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Orca Community Blog

End whale captivity


May 27, 2021


Our friends at Whale and Dolphin Conservation tell us about one of the biggest threats facing killer whales: captivity. To help us understand how living in captivity affects orcas and why it is so important to end their suffering, we have Rob Lott with us, WDC's policy-maker who leads the organization's efforts in ending the exploitation of orcas for recreational purposes.

ROB LOTT- Whale and Dolphin Conservation policy manager.

Since WDC’s inception in 1987 (when we were known as Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society), we have campaigned strongly against the capture and keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity. While there are more bottlenose dolphins and belugas in captivity than orcas, it is these huge ocean predators, with their close-knit family groups, that have tugged at the heart-strings of people from all walks of life when they are confined in small pools, performing circus-style shows for dead fish. Years of lobbying and increasing awareness are finally paying off. And these magnificent creatures remain captive today. 


The launch of Blackfish in 2013 was a real milestone in the anti-captivity movement as this powerful documentary lifted the curtain on SeaWorld marine parks and their treatment of captive orcas. The dark star of Blackfish was Tilikum, a male orca who was snatched from his family as a two year old in the waters off Iceland and then made to perform in marine park shows for the next thirty years of his life. In his first few years of captivity, while still a youngster, he was constantly attacked by the dominant females he shared a tank with while at night, after the shows, he was locked away in  a ‘module’ what can be best described as an aquatic kennel for up to 14 hours at a time. This regime undoubtedly contributed to his psychosis and subsequent behavioural problems.

Tilikum grew to be the largest orca in the captivity weighing in at over 12,000 pounds and 22ft long. 

By 2010 he had already been implicated in the deaths of two people but in February that year his notoriety became international news when he tragically killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.

Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s most respected and experienced trainers and was working on a training session with Tilikum, when he grabbed her arm and pulled her into the pool where he brutally rammed and drowned her.
This shocking incident came just nine weeks after Keto, another SeaWorld-owned orca, drowned his trainer, Alexis Martinez, at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands.
Blackfish brought the tragic plight of Tilikum and all captive orcas to a much wider audience who now appreciate and understand that these noble creatures deserve better.

Picture of Lina Grube


Most captive orcas die in their late teens or early twenties. Some, like Tilikum, live in to their thirties. Captive orcas die prematurely of a variety of causes including pneumonia and septicaemia. The chronic stress and psychological deprivation they experience in a confined, artificial environment can supress the immune system and significantly affect their ability to fight off infection.

In exceptional cases and against all the odds there are two captive orcas alive today who have survived more than 50 years in a tank. One is Tokitae (or Lolita) living in a tiny tank at Miami Seaquarium in Florida and the other is Corky at SeaWorld San Diego in California. Both were taken from wild orca populations in the Pacific Northwest.

Corky was captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1969 and is the longest surviving orca on the planet today. From wild orca studies and analysis of old photographs we know a lot about her. We know about her community and the family she belonged to. In 1969 her captors were only interested in the younger whales to sell on to the marine parks and so the older orcas, including Stripe, Corky’s mother were let go. Stripe passed away in 2000 though her two other children (Corky’s siblings) still swim wild and free today and are seen regularly during the summer months following the great Pacific salmon runs.

In captivity Corky has had seven calves but none survived longer than 46 days. As she was so young when she was captured it’s likely she had no knowledge of how to look after her offspring and they were often left unfed and ignored.
Corky is one of 59 orcas living in captivity around the world today, 27 of these started their life in the ocean. SeaWorld parks in the United States still dominate the industry holding 20 captive orcas but in recent years there has been a dramatic expansion of marine park facilities in China and 15 orcas have been snatched from their families in Russian waters and condemned to a life in a concrete tank.

Picture of Lina Grube


Though orcas have become the ‘poster child’ for animal welfare campaigns that shine a harsh light on the compromised existence of smart, highly mobile and socially complex creatures, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in 355 facilities in 58 countries around the world today. It is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The majority of these parks display bottlenose dolphins but a variety of other species including belugas, pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins, finless porpoise and, of course, orcas are also held. The ‘entertainment offering’ ranges from show performances, dolphin swim-with experiences, dolphin-assisted therapy and even ‘selfie’ opportunities!

The anti-captivity movement has made great gains over the years as the public, consumers and even governments have become enlightened to the welfare realities of captivity. Opinion has shifted considerably leading to many countries including India, Canada, Chile and Costa Rica outlawing the practice. Others, such as the U.K., have such strict regulations in place it makes it practically impossible for any facility to consider keeping dolphins ever again. Culturally and legally the outlook is broadly optimistic.

The picture isn’t so straight forward in all regions though, especially in Asia. China, as in so many other areas on the international stage, is now a big player in this industry. There are now 84 facilities in the country with a further 33 under construction. In the last five years alone the number of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) held has almost doubled to 1085 individuals.

Picture of Lina Grube


 With more and more countries addressing the moral and ethical concerns of captivity the question remains as to what happens to the thousands of creatures currently held in tanks. And for this the answer has to be an evolution and not a revolution. Whale and Dolphin Conservation has had considerable success over the years tackling one of the major ‘enablers’ of dolphin entertainment - tour operators. Our supporters have played a vital role in persuading companies like Virgin Holidays, British Airways, Thomas Cook, Airbnb, and TripAdvisor to stop promotion of any facility where whales and dolphins are held. For those that want to stubbornly continue their support for the industry such as TUI we are calling on them to only work with parks that agree to a phase out of this outdated and cruel practice. The current generation of captive cetaceans should be the last as we look for a commitment to no more breeding, no more wild captures, no more shows and no more transfers between facilities. Crucially, we are calling on the industry to pledge support for cetacean sanctuaries where ex-captive individuals can be retired to a more natural habitat in a coastal environment and live a life that, as much as possible, closely resembles that of their wild counterparts. Some sanctuary residents could even be considered suitable candidates for a return to the wild. 

Picture of Lina Grube


The sanctuary concept is in fact no longer a concept as WDC is incredibly proud to be a founding partner in the world’s first whale sanctuary – The SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary - which welcomed its first residents to a sanctuary site in Iceland in 2019. Two female belugas, Little White and Little Grey, both captured from the wild in Russia as babies had spent their entire adult lives performing in shows for tourists at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai. The entertainment company who acquired the park in 2012 has a policy of not holding such highly mobile and sentient creatures in tanks and so approached us to develop the sanctuary model where the whales can live in a natural environment, have control over their own decisions and have more choice over how they spend their days. 

Picture of Lina Grube


Our campaign to end the suffering of whales and dolphins in captivity is picking up pace. The coronavirus pandemic respects no borders and has had a devastating effect on people and the economy the world over. The travel industry has been hit especially badly. COVID 19 has forced the majority of facilities involved in captive display to close. No visitors means no revenue but the whales and dolphins still need to be cared for and this means there are still bills to pay - big ones. Some facilities are re-evaluating their priorities as they look to change their business model. Some are looking for government bailouts to survive. Some may never reopen.

The term ‘lockdown’ has become synonymous with isolation, loneliness, boredom, anxiety….and worse, but we are finally finding a way through. And as we step out again, blinking, in to the daylight of this brave new world we vow to never again take anything for granted - our friends, our families and our precious freedoms and opportunities.

Modern science has given us a way out and a roadmap to a new normal. It also gives us hope.

A never-ending, unrelenting lockdown just doesn’t bear thinking about but that’s exactly the situation faced by captive whales and dolphins. Eternal lockdown is their harsh reality.

The travel industry is in turmoil and faces an uncertain future. It has reached a crossroads and now has a choice. We believe it is time for those tour operators still promoting public display to take a more enlightened view. Captive whales and dolphins should never again be held at the mercy of the human economy.

It is time to build back better.

You can show your support by adopting a wild orca with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. All proceeds go to the protection of whales and dolphins around the world and the conservation of the habitat in which they live.


Rob Lott is a marine mammal scientist and currently works as a policy manager and orca programme lead for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), an international charity which campaigns to see a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free. Based in the UK, Rob works on WDC’s anti-captivity programme, addressing the issue of the live captures of cetaceans in Russia and Japan, as well as improving the welfare of captive whales and dolphins through the exploration of retirement sanctuary options. He is a keen writer and photographer and has published internationally in magazines and newspapers. His favourite places on the planet are Northern Vancouver Island, Iceland, Svalbard and South Georgia.


WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins.  They defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research and rescue. Their vision is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.