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I found an old family photograph in the bottom of a shoebox. My mum’s written “Canada, 1998” on the back. In it, five-year-old me is clutching my new inflatable killer-whale doll. My new killer-whale fairy wand pokes out the top of my dad’s backpack. In the background you can see Jellybean, the mascot of MarineLand in Ontario. It’s a man in a furry killer-whale costume. He stands beneath a glittering archway decorated with dolphins swimming in spirals around the words “FRIENDSHIP COVE”. This is where the real Jellybean is kept.
At the killer-whale show, I got so excited I fell over and grazed my elbow. A nice lady gave me a plaster in the shape of a killer whale. I don’t remember much other than getting splashed heaps, but I never forgot about the black and white of the whales’ bodies. I thought whoever coloured them in was very good at staying inside the lines.
When I visited MarineLand in 1998, Friendship Cove had just opened. The adult whale called “Jellybean” was likely Kandu, a male caught in Iceland in 1984, or possibly Kiska, caught in 1981 and currently MarineLand’s last performing orca. According to Zoocheck, a Canadian organisation that monitors captive animals, 26 out of 29 orcas ever held at this park have died. All those born in captivity have died, one of them at 11 days old. Kiska is 38 now, by far the longest-living whale. Apart from one, the rest did not live to ten. There are likely far more undocumented stillborn calves. This list is not necessarily reliable, but it’s the only one. It goes like this: “Athena, F, born 8/15/08. Missing. Presumed dead.”
It’s been 21 years since the release of Free Willy, which was about a boy befriending a captive orca and freeing him into the wild. Behind-the-scenes footage of the actual whale that played Free Willy (named Keiko) showed him swimming in circles around a tiny pool.
In 2009, a documentary called The Cove finally shed light on this industry. An American crew went undercover in Japan to film the annual Taiji dolphin hunt, in which fishermen drive dolphins into tiny coves, kill most of them, and sell a few to marine parks. Just last year, Blackfish finally investigated the effects of captivity on whales, including captive breeding and catching them in the wild (an illegal practice now, but it’s thought to continue on a small scale in places like Russia and Japan). It focusses on the case of Tilikum, a male orca who killed his trainer in 2011 by dragging her underwater just after a show. He still performs.
Orcas are apex predators. They live in complex communities and the calf never separates from its mother. In captivity, orcas are exposed to infections that simply don’t exist for them in the wild. Male captive orcas tend to suffer dramatic “dorsal fin collapse”. It’s particularly noticeable in Tilikum, whose dorsal fin, which would normally stand up to two metres tall, droops down pathetically, folded over like a taco. They often injure each other as the result of different pods and subspecies being clumped together in small tanks. In 1989 at SeaWorld San Diego, an Icelandic orca was attacked by another orca during a live show. The crowd was ushered out as she died.
The solution is not as simple as setting them free. Captive orcas stand little chance of survival in the wild. Sea-pens are considered the most viable option, providing a wide-open but safe space where they can regain some of their wildness that we tried to take away. But rehabilitating a single orca might cost an estimated $1 million a year. What if SeaWorld were the one to lead the transition?
On a Saturday morning nine months ago, I looked out the window towards the sea and saw a tall black fin cut through the white tops of waves. The fin dipped under and then there were three more, five more – some smaller, some jagged, some with notches bitten out of them. Their black bodies were shiny and enormous, curving quickly through the water. A little calf kicked up sea foam with its tail. I saw the bright white patch on its belly and around its eye. I tried to take a picture with my phone but my hands were shaking too much from laughing too hard, like my brain couldn’t quite process what it saw, and couldn’t do a thing but laugh and laugh. They were blowing spouts of spray into the air, leaving puffs of water vapour behind them like cloud-prints instead of footprints.
People are beginning to turn their backs on SeaWorld, but not quickly enough. The apex predators are still performing three shows a day throughout the summer. One of their best tricks is to swim sideways around the pool with one flipper stuck in the air, waving at the crowd. The crowd waves right back.
Nina is a fourth-year English student. When she isn’t reviewing books for Salient, she’s plotting to free the whales.