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Orcas: from sea monsters to the Blackfish effect

By Dani Abras

Illustration by Carla Elliff

Until the 1960s, Orca (Orcinus orca) were a little known species in the world. They were only seen in the wild, in the areas they live, mainly the coastal regions of Canada and New Zealand. That all changed in 1977, when a film called “Orca: The Killer Whale” was released. The ominous title, along with the little that was known about these animals in mainstream culture quickly made orcas one of the most feared species by humans.

The popular name “killer whale” is misleading and the worst kind of marketing for these animals for three reasons:

  • First: orcas are not whales, but dolphins! True whales belong to the Mysticeti sub-order, which are cetaceans that have no teeth but baleen bristles in their mouth, which they use to filter food. Orca are in the sub-order Odontoceti (toothed cetaceans), and are further classified within the family Delphinidae, the same family as Flipper, the bottle-nosed-dolphin.

  • Second: the term “killer whale” comes from an incorrect translation of the term used in the Mediterranean in the 1920s or 1930s meaning “whale killer” (“asesina de ballenas”, in Spanish). Someone wrongly translated this name into the English name "killer whale," giving the false impression that orcas are whales that kill. In reality, their Spanish name was given due to the fact that they sometimes prey on some species of whales (gray, minke, and humpback, for example).

  • Third: aren't orcas so beautiful and charismatic? Why not adopt the name Sea Panda? I vote for that!

Comic strip with two frames. In the first frame, an orca is wearing a tiara with round black ears and has its head out of the water. It says “Trick or treat!” to a polar bear sitting on a block of ice, looking at it. The polar bear responds “What are you supposed to be?”. In the second frame, the orca answers “I’m a panda”.

Killer Whale or Sea Panda? (by @Liz Climo)

It was then that Shamu (and her predecessors) came into the game, completely changing the negative image of orcas to the general public. The first orca to be captured and put on display to the public was named Moby Doll. The Vancouver Aquarium wanted to study its brain and make a life-size replica of an orca, and commissioned a specimen from hunters in the region to serve as a model.

This animal, which they mistakenly thought was a female (and who should not have survived the hunt), was taken to a tank, where he only lived for 87 days. This happened in 1964, by coincidence, the same year SeaWorld opened in the USA. The marine parks already had dolphins on display, but never an orca, and Moby Doll sparked interest and caught the attention of the park's owners. The original “Shamu” was the third orca that lived in captivity, but the first one captured exclusively for this purpose. In 1965, SeaWorld ordered its purchase, and since then, it has kept orcas in its tanks. The first Shamu died in 1971, but to this day she “lives” as the main attraction and icon of SeaWorld. It was from this moment that orcas ceased to be feared animals and became charismatic beings, capturing the hearts of spectators worldwide. Soon, all of the SeaWorld water parks brought in wild orcas for shows, which became the flagship of their attractions.

Picture of Moby Doll the orca, harpooned

Moby Doll (Vancouver Aquarium, available under license CC BY SA)

In 2010, this image of happy captive orcas began to unravel. Dawn Brancheau, an experienced orca trainer, was brutally murdered in front of hundreds of spectators, by the largest orca that ever lived in captivity, the male Tilikum. As investigations into the attack continued, a series of lies that SeaWorld told its millions of annual visitors began to be unmasked. A chorus of people joined the few scientists who were already opposed to keeping orcas captive for entertainment, initiating the "Blackfish Wave" or "Blackfish Effect." This wave of opposition was triggered by the documentary of the same name (Blackfish - or Animal Fury, in Portuguese - a very bad name, in my opinion) released in 2013. The documentary was centered around the issues of captivity and focuses on Tilikum, and the three deaths that he caused during his 27 years of confinement. The documentary explains the problems of keeping orcas in captivity, from their brutal capture, to the low quality of life that individuals suffer while in small pools, to the issue of selective inbreeding between the captive orcas, especially with regards to the problematic behaviors in Tilikum’s family line.

Blackfish is a disturbing documentary. Not because it contains strong images - the documentary's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, has said she wanted “children [to be able to] watch the film, without traumatizing the audience” - but because it unravels uncomfortable facts for any animal lover. Some images of the daily life of the orcas and the procedures they are subjected to in the water parks are discussed, explaining how the animals suffer from confinement and other unnatural methods. The film features reports from former trainers about the relationships they formed with the animals they cared for, the extensive daily training, and situations of aggression and violence by orcas that never made it into the news.

The word “Blackfish” is written in fading tones of gray against a black background

Logo for the Blackfish documentary (Wikimedia Commons, under public domain)

The film sheds light on some of the most absurd lies that SeaWorld preaches to its visitors. The biggest one is that orcas live to be around 30 years old, when we know that in the wild, an orca can live about 80 years, and reach up to 104 years (one orca named "Granny" off the west coast of Canada). At shows, trainers say that their animals exhibit behaviors similar to natural ones, but when we realize that an orca swims around 80 km a day, and that it needs to circle the pool 1,500 times to reach this distance, we see how much captivity escapes the reality of a wild orca.

The term “Blackfish” is a popular name given to orcas by the First Nations, indigenous peoples in western Canada that, above all, respect orcas as they are “animals that have great spiritual power.” The orca population that lives in this place is classified as threatened, not because of the native people, but because of the captive orca industry.

Orca in numbers:

  • 15 aquariums and marine parks have orcas in their facilities, today in the world.

  • Corky 2, the oldest captive orca, has already spent 46 years in confinement.

  • 57 orcas live in captivity today.

  • 162 orcas have died in captivity.

  • 151 accidents have occured between trainers and orcas.

  • 4 people have died from attacks by captive orcas.

  • 0 people have died from attacks by orcas in the wild.

  • $162,855,000.00 reais is what Brazilians spend at SeaWorld Orlando, per year.

  • 770,000 Brazilians visit the park in Orlando annually.

Photograph of an orca breaching calm blue waters against a backdrop of pine trees to the right and distant mountains on the horizon

Orca in British Columbia, Canada (Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash)

After the release of the film Blackfish in 2013, SeaWorld's shares fell by more than 30%, and the number of park goers decreases each year. In November 2015, SeaWorld announced a change in the theatrical patterns of the orca presentations, in an attempt to adapt to the criticism it has been receiving, and to appeal to its lost viewers. This change proposes a more organic nature to the presentations. The end of acrobatic shows does not mean freeing the orcas or ending the shows permanently however. It will only be a restructuring of the show, to appear more "natural" to the viewer.

I believe that there are two effective weapons in the struggle against captivity: information and decision. The information is available on several sites on the internet as well as some documentaries: in addition to "Blackfish," "A Fall From Freedom," "Lolita: Slave to Entertain," and "The Cove" have great information. The decision not to go to aquatic parks and aquariums that have cetaceans (orcas, dolphins and belugas) in captivity is with you, dear reader. When there is no more demand, there will be no more space for this type of entertainment, but as long as there are people paying to attend these places, there will be suffering orcas. So, join the campaign #EndCaptivity, share this idea with your relatives and friends.

Blackfish can be viewed on Netflix or Net’s Now, in addition to YouTube.

Official website:


About the author:

Daniela Abras is from Belo Horizonte, she has a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from UFRJ, and a Masters’ degree in Oceanography from USP. She has loved cetaceans since she was 8 years old, when she did a school project about them. When she was a teenager, she would say that she wanted to work with whales, but was never taken seriously. In the early 1990s, she heard the famous National Geographic “Whale Songs” vinyl record and discovered the “Save the whales” project. This originated her biggest determination: to study and protect whales. Founder of VIVA Instituto Verde Azul, she is now a researcher for the Brazilian Humpback Whale Institute, dedicating herself daily to studying these magnificent animals.

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