Tanks Don’t Suit Them: 7 Orcas Living Rough Lives in Captivity

Killer whales, one of the animal kingdom's most intelligent species, belong in the open ocean—not in tiny marine park tanks.

Tilikum, SeaWorld's 12,000-pound breeding male orca. (Photo: Milan Boers / Flickr)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

Life for captive orcas can be extremely stressful, as evidenced in the documentary film Blackfish and my book Death at SeaWorld.

But when health, behavioral, familial, and reproductive issues are considered, it’s clear that some of the 53 killer whales living in aquariums and amusement parks around the world are leading even rougher lives than the others.

Of the seven we’ve chosen to highlight, six were ripped from their families in the wild—and five of them are prime candidates for rehabilitation and return to the ocean.

The following list was compiled in consultation with Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute and a leading expert on killer whales.

1. Kohana

Age: 11

Born: May 3, 2002—SeaWorld San Diego

Current Home: Loro Parque, Canary Islands, Spain

While there are no documented cases of female orcas rejecting their calves in the wild, such behavior has occurred numerous times with captive mothers. It happened twice with Kohana, one of four young orcas shipped by SeaWorld to the Loro Parque amusement park in the Canary Islands, Spain, in 2006 on a “breeding loan.”

In 2010, a very young Kohana gave birth to a male calf, Adan, whom she immediately rejected. In 2012 she gave birth again, to a female named Victoria, who was also promptly rejected. Victoria died last June. In both pregnancies, Kohana was bred with Keto, her uncle, who killed trainer Alexis Martinez in 2009.

Many critics speculate that Kohana simply never learned how to act maternally because there were no mother orcas at Loro Parque for her to emulate.

2. Kiska

Age: About 43

Captured: November 1973 off Iceland

Current Home: Marineland, Ontario, Canada

In 2011, Kiska lost her longtime companion, a “breeding loan” orca named Ike, after SeaWorld sued Marineland to get its whale back. This left Kiska all alone in her tank, a de facto solitary confinement sentence that would be illegal under U.S. law.

Since then, a video of Kiska bleeding from her dorsal fin has been published by the Toronto Star. The accompanying story included interviews with two former trainers who alleged that understaffing led to chronic behavioral and health problems for Kiska.

While it’s not clear how Kiska cut herself, the former trainers blamed rough surfaces in her tank, including aging fiberglass. Marineland denied the allegations.

3. Corky

Age: About 46

Captured: Dec. 11, 1969, in Pender Harbour, British Columbia, Canada

Current Home: SeaWorld San Diego

Having just passed the 44th anniversary of her abduction, Corky holds the dubious distinction of being the longest-held captive killer whale in history.

In 1977, she delivered her first calf, a male, the first orca ever born in captivity. He lived 16 days. Corky became pregnant six times after that, but the longest any of her calves survived was 46 days. At 21, she stopped ovulating, about 20 years earlier than the average female orca in the ocean.

Conservationists know where Corky’s family members are, and reunion with them is an option. “Corky still remembers her family,” reads the “Free Corky” page at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “She visibly shook and vocalized poignantly when a tape recording of her family's calls were played to her in 1993.”

4. Lolita

Age: About 47

Captured: Aug. 8, 1970, at Penn Cove, Wash.

Current Home: Miami Seaquarium, Miami, Florida

Lolita is the world’s oldest captive orca.

Taken in the infamous Penn Cove roundup of 1970, she was sent to a tiny pool in Miami, where she continues to perform for tourists in a tank that does not meet minimum federal requirements for orca habitats. Despite outcries from activists over this clear violation, federal authorities continue to turn a blind eye.

Bottlenose dolphins live in Lolita’s tank, but she’s had no killer whale companion since her male tank mate of 10 years, Hugo, died in 1980 after banging his head repeatedly against a concrete wall.

Despite this, Lolita is extraordinarily gentle with people and has never been involved in a known act of aggression against her handlers.

Like Corky, she’s a prime candidate for rehab and release, as scientists know who and where her family is. But a long-standing plan for rehab and possible reunion with her pod has been met with stiff resistance from officials at Miami Seaquarium.

5. Kshamenk

Age: About 25

Captured: Sept. 19, 1992, in Argentina

Current Home: Mundo Marino, San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina

Kshamenk (pronounced "SHAW-menk") was found “stranded” off the Argentine coast, though many activists contend he was forced into stranding by Mundo Marino, a theme park outside Buenos Aires.

Once there, he was placed in a tank with a young female orca named Bélen, who died in 2000. This put Kshamenk in the same situation as Kiska and Lolita—a killer whale living in a small tank with no orca companion. Kshamenk is so desperate for companionship that he has reportedly tried to mate with a female dolphin tank mate, Floppy.

A petition calling for Kshamenk’s release currently has more than 10,000 signatures. But a 2006 evaluation, conducted by three experts on behalf of the Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina, concluded that Kshamenk was not a good candidate for release, and the best option was to leave him at Mundo Marino, adding that he is "strongly bonded" with Floppy. 

6. Morgan

Age: About 6

Captured: June 23, 2010, off the coast of the Netherlands

Current Home: Loro Parque, Canary Islands, Spain

Morgan’s life at Loro Parque has been anything but safe.

She has been “brutally and continually attacked and is subjected to excessive sexual pressure from a male orca who she is often locked into the same tank with,” according to Dr. Ingrid Visser of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust and the Free Morgan Foundation.

Visser observed Morgan over eight days and witnessed an “unprecedented 91 aggression events” in when she “was attacked, on average, more than once an hour.”

A hearing on Morgan’s proposed release back into the open ocean was held on Dec. 3 at the Dutch High Court in The Hague.

A ruling is expected in mid-January 2014.

7. Tilikum

Age: About 33

Captured: Nov. 1, 1983, in Iceland

Current Home: SeaWorld Orlando

Since 1991, Tilikum, SeaWorld’s 12,000-pound breeding male, has been involved in the deaths of three people, most recently in February 2010 when he killed his longtime trainer Dawn Brancheau.

But as explained in the documentary Blackfish and the book Death at SeaWorld, the stress of Tilikum’s life in captivity might help explain his sporadic violent behavior.

As an adult male, he is lowest in the social hierarchy in orca society. So, despite his enormous size, he is routinely picked on by his more dominant female tank mates.

Many of Tilikum’s teeth are broken, and like all adult males in captivity, his dorsal fin has completely collapsed—a physical manifestation that some marine mammal experts attribute to too much time spent floating at the tank surface.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld continues to fight the government in the Brancheau case, in which Labor Department officials are trying to prevent any close contact between SeaWorld trainers and its orcas.

Wild orcas have never seriously attacked people; Tilikum has been involved in three human deaths. Clearly, he is trying to tell us something.

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