Cries of “free the whales!” have been heard since the very first orca was put in a tank on public display. The typical response is: “If we freed the whales, they would die!” This is not necessarily true. There have been many successful dolphin releases, several successful orca releases, (the two most notable being Springer and Keiko’s release) and pilot whale releases. Springer’s story is not unlike Morgan’s. A young, wild orca that is found alone and sick, is taken in by humans where she is rehabilitated and her pod found by matching their vocalizations. Springer was successfully reintroduced to her family and now swims freely with them. Although she too was nursed back to health, and her family found, Morgan, is not so lucky as to be reunited with her family. She now resides at a theme park in Spain, far from her native waters. (Read about Morgan’s story here).
After a cruel life in a tiny tank, Keiko was released to the wild where he lived for several years. unfortunately, much of his time was spent alone as his family was never found and he was never fully integrated into a pod. He died of pneumonia a common disease amongst orca populations.
We know that whales and dolphins may be successfully released to the wild, and have the greatest chance of survival if their family is known. Very few wild-born captives have known
ties to specific pods, but Lolita is a fortunate one. Her family is known, and monitored by scientists, which leads me (and many others) to believe that Lolita could successfully be returned to the Southern Resident population.
unfortunately, a pod, a matriarch, and a clan are foreign concepts to most captive orcas who live a life against their nature, dictated by human beings. Often they are transferred to other marine parks away from their mothers and families. These whales have no wild families to integrate in to, so there is a very small chance of free, wild survival for captive born whales.
The most common argument against release is that the orcas would no longer remember how to hunt. Many orcas that are currently in captivity, were captured directly from the wild at a young age. After capture they were taught to memorize hundreds of hand signals and corresponding behaviors. It is doubtful that they forgot something as natural as how to chase and kill a live fish. For those that were born in captivity (and those who still have teeth to grasp with) catching a live fish is simply in their nature. In this video, several captive orcas worked together to kill a pelican.
In addition, many captive orcas have their teeth drilled rendering them useless. They also
develop unnatural and habitual behavior in captivity. The daily life of most captive killer whales- even “backstage” hardly resemble that of their wild counterparts. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that the very purpose of training these animals is to alter their behavior, by conditioning them to do unnatural actions on command. Some of which are very dangerous for both captive and wild whales. Like beaching for example, or as it may be called at marine parks, posing on a slide out. On a stable surface like a slideout, the weight of the animal’s body can crush its own organs, so it relies on the trainer’s whistle to call it back to the water in time. This unnatural, dangerous behavior becomes stereotypical in captive whales, where they are often seen sliding in and out of the tanks out of habit. In the wild, beaching is normally only seen in whales that are physically or mentally ill. (Perhaps the same can be said for captive orcas.) These habits and reliance on humans have been broken in dolphins and in whales, by accomplishing rehabilitation.
Many captive orcas are unfit for release due to the negative effects an artificial life has on the whale’s physical and mental well-being. You may be asking yourself why I am opposed to the release of most captive orcas, and if I am anti captivity, what do I propose we do with the captives? One word: Retirement!
While I truly wish every whale could be returned to their ocean home, it’s just not realistic. But every whale may be retired to a sea pen, to live out their lives in natural sea water, open space, feeling the rhythm of the sea, the tides, and even hearing the calls of wild killer whales. They may live free of the blaring music, applauding crowds, and silly circus tricks. I sense that most people who are anti-captivity feel the same way.