ESSAY Orcinus orcas, better known as killer whales, are the largest members of the dolphin family; sitting at the top of the food chain in their ecosystem. Their acute sense of sight and hearing is just one reason why they’re one of the most intelligent marine mammals. Their beauty and grace have astounded humans for generations, however, captivity and exploitation plague the lives of the current sixty captive orcas; limiting their freedom and happiness. The psychological difference between orcas living in the wild and captive ones are not only significant, but also alarming. In short, the lives of the captive whales are much, much worse than the wild ones, which is why the orcas belong, and should stay, in their wild habitats.One of the largest problems captive orcas face is the conditioning of the pools they are kept in.
Consider the vastness of the ocean, their natural habitat: in the wild, many orcas travel more than 100 kilometers every day. In a recent study, biologists tagged a pod of wild orcas and found that they frequently swam from the Antarctic Peninsula all the way to Brazil and back again. They even travelled nonstop for 42 days and covered 9,400 kilometers at one point. Captive orcas at Seaworld would need to swim 1,208 laps around the perimeter of their tank, or 3,105 lengths in the park’s largest tank to match this.
Though most pool sizes have improved, they still aren’t large or deep enough, and whales are still kept in tanks that, to them, are the size of a shallow bathtub. If it isn’t bad enough that the pools are bath-sized, they are also plain, and in some places, made of concrete. That large mammals need habitats to match is obvious, but it isn’t just the size, depth, and look of the pool that’s the problem; water in pools is also causing damage to animals’ physical health.At Seaworld, chlorine is used to keep water clear and sparkling. Though amounts used in the pools are supposed to be less than in household water, spikes in chlorine concentrations are not unheard of and can be especially troublesome for both whales and trainers.
John Hargrove, former trainer at several Seaworld parks and author of Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, explained in an email to The Dodo: “There are dozens of documented reports of serious eye burns to trainers because there was an over-injection of chlorine in the pool, and as the whale underwater foot-pushed us through this cloud of intense chlorine, we had eye burns so severe we often couldn’t even open our eyes. I was treated at least half a dozen times where I was sent off-site for treatment, and could barely open my eyes because of the pain and wasn’t allowed to do waterwork again for 2-3 days until they healed enough to swim again.” Hargrove then goes on to note, “That was just from our brief exposure. Imagine the whales always having to swim through it.” In addition to burns, orcas at Seaworld are often found with unusual amounts of mucus, comparable to that of beached whales trying to expel dirt and dust from the eyes, seeping from their eyes.
What does this say about the water at world’s largest chain of marine theme parks? Water is also reported to cause major eye damage at other successful theme parks such as Marineland, who’s animals have suffered severe eye damage and even blindness from the state of the water. In short: Orcas would not have to worry about space or chlorine levels in the wild, which is one of the main reasons they belong there.Orcas have the second-largest brain of all ocean mammals, and an astounding level of cognitive complexity to go with it. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University and speaker in Blackfish, teamed with a group of scientists to explore the massive brain of a dead killer whale after running MRI scans on the mass of neurons and flesh. What the scientists found was astounding.
Not only do orcas brains have nearly all of the same anatomical features of those in a human brain, but they have an extended part of their brain that processes emotions. This shows that orcas not only have a wide range of emotions and are able to communicate and act on those emotions, but the data suggests that these animals may also have a sense of self. It is also proven