The Big Blue Marvel

A day in the life of an orca if it weren’t in captivity.

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As we are leaving the Seward Harbor and going into Resurrection Bay, I can’t help but feel a little anxious. Maybe I want it too much. The tour is labeled as a general ” marine wildlife viewing”, but all I can think about is “Please, let me see one of them, just once. How will I handle the disappointment of not seeing one after having waited for this moment for months?”

The temperature is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing. It feels chilly even though I am wearing multiple layers. Im walking to the bow of the boat along the side, holding on to the rail as much as I can. Im also holding my coffee in the other hand. Why can’t I ever exist without my coffee thermos in hand? I wave my husband over and he joins me in what I can call the coolest experience I’ve ever had on any vessel. There are only a few other brave souls in this specific part of the boat with us, because it is where you can truly feel the speed and waves doing their thing.

Our captain had warned us that we were approaching an area where a pod of orcas likes to hang out, so we wanted to be prepared. The bow just seems like the perfect place to be. The boat starts to slow down and there it is! To our 1 o’clock: the first blow. I had gone whale watching before and I had seen humpbacks gracefully dive down and show their fluke. But for some reason, this time it was different.

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I had recently finished reading The Lost Whale and gotten really emotionally attached to Luna, the young male orca who got lost and separated from his pod. Reading his story (based on real life events) made me realize just how astonishing orcas are. I recommend reading this book because it gave me insight into the world of an animal’s mind and the things he had to go through to keep some company. Yes, I said it, he actively looked for human companions. But I’ll let you find out the rest. I myself learned from it, the following:

  • Orcas are considered the largest of the dolphin family, even though they’re commonly referred to as “killer whales.”
  • They can grow to the size of a school bus. (32 feet)
  • Their life expectancy in the wild is from 30-50 years and some have been known to live from 70-100 years.
  • They do not stay in one area; they are known to travel long distances.
  • They are social and live in groups called pods.
  • There are 3 distinct types of orcas: resident, transient, and offshore.
  • Orcas are very fast swimmers and have been recorded to swim up to 54km/hr

It’s no wonder seeing the AD8 pod for the first time, live and in action, produced an indescribable feeling in me. I have to admit that I teared up as one of the beauties swam to us and did this:

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She was spyhopping! This is a term used by oceanographers to describe a cetacean’s behavior as it pokes it’s head out of the water to get a better view of what is near the water’s surface. I had read in The Lost Whale that Luna would spyhop in order to become familiarized with a new boat, and shortly after, make new friends. Its incredible to know that these creatures willingly pop their heads out of the water to make contact with us. There we were, “whale watching”, but I honestly think that this group of orcas were the ones doing a little bit of “human-watching”.

What an honor. Watching them as they swim, feed, and play in their natural element. This is their kingdom. This is their comfort. Their home.

Hearing them exhale and blow, seeing them glide through the water, watching one play with her food before actually eating it, it all is awe inspiring and makes you feel so happy for them! Living their lives to the fullest. How it should be.

Witnessing them thriving in the ocean was such a joy. But that joy also triggered a feeling of deep sadness within me. I remembered right there and then that not all orcas are able to live this fun life. So many orcas are still living in captivity. Without naming any specific marine animal parks or oceanariums, we all know who all are culpable. These places make millions of dollars by previously capturing and breeding these wild animals and humiliating them by turning them into solely entertainment and money making machines.

Day to day, these immense creatures spend their hours in a tank. A swimming pool. Pacing back and forth. To think that a marine animal who was supposed to swim at fast speeds for long distances (up to 100 miles everyday), is  now instead CONFINED and LIMITED in a 0.615 mile tank. An animal who was supposed to dive up to 1,000 feet in the wild, will now meet a depth of a 35 feet deep tank.

Orcas need to hunt for their food: they are the at the top of the predator chain in the ocean. Being fed by a trainer every day is not natural. To top it off they are fed thawed dead fish everyday. Are you serious? I won’t even drink a soda at room temperature, so I can’t even imagine! I have personally seen an orca in the wild playing with his food first, throwing it around for bit, then consuming it alive, cold, and fresh! It must’ve been scrumptious.

Another thing that is really worrisome is the behavior that orcas display while in captivity. One thing that marine experts have noticed is that the captive orca’s dorsal fins are usually collapsed.  An orcas fin becomes erect when it has reached sexual maturity and should remain that way. I had the privilege to see Skana in person, a member of the AD8 pod while I was in Alaska, and let me show you how majestic his dorsal fin looks:

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THIS IS HOW AN ORCA IN MATURITY’S FIN SHOULD LOOK LIKE. PERIOD.

You cannot tell me that a collapsed dorsal fin is a normal occurrence. It is a clear sign of distress, depression, and a complete lack of stimulation. All of this leads to aggression and self-destructive behavior. I would go crazy If I was trapped and away from anything resembling my own species as well! I would become sad, sick, age and deteriorate faster. And that’s exactly what is happening to captive Orcas.

Records show that captive orcas are dying at a premature age,  at an average of 14 years old. Not only that, the rate of neonatal mortality is very high in captivity: between 37 and 50%.

How incredibly selfish can we be? To subject a highly intelligent creature to a life time of suffering, for a couple of hours of our entertainment.

As always, in honor of 100% transparency, I will admit that I visited a marine mammal park about 7 years ago. I bought the $60.00 a person ticket, and in I went. Yes, I learned a couple of facts from the displays and labels in front of the exhibitions. But all of this, I could’ve read in a book. Yes, I saw an immense orca swim, something I had never seen before, but I could’ve seen one in the wild instead.  I sat in the “splash zone” and shrieked with excitement as the orca performed her routine. But what I didn’t think about was that after I went home that day, she would still be there. She would never go home. And I had contributed to her imprisonment. I feel terrible. Till this day I feel like I contributed to something so horrible. I was in ignorance, I wasn’t responsible, and I hadn’t done my research. But now I know. And theres no going back from here.

All of this is very sad and we might feel like we have no power over this. But we actually do. We are the consumers here. Marine mammal parks and oceanariums depend on our ticket to continue operating. Not buying a ticket is one way to show our opposition, but creating awareness also helps. We might have family members or friends who in good faith, wish to take their children to one of these places. Sharing your knowledge could help someone make a better decision.

I firmly believe that one day all beings will be wild and free. They will reign in their aquatic kingdom just as it is meant to be. The wrongdoers simply will NOT get away with it for much longer.

As for the orcas who are still in captivity, I pray for your broken spirit every day, I am thinking of you, and I promise you we will work our hardest to make it better for the rest of your kind in the years to come.

 

The Big Blue Marvel

 

 

 

 

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