The youngest of the 11 killer whales at San Diego's SeaWorld park is Amaya, who is not yet two. The oldest is Corky, who's believed to be around 50.
So simple math should tell you that SeaWorld, which recently announced it would quit breeding orcas, will be housing killer whales for perhaps as long as five more decades. That's right. Your children could be middle-aged by the time the Shamu era is completely over.
Well, not so fast.
Corky was caught in the wild, at about age 4.
Amaya was born in captivity.
Is there a difference in their lifespans because one came from the wild and one was born and raised in captivity?
That depends on whom you ask.
Male orcas live to about 30 in the wild. The females’ average life span is 46. Animal rights groups say orcas in captivity fare far worse. For instance, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims the average life span for SeaWorld orcas is 13 years. SeaWorld has claimed they live as long as those in the wild.
SeaWorld has been hit with odd, premature orca deaths in the past. In 2010, Sumar, who was born in captivity and just 12 years old, died without warning. Seemingly healthy, he showed signs of being ill one day and died the next.
SeaWorld later released the cause of death as a twisted intestinal tract. It added that it was in “no way related to the fact that he lived in a zoological environment.”
Others disagreed. “Sumar’s tragic death is yet more reason why these amazing animals should not be in captivity,” wrote the nonprofit group Whale and Dolphin Conservation at the time. “Such small concrete tanks cannot hope to replicate orcas’ huge and complex ocean environment, nor their social groups.”
SeaWorld has been breeding orcas for years instead of capturing them in the wild, which has been banned by many nations. It was the only way to keep the orca program alive.
However, the theme park took a serious U-turn of late, when announcing the end of breeding.
The theme park seemed to be in the fight for the long haul, particularly after it sued the California Coastal Commission after it approved SeaWorld’s bigger killer whale tank, so long as SeaWorld stopped its breeding practices.
However, many observers feel SeaWorld finally realized it was foolhardy — and economically impractical — to continue. Public opinion had turned. Attendance was falling. Stock prices had taken a dive.
The documentary film “Black-fish” helped fuel an already mounting campaign against keeping orcas in captivity.
In addition to the end of breeding, SeaWorld announced that its orcas won’t be performing any more tricks, which was yet another criticism aimed at the parks. The killer whales will still be on display, however, in what SeaWorld calls “natural orca encounters.”
While a number of animal rights group applauded SeaWorld’s decision, PETA took the toughest stance, saying the orcas should be placed in “ocean sanctuaries,” large pens in the ocean.
SeaWorld says that if the orcas are released to the wild, they will die. That apparently applies to these sanctuaries. “In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild,” wrote SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby in the Los Angeles Times.