When a captive orca killed a trainer earlier this year at Sea World, it ignited a debate about whether cetaceans should be kept in captivity. The orca in question had already killed two humans, and in the wild was a transient orca. Some say that transient orcas are more likely to be aggressive because their lifestyle requires it. Outside magazine has a great story up about the attack and the ethics of keeping large, intelligent animals in captivity that recounts the history of keeping orcas in captivity and presents the views of those both critical and supportive of Sea World. I think the article is a must read for anyone who cares about whales but maybe hasn't thought very much about Sea World. For many, it may seem silly to debate the fate of a few hundreds of captive whales and dolphins when the IWC is on the verge of allowing the resumption of commercial whaling. But the issue is not unimportant. Whale advocates have heavily promoted the idea that whales are worth more alive than dead, and that whale watching not only creates jobs but turns members of the public into supporters of whale and ocean conservation. The latter argument is one that is also used in favor of keeping whales in captivity. Sea World has done a lot of good, after all. They're experts in marine mammal rescue, and they've contributed to research on marine mammals.
Yet there are plenty of downsides. Tilikum was often bullied by other whales, and damaged his teeth by repetitively grinding them against metal gates. In the wild it's unlikely either of these would happen. Orcas need constant stimulation to avoid getting bored - in the wild they have been known to be exceedingly quick learners, mimicking human behavior and even sometimes helping humans hunt other whales in exchange for a share of the kill. It is suspected that Tilikum and his tankmates killed one human who fell into their tank out of sheer excitement at having something new to explore. Even whale watching needs to be done under strict guidelines to ensure that wild populations are not disturbed by humans. Does the possibility that Sea World visitors could go on to support conservation issues justify keeping these huge animals in relatively tiny tanks? How comfortable are we with putting creatures with dialects, culture, and complex social structures in tanks and making them perform tricks? I want people to be able to see and appreciate whales. What we see from Tilikum's story, unfortunately, is that Sea World might not be a good place to do that.