SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas has just announced the birth of another orca calf. In March 2016 the company went public with the decision to end its orca breeding programme so this calf, whose mother is Takara, should be the last orca born in one of SeaWorld’s tanks. SeaWorld now holds 23 of the 62 orcas currently held in captivity around the world in its three parks in Florida, California and Texas.
A baby orca is always a big attraction in marine parks but there is also a darker tale to tell: all the unsuccessful breeding attempts and the harrowing stories behind them. Since 1985, there have been a reported 43 orca pregnancies at SeaWorld. Only 20 of these offspring are still alive today. Thirteen of the 23 that died were the result of miscarriages or were stillbirths. In at least five cases the mother also died, either during the pregnancy or while giving birth.
While there are statistics, there are also the personal stories behind these tragedies. Orcas in the wild are highly social and stay with their family groups their whole lives. Corky, for example, currently the world’s longest surviving captive orca, was born into one of those families. But she never had the chance to swim through the ocean with her own offspring. On December 11, 1969 she was taken away from her pod and brought into captivity. She was about four years old. In 1987 she was transported to SeaWorld in San Diego and has been there ever since. Between 1977 and 1987 Corky was pregnant seven times but none of her calves lived longer than two months! We can only imagine what this felt like for a highly intelligent and social individual like Corky.
Takara’s first daughter Kohana, born in 2002, was also separated from her mother at the early age of four years when she was transported to Loro Parque on the Canary island of Tenerife in Spain In the wild female orcas typically have their first calf when they about 14 years old, Kohana was just eight when she became pregnant with her calf, Adan. Kohana never had the chance to learn from an older female orca how to raise a calf as she would have done in the wild, so she didn’t show much interest in Adan when he was born. The decision was made to remove Adan from his mother and he was raised by the trainers at Loro Parque. Only two years after having Adan, Kohana gave birth to her second calf, Victoria. Kohana still didn’t know how to raise a calf and so she also rejected Victoria who died in June 2013 at the age of only 10 months.
Of all the orcas that were born in captivity and have since died, only one lived longer than 20 years (Kalina, 25 years), the oldest ones that are still alive were born in 1988 (Lovey, Orkid, Kayla). In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 31 years (maximum 60 years), females 46 years (maximum 90 years).
Although the orcas still held by SeaWorld don’t know they will be the last of their kind, SeaWorld’s decision to end their orca breeding programme is a hugely important step towards the end of orca captivity. We now hope SeaWorld will go one step further and recognize that the remaining orcas deserve a better life too and commit to exploring sanctuary options for them. Meanwhile, we must now turn our attention towards the continue capture and confinement of orcas in Russia and China, where the first killer whale breeding programme was just announced. Sadly, despite our best efforts and SeaWorld’s U-turn, the threat of captivity continues to haunt these magnificent creatures. Our work continues to protect and conserve them in their natural habitats without the threat of incarceration in concrete pools doing tricks for tourists.