In preparation for a short trip where we may or may not encounter Orcas (again), I’m immersed in literature about the Southern and Northern resident pods and about significant issues affecting whales and other wild marine mammals — like sonar, salmon stocks and Puget Sound pollution. We’ll be out just one of those days in an inflatable, with a captain who’s part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and who abides by the most strict whale-watching ethics.
I’ve had mixed feelings doing a whale watching trip, simply because I understand the stress that humans can inflict on Orcas by way of boat traffic. I did a lot of research and ultimately, through a wildlife photographer friend, found a location and a way to see the whales that I hope will qualify as least invasive. The Orca Network, a Pacific Northwest advocacy group, promotes Orca watching from shorelines, and they keep tabs on Orca movements throughout Puget Sound.
Issues With Orcas in Captivity
While reading about Orcas and also captivity studies at the Orca Network, I linked out to an article in Best Friends Magazine, from 2009, entitled The Captivity Industry … which tapped into my lifelong ambivalence over wild animals in captive environments.
Growing up in Europe, my earliest memories of urban zoos are visions of tigers and primates, housed in cement prison blocks where a single turn was about all they could muster. I had strong visceral reactions to wild animals in captivity, even then. It was a mixed bag, because I had an intense desire to be close to animals, as do many children. But, I could never reconcile the wretchedness of their existence, once we discovered their plight at each zoo. So many of the facilities I saw as a youngster could best be described as asylums for animals.
With respect to marine mammals, my aversion to their captivity is strong enough that I never attended a marine park after my first and last visit to Marineland of the Pacific when I was a teenager. Beyond my inherent discomfort with the captivity of marine mammals, understanding the violent wild captures and trauma inflicted on Orcas and dolphins dissuaded me from patronizing the SeaWorlds of this planet.
The Free Lolita (the Orca) Campaign
At the Orca Network website, you can find information about the movement to free Lolita, a member of the L Pod of the Southern Resident Orca community. She was captured near Whidbey Island in 1970 and is the last survivor of the Orcas captured for marine parks between 1965 and 1973.
Please do read the linked article on Lolita’s capture to understand how brutal those roundup operations were. And read this document, Lolita’s Life Today, to understand why there is a movement to free Lolita and return her to her pod in the Salish Sea. Seaquarium, where Lolita is housed, obviously holds a different point of view about her welfare. Freeing habituated marine mammals is complex. Some animals are better candidates for return to the wild than others, and adequate care must be provided to ensure healthy transitions. Unfortunately, these animals are also huge commodities for marine parks, so power and money issues cloud the scientific realities.
This Seattle Times article from last year, covers briefly the issue with Lolita as it stands currently. Seaquarium points to her longevity as evidence for her happiness. Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research is quoted as saying he believes Lolita suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, “she feels in debt to her captors and relies on them for her survival.”
All of the above is a just a wayward, tangential snippet of my research. Understanding the longevity of Orcas and dolphins, their close family ties, the distances they travel, their exclusive languages and sonar sensitivities, it’s difficult to comprehend anything but a wild existence for these animals. I hope to have a bit a view, however distant and vicarious, into their moves on the Salish Sea.
For some additional reads on Orcas, captive and wild, check out these links: