticated hunting methods, but more than that, we can see that they can learn new hunting methods through their own discoveries as well as by watching other Orcas.

We can see that they are very social and have very stable social structures. They also have sophisticated language, and different pods often have different vocalizations.

We can see that Orcas are used to traveling up to 160 KM’s a day with ranges varying between 300 and 1300 KM’s

For all these reasons, I think Orcas don’t do well in captivity. When you consider their ranges and daily traveling distance, how can you ever build a tank big enough for them? How could you ever replace their social structures? How could you ever stimulate them enough when they can’t hunt anymore?

I know there are a lot of discussions about the fact that Seaworld takes care of their animals, and while I don’t doubt that, you see dorsal fin collapses, you see reduced lifespans and you see aggression (When there are no recorded instances of an Orca killing a human in the wild) in captive Orcas. Obviously everything is not right.

The other side of the coin

Of course, the obvious conclusion does not tell the whole story. After this latest incident with Tilikum, I’ve been following the comments on the news sites and on Seaworld’s blog. I’ve seen a couple of sentiments come up consistently.

The first is that we should release all captive Orcas. This is obviously out of the question. Tilikum has been captive for over 20 years. He could never be released into the wild. And this would be the case for the majority of Orcas in captivity. This sentiment is expected though.

Another sentiment I expected is all the people saying that Tilikum is a dangerous animal and that he should be killed. There’s even suggestions that he’s developed a taste for humans. This is absolutely ridiculous – Of course he’s a dangerous animal. He is a very intelligent 5.5 ton animal with big teeth. He’s always been dangerous. So is every other Orca in captivity. Of course Seaworld would not even discuss this. He is too valuable as a breeding stud to lose.

What I paid more attention to is a sentiment I didn’t expect (Not that it is that unexpected I guess). There is a large number of people saying that they wish they could go back in time and prevent people from starting live captures of Orcas. While I really don’t like animals kept in captivity, I have to strongly disagree with this one. Very simply, if Moby doll was not captured in 1964, I believe Orcas would already be extinct. It was through Orcas in captivity that scientists and the public learned enough about them to care enough to eventually get whaling of Orcas banned. Even though Moby doll only survived for 3 months in captivity, that was enough time to change public perceptions.

Captivity for conservation:

The last conclusion I want to discuss is that I understand that there is conservation value in having some Orcas in captivity, but I believe we are getting to the point where it doesn’t matter. We are destroying and poisoning their habitat beyond any hope of fixing it. If you take that into consideration, what is the point of conservation? What is the point of breeding Orcas when we will never be able to release them into the wild?

We’re not quite there yet. There is still some hope, and I don’t for a moment think that we should give up yet, but I also always have this in the back of my head when thinking about conservation efforts for Orcas.

So, I ask again, are Orcas ruthless killer whales, or are they just playful killer dolphins that has no interest in attacking humans until they’ve been ripped from their social structures and stuffed into a tank that can’t possibly be big enough.

And with that, back to the background information.

Types of Killer whales

The first thing you need to know is that Orcas are typically grouped into resident killer whales, transient killer whales and offshore killer whales. These are likely to be different species or at least subspecies of Orca.

Resident killer whales

Resident killer whales have been the most studied, and tend to socialize in big groups. They mostly eat fish and sometimes squid, and they are known to visit the same areas consistently. They also have complex vocalizations and very strong lifelong family bonds.

Transient killer whales

These guys mostly eat marine mammals and do not eat fish. They tend to travel in small groups of 2-6 animals and unlike residents they don’t always stay together as a family pod. Their vocalizations are much simper than those of residents, and they roam widely along coastlines. Some identified animals have been sighted in both California and Southern Alaska.

Offshore killer whale

These Orcas were discovered in 1988 by humpback whale researchers that saw some of them in open water. They are believed to feed on schooling fish, but there are some evidence that they might also hunt marine mammals or sharks. They have been seen traveling in groups of up to 60, but very little is known about their behavior. They are genetically different from residents and transients.

Residents and transients live in the same areas, but they avoid each other.

Social structures

Resident Orcas have a complex but stable social grouping system. Unlike any other mammal species whose social structure is known, resident killer whales live with their mothers for their entire lives! Because females can reach age ninety, up to 4 generations may travel together. Therefore, killer whale societies are based around matrilines consisting of the matriarch and her descendants who form part of the line, as do their descendants.

These matrilineal groups are highlystable and individuals separate for only a few hours at a time, to mate or forage and no permanent dispersal of an individual from a resident matriline has been recorded.

Closely related matrilines form loose aggregations called pods, which usually consist of one to four matrilines. These pods may split up for weeks or months at a time.

Clans are the next level of social structure and is composed of pods with similar dialects and common but older maternal heritage. The geographic ranges of clans overlap,and pods from different clans frequently intermingle.


Killer whales prey on diverse species. However, some populations specialize in particular prey species. On average, a killer whale eats more than 200 kilograms each day, and since some killer whales prey on large whales and sharks, they are considered to be apex predators (Meaning they have no natural predators that feed on them).

Hunting methods

Orcas has many fascinating hunting methods, and they learn more by example. I’ll quickly share some examples:

  • Killer whales can induce tonic immobility in sharks and rays by holding them upside down, rendering them helpless and incapable of injuring the whale. Some sharks will also suffocate within about 15 minutes when held still because these sharks need to be moving to breathe.
  • There’s recorded instances of Orcas killing Great whites and even an instance where two Orcas killed an 8m (26ft) long whale shark.
  • Killer whales force herring into a tight ball by releasing bursts of bubbles or flashing their white undersides. They then slap the ball with their tail flukes,either stunning or killing up to 10–15 herring with a successful slap. The herring are then eaten one at a time. Dolphins also hunt like this.
  • Killer whales will often use sophisticated hunting strategies to avoid injury. They will usually disable their prey before killing and eating it. This is typically done by throwing their pray in the air, slapping it with their tails, ramming it, or breaching and landing on it.
  • To hunt sea lions and elephant seals in shallow water, they will even beach temporarily. Beaching, usually fatal, is not an instinctive behavior. Adults teach the younger ones hunting skills in shallow water. Often, adults will pull seals off the shoreline for juveniles to recapture. Occasionally, mothers have even been seen pushing their calves onto the beach, waiting to pull them back if needed.
  • “Wave-hunting” killer whales spy-hop to locate seals resting on ice floes and then swim in groups to create waves that washes the seal into the water where another killer whale waits to kill it.Orcas also prey on several bird species, including penguins, cormorants and sea gulls. There is even a recorded instance where a captive killer whale at MarineLand learned that it could regurgitate fish onto the surface, and then catch and eat sea gulls when they tried to get the fish. Other killer whales then learned the behavior by example.
  • Orcas will hunt large whales,where they generally choose to attack young or weak whales. However, a group of five or more may attack healthy adults. When hunting a young whale, a group of Orcas will chase it and its mother until they wear out and separate. The Orcas will then surround the young whale, and prevent it from surfacing to breathe. Then the Orcas just wait for their pray to drown.


Resident Orcas will travel up to 160KM a day, and usually haveranges that vary from 320 – 1300 KM.

As you can see, it is natural for Orcas to travel long distances.

Conservation Threats

In 2008, the IUCN changed itsassessment of the killer whale’s conservation status fromconservation dependent to data deficient. This was done because theyrecognize that one or more killer whale types may actually beseparate, endangered species.

The main problems facing Orcas isdepletion of prey, pollution, conflicts with fishing, and habitatdegradation. Like other animals at the top of the food chain, Orcasare particularly at risk of poisoning from accumulation ofPolychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Noise from shipping, drilling, andother human activities can interfere with communication andecholocation and whale watchers that get too close can also stressOrcas and change their habits.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill adverselyaffected Orcas in Alaska. About half of one Resident pod disappearedin the year following the spill. The spill also damaged salmon andother prey populations, which in turn damaged local killer whales.One of the transient pods in the area also has not reproduced sincethe spill and is expected to become extinct.

Killer whales and people

There have been very few confirmed attacks on humans by wild killer whales, none of which has been  fatal.

In one instance, Apparently killer whales was trying to tip ice floes on which a photographer (of the Terra Nova Expedition) and his dog team was standing. There is speculation that the barking of the sled dogs may have sounded enough like seal calls to trigger the killer whale’s hunting curiosity. Once the Orcas realized that it wasn’t seals, they broke off the attack.

In the 1970s, a surfer in California was bitten and in 2005 a boy in Alaska was bumped by a killer whale. The boy was splashing in a region frequented by harbor seals.

Competition with fishermen has also led to killer whales being regarded as pests, and in the waters of the Pacific Northwest and Iceland, the shooting of Orcas was encouraged by governments. To put this in context, about 25% of the Orcas captured in Puget Sound for aquaria until 1970 had some bullet scars.

The U.S. Navy also claimed to havedeliberately killed hundreds of killer whales in Icelandic waters in1956.

Killer whales captured for captivity

The first live-capture and display of a killer whale known as Moby Doll, a resident whale that had been harpooned off Saturna Island happened in 1964. This was the first time that people had their preconceptions about these playful giants challenged when they saw that Moby Doll was a docile, non-aggressive whale that made no attempts to attack humans.

Between 1964 and 1976 about 50 killer whales from the Pacific Northwest were captured for display in aquaria.

Between 1976 and 1997, Only one Orca was captured for an aquarium in North American waters.

However, 55 Orcas were taken from the wild in Iceland, 19 from Japan and 3 from Argentina. These figures exclude any animals that may have died during capture.

Live captures fell dramatically in the1990s, and by 1999, about 40% of the 48 animals on display in the world were captive born.

This is a testament to how public opinion has managed to change the practices of live capture.


Although Orcas were largely ignored until easier to kill stocks were depleted (It also helps that they have lower commercial value), they eventually did become they victims of whalers.

Between 1954 and 1997, Japan killed 1,178, Norway killed 987 and the Soviet union killed over 3000 Orcas. They killed 906 Orcas in the Antarctic in 1979-1980 alone, which prompted the International Whaling Commission to recommend a ban on commercial hunting of the species pending further research.

Currently no country carries out a substantial hunt of Orcas, but Indonesia and Greenland permit small subsistence hunts.

Interestingly enough, Killer whales have co-operated with humans in the hunting of other whales, but whalers more often consider them a nuisance, as they would gather to scavenge meat from the whalers’ catch. Some populations of killer whales, such as that off Newfoundland and Labrador, may have been reduced significantly by whalers shooting them in retaliation.

Orcas in captivity

The killer whale’s intelligence, trainability, striking appearance, playfulness in captivity and sheer size have made it a popular exhibit at aquariums and aquatic theme parks. While organizations such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society campaign against the practice of keeping them in captivity, they are just too lucrative to be given up.

Killer whales in captivity often develop pathologies like dorsal fin collapse in 60 – 90% of captive males and vastly reduced life expectancies. On average Orcas in captivity will only live into their 20s. There are examples of killer whales living longer, including several over 30 years old, and two captive orcas (Corky II and Lolita) are in their mid-40s.

In the wild, female killer whales canlive to be 70–80 years old (though this is a rare occurrence, and50 years is the average lifespan expected for those who surviveinfancy), while males can live to be 50–60 years old (while 30years is the average).

Unlike wild killer whales, captive Orcas have attacked and even killed people such as their handlers or pool intruders. They often show aggression towards themselves, their tankmates and humans. There has been nearly two dozen attacks since the 1970s.


Tillikum, is a bull Orca at SeaWorld Orlando. He has been involved in three deaths and is known for siring whales.

He was captured near Iceland in November 1983 at about two years of age and measures measures about 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighs in at over 5 and a half tonnes (12000 pounds).

His 2 meter (6 foot) tall dorsal fin is flopped completely to his left side. He is the largest Orca in captivity and also the most successful sire in captivity, with 13 offspring, 10 of which are still alive.

In 1991, A trainer slipped and fell into the pool with Tilikum and 2 other Orcas, who grabbed her and tossed her at each other. They were presumably playing, but the trainer eventually drowned.

After this incident, no trainer were ever allowed into the tank with Tilikum, and in 1992 he was moved to Seaworld.

There he was involved in another death in 1999 when a visitor stayed behind to swim with the Orca. He was found naked draped over Tilikum’s back the next morning. It was found that he died from hypothermia and drowning. There was some remarks that he was bitten by Tilikum, but I couldn’t find any conclusive opinion on whether there were teethmarks and whether he was bitten before or after he died.

Then of course there was the recent incident where Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum. Currently, it still seems very unclear how it happened, but there seems to be agreement on the fact that Tilikum pulled her into the tank.

  • Hconk73

    Is it possible for you to list your sources? Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Sorry, I’m sure I used to have links where relevant, but they seem to be gone.

      All I can remember specifically is that I used the Wikipedia page ( which has a huge number of useful links from that page. I know I googled for specific items, but I can’t remember where I got all the info.

  • Hconk73

    Is it possible for you to list your sources? Thanks!

    • RiaanCornelius

      Sorry, I’m sure I used to have links where relevant, but they seem to be gone.

      All I can remember specifically is that I used the Wikipedia page ( which has a huge number of useful links from that page. I know I googled for specific items, but I can’t remember where I got all the info.

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