Saving the #SeaWorld10: If Calif. Bans Orca Captivity, What Happens to the SeaWorld Whales?

Seven of the 10 killer whales living at SeaWorld San Diego were born in captivity and could not be expected to survive in the open sea.

(Photo: Rojer/Flickr)

Mar 12, 2014· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

California’s Orca Welfare and Safety Act, introduced last Friday by state Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D–Santa Monica, has sent shock waves throughout the media and the captive-marine-mammal industry. The bill would make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes.” It also would ban artificial insemination of captive killer whales and block the import of orcas or orca semen.

Assuming the bill became law, and if the courts upheld that law—which leading animal-law experts say could happen—what would the future look like for the 10 orcas currently kept in tanks at SeaWorld San Diego?

Many people assume the bill would “free” all of them into the ocean. But seven of the 10 were born in captivity and could not be expected to survive in the open sea. For them the best alternative, as provided under the legislation, would be permanent retirement in a netted-off cove or bay, a sea-pen sanctuary the public could visit, minus the cute tricks.

As for the three wild-caught orcas, it could be that only one, Corky, is a viable candidate for release—and even then, only after an intensive period of rehabilitation, in which she would need to relearn how to catch fish.

Below, we look at the prospects for the #SeaWorld10.

Wild-Caught Orcas: Candidates for Release Into Open Ocean

1. Corky

Age: About 47

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

Corky, one of the oldest living captive orcas, is one of the most promising candidates for full release to the open ocean because because conservationists know her pod still spends part of the year in Johnstone Strait, off of Vancouver IslandCorky might still remember her family; the "Free Corky" page at Whale and Dolphin Conservation reads, “She visibly shook and vocalized poignantly when a tape recording of her family's calls were played to her in 1993.”

2. Ulises

Age: About 36

Captured: Nov. 10, 1980, in Reyðarfjörður, Iceland

Ulises is also a candidate for full return to the ocean. But scientists would first have to locate and confirm the identity of his family, which would be difficult, though not impossible. Researchers can determine whale DNA through tissue samples or, preferably, by examining orca scat detected by specially trained dogs riding in boats. Ulises, who spent years at parks in the United Kingdom and Spain before coming to San Diego, showed little interest in breeding female orcas and was thought to perhaps be unable to sire a calf. But in 2012, a female was born in France via artificial insemination using his semen.

3. Kasatka

Age: About 36

Captured: 1978 in Iceland

Kasatka is the least-viable candidate for release into the open ocean: She has three offspring living with her—Nakai, Kalia, and Makani—and they are not candidates. Orca conservationists would therefore recommend she not be released, to keep her with her offspring. Not only are they all captive born, but only one (Nakai) is of 100 percent Icelandic blood, and whale conservationists consider it unethical to introduce foreign DNA into a wild pod. There are several populations of killer whales in the wild, and there has been no evidence of interbreeding for thousands of years.

Captive-Bred Orcas—Candidates for Release Only Into Sea Pens (Kasatka’s Offspring)

4. Nakai

A male born on Sept. 1, 2001, in San Diego, Nakai, sired by three-time killer Tilikum, was the first successful orca birth using artificial insemination. Nakai lost a large chunk of his chin in 2012. Officials at SeaWorld said he injured himself “in the pool area,” but outside experts suspected he might have been attacked. Nakai is 100 percent Icelandic.

5. Kalia

A female born on Dec. 21, 2004, in San Diego, Kalia is 87.5 percent Icelandic and 12.5 percent Southern Resident.

6. Makani

A male born on Feb. 14, 2013, in San Diego, Makani was sired via artificial insemination by Kshamenk, who lives alone in Argentina. Makani is 50 percent Icelandic and 50 percent Argentine.

Captive-Born Orcas—Candidates for Release Only Into Sea Pens

7. Orkid

Orkid, a female, was born on Sept. 23, 1988, during a live Shamu show, with thousands of spectators looking on. The following year, also during a live show, Orkid watched her mother, Kandu, bleed to death following an altercation with Corky. Orkid is 50 percent Icelandic and 50 percent Northern Resident.

8. Ikaika

Sired by Tilikum, Ikaika is a male born on Aug. 25, 2002, at SeaWorld Orlando. At four years old, he was sent to MarineLand in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on a breeding loan in exchange for some beluga whales. SeaWorld successfully sued the Canadian park in 2012 to get him back, citing stressful and unhealthy conditions at MarineLand. “Ike” is 100 percent Icelandic.

9. Keet

A male born on Feb. 2, 1993, at SeaWorld San Antonio, Keet is one of the most heavily transported orcas in captive history. He was separated from his mother at 18 months; at five years, he was moved to San Diego, where he spent five months before being flown to (the now defunct) SeaWorld Ohio. After one season there, he was returned to San Diego. Keet is 75 percent Icelandic and 25 percent Southern Resident.

10. Shouka

A female born on Feb. 25, 1993, at Marineland in Antibes, France, Shouka spent years alone in a small tank at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif. Following public outcry, she was sold to SeaWorld San Diego in 2012. Shouka is 100 percent Icelandic.