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Part II: Captive Cetaceans – Setting them Free

Whale Watching

Whale Watching

Six months ago, I wrote about Captive Cetaceans – should they be set free? This was based on the simplistic arguments the Vision Vancouver Park Board (VVPB) had for suddenly dismantling the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean program. My article was based on empathatising with the whales as well as the very mixed and costly results of just setting cetaceans free from captivity. But, I admit, I hadn’t seen the film, ‘Blackfish” at the time, the film that certain members of the VVPB watched and inspired them to tackle the Vancouver Aquarium head on.

Now I have. Do I agree with Vision Vancouver Park Board? No. Do I agree whales should be kept in captivity? That is still a complex question to answer.

Let’s take the trouble VVPB ran into almost immediately when they got their enquiry. As the enquiry begins, a young false killer whale was thrashing and distressed near Tofino, on Vancouver Island in July 2014. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre swung into action and rescued the whale. Imagine you are pushing to stop the programs at the aquarium which are now saving the life of a distressed young whale? Worse, it puts the same bleeding hearts who want captive whales free in the position of either letting nature take its course with the young whale, or using their knowledge, gained through ignorance but improved with time, to save the young whale – but know it faces almost certain captivity for the rest of its life. A Catch 22 situation indeed!

Watching Blackfish, I don’t necessarily think Tillikum is crazy – definitely frustrated though! But its very evident that Seaworld has done a few things over the decades which mean at the very least, the current program for captive orca’s needs to end. If it is true, Tillikum’s origins lie in being ripped from his mother when he was just a youngster, did we humans not learn ANYTHING from ripping young aboriginal children away from their mothers? Australia? Canada??? It is very evident that the orca mother’s grieve for their young and most likely. the young orca’s are now not raised with any orca caring for their upbringing! Hubris aside, I am never, ever going to agree that humans can substitute for a whale’s mother – even if the humans love the human as much!

Then there is no doubt, that after being separated from his mother, Tillikum is put in a small steel cage in Victoria, British Columbia,  for more hours of the day than not, with some female orca’s who clearly don’t want him in there. And why should he be in there with the females? Studies in the wild seem to indicate like elephants, the orca pods also have a strong social structure, with a matriarch at the helm. I don’t know whether all those years ago, there was a matriarch in the pen with Tillikum or a matriarch had been established between the female orca’s that had been thrown together. I also don’t know if those 3 orca’s all came from separate pods – you may as well have thrown in two females and one male human from three different countries and see if they all got along!???!!!

One thing is pretty clear though – the females did not want Tillikum in there with them!

So begins a sordid tale of a large whale, trapped in a small pen with some female orca’s who resent his presence. Frustration is probably the least of poor Tillikum’s emotions, one would imagine!

Eventually, after one trainer is killed and the little sea park in Victoria closes down. Tillikum is transported to Seaworld in Orlando, Florida. Here, the living conditions are better, but here also, Seaworld seems to commit another “crime” which is every bit as bad as separating the young orca from its mother – it uses a whale which has already killed one trainer, to breed dozens of orca’s in captivity? Are you kidding me? If Tillikum had been a pit bull dog, he’d have been put down after killing the first trainer, and most certainly NEVER been allowed to  breed! But now, there are dozens of frustrated descendents of Tillikum in the Seaworld breeding program, probably all prone to a temper tantrum or expressing themselves in ways not nice towards humans.

Breeding Ban

In the end, the VVPB got the cetacean breeding program suspended at the Vancouver aquarium. I would agree that breeding in the manner that Seaworld does it, might not be the best – in fact I’m all for stopping artificial insemination right now – of all species in captivity! However, the Vancouver aquarium no longer has an orca in captivity, just beluga’s, dolphins and porpoises – and those can be pretty randy creatures! Suffice to say, the Vancouver aquarium was not happy with that result because how can you stop randy creatures from breeding? They launched a legal challenge to get that ruling overturned.

I see flaws even with the no breeding ruling – the orca whales are known to have a complex social structure – other whale species may generally travel alone, only coming together in large numbers to mate, like the right whales. It strikes me by not taking into account the nature of each of the different species, the breeding ban itself is doomed to commit the same mistakes the captive/breeding orca program has made. This bumbling and fumbling around is just not acknowledging the scientific research and respecting it – nor does it respect the animals and the social interactions they may have in the wild – or captivity.

Going forward

As the VVPB found, it is was not easy to immediately ban the Vancouver aquarium from hosting cetaceans – there was good research coming out of the mistakes of the past. I think the western world is changing – I still think it is VERY important for people to get the opportunity to see the animals that people are fighting to save. If you can’t form a connection with them, then the efforts to save them will dwindle – and most of the time, we are saving them from ourselves – be it human created noise or chemical pollution or habitat invasion and destruction.

Meanwhile, the bleeding hearts have some tough decisions ahead of them if they truly want all cetaceans to be free:

  1. If a whale is washed ashore or abandoned by its mother – are you going to have the strength to leave it alone and let nature takes its course? Or are you going to wring your hands and require some marine specialists in the area to come in and save it? Its not a pleasant choice – the whale may end up having a short life, but dies free, or a long life in captivity, and
  2. What is to be done about the whales already in captivity? They can live up to 9o+ years old! Some captive whales aren’t even in their teens yet – we are talking generations of care for them – that is going to require a LOT of money as most will never be able to survive in the wild.

Meanwhile, do we need to go to a Seaworld to go and see orca’s and sea lions performing party tricks? Seaworld would probably argue yes as they still need to make money. I would like to think over the next 20-50 years, we could transition away from those types of aquariums. Hopefully the aquariums of the future will be research facilities built in and on the sea. Instead of watching animals perform circus tricks, we’ll walk (under glass) or swim under the water and see nature interacting naturally, not artificially and be educated by scientists not Seaworld trainers. And if a whale is rescued, its not kept in a pen but allowed a large body of water to swim in.


After all, millions of people pay money to go out and see orca and whale pods in their natural habitat off various coastlines around the world – they love watching a whale breach naturally – they don’t need to see it in a pool! I was shocked that all the Seaworld trainers in Blackfish had never seen an orca in the wild until taken out on a boat at the end of the film! (I was also shocked they were just people off street, and not marine biologists…). But every now and then, there maybe a false killer whale or other whale that we save because of our research, and they will choose to be with us and educate us – we should also not deny them or us that opportunity for cross-species learning.

<< Part 1: Captive Cetaceans: Good or Bad



About Sally G

Sally is an Earth Scientist with experience in geology and geomorphology. She has always had an interest in general science.