Blackfish: when whales turn killer

Posted by Willie — 24 July 2013 at 4:24pm - Comments
An orca performing
All rights reserved. Credit: Dogwoof
Being held in captivity can chop 50-60 years from a killer whale's life expectancy

When I was little, I can vaguely remember a trip to Blair Drummond Safari Park for my birthday. This was back in the days when the world was black and white, Starburst was called Opal Fruits, and they still had dolphins in captivity in the UK. I don’t remember much, but I know we watched a dolphin ‘show’ with balls and hoops and clapping and ‘ooh-ing’.

You can’t see a dolphin in the UK doing that today. That is progress.

Dolphins performing tricks in a big glorified swimming pool simply isn’t justifiable today, and thanks to the campaigning efforts of many groups over many years, Britain’s zoos are devoid of dolphins.

But the same is not true elsewhere. Every year, millions of tourists splash their cash to be splashed by performing dolphins. The biggest dolphins in the world, also on display in these places, are (confusingly) better known as killer whales. That name is perhaps incongruous with an animal jumping through hoops for a fish, but the shocking new movie Blackfish tells the gut-wrenching tale of how keeping these animals in captivity can be a killer for the whales, and the people closest to them.

I like zoos. Good zoos and aquaria that is, although I’d hope that goes without saying. As well as appreciating, you know, seeing animals, I know that they play a vital role in conserving species, and educating our own species. Many animals kept well in captivity live longer lives than they would in the wild. The opposite is true of killer whales.

In the wild they reach ripe old ages, not dissimilar to human life spans. Individuals have been known to live to 80 or 90 years old. In captivity they are lucky to reach the age of 30.

One of the most visible signs that all is not well is the male killer whale’s most striking feature – their huge dorsal fins. These fins alone are as tall as a grown man and stand tall and proud above the animals’ backs - unless they are in captivity. It’s a damningly symbolic symptom of an animal rendered impotent by the constraints of captivity, but their dorsal fins droop.

There are unseen effects too, and the film explores the psychological effects on these animals, talking to scientific experts and some of the keepers closest to them. Killer whales in captivity sometimes live up to their name. It’s a scandal, a tragedy, and a need for some desperate PR to protect park revenues – but it’s also the symptom of a deeper problem.

Go see this movie, tell your friends, share this blog and the trailer. It’s out from this Friday July 26 in the UK. You can find out about screenings near you at

But please, do more than that.

Don’t buy into the trade in performing whales and dolphins. Let’s consign that to history where it belongs. Avoid aquariums with performing dolphins and whales.

Support some of the groups working directly on this, like our colleagues at BornFree, WDC or Ifaw.

Support the sustainable and sensible alternative – whale watching. There are lots of places even in the UK where you can go to look for whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. It’s much more rewarding, and you’ll see a whole bunch of other things too, trust me.

Lastly, a wee bit of good news. Whilst I do my best to avoid Free Willy jokes with a name like mine, killer whales can be successfully released into the wild. Just to warm your cockles, why not check out the story about Springer, a killer whale who was released back into the wild after human intervention in 2002. Scientists have just spotted her with a new baby.

This can have a happy, well-adjusted ending.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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