Life for killer whales in the ocean is infinitely different, and many would say far better, than a life of captivity in a concrete tank. In the wild, most orcas stay near or with their families for life, travel up to 100 miles a day, and display complex communal rituals that provide stability, cooperation and regular opportunities for the unbridled expression of sheer joy.
Orcas are smart—among the most intelligent species in the world—making them particularly unsuitable to captivity, as I explain in my book Death at SeaWorld. Few people realize that killer whales are members of the family Delphinidae, making them the planet’s largest dolphins, giant cousins to the far more common bottlenose (think TV’s Flipper) and other species of seagoing dolphins. Orcas not only have the largest brain of any dolphin, but at 12 pounds it is also four times larger than the human brain, and second only to the sperm whale in heft and volume.
Killer whales have been prowling the oceans for millions of years, and their large and complex brains continued to evolve over time. The ocean’s top predator and the most widely distributed animal on Earth after humans, they are found in all oceans, even in the tropics. Total population is estimated at 50,000-100,000, perhaps half of them around Antarctica.
In today’s vernacular, the names “orca” and “killer whale” are interchangeable, though many animal-activists prefer the former, while scientists and the display industry tend to use the latter. Before orcas were held captive they were regarded as bloodthirsty monsters (debunking this was one of the greatest contributions of captivity). And although four people have died and many others were injured in killer whale tanks, there is no record in history of any serious attacks by wild orcas on humans.
The following facts were adapted from Death at SeaWorld (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)
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