Are Killer Whale really killers? And should they be held in captivity?
At Sea World and other aquariums, the stars of the show are huge black-and-white killer whales. Though small for a whale, these are monstrous animals who follow commands, play ball with their trainers and even “kiss” little boys and girls. Pretty tame stuff when you have “killer” as a part of your name. To find out how this gentle friend of man got his fierce title, we must follow the killer whale back to the cold waters of his ocean home.
Free in the wild, the killer whale is a ferocious meat eater, devouring baleen and minke whales, dolphins, seals, porpoises and penguins. Even the blue whale, the largest animal on sea or land, is not safe from attack. Packs of killer whales will grab the blue whale’s flippers and latch onto his lips, using their large cone-shaped teeth to rip out his tongue and even jumping on the blue whale’s blowhole to hamper his breathing and subdue him. But, as in captivity, in the wild the killer whale’s favored and most common food is fish. And the killer whale eats a lot, 3 percent of its body weight every day.
For years this fast-swimming ocean creature has been a mystery to man, and a fearsome one at that. In ancient times, when sailors sent by the Emperor Claudius attacked a killer whale with darts and javelins, the whale spouted and sank a boat. In 1911, an Antarctic explorer named Herbert Ponting stood on an ice floe, perhaps looking like a seal or a penguin to the killer whales who suddenly crashed through the ice all around him in a frenzied attack which set him adrift. Though Ponting was not harmed, the killer whale’s reputation for savageness grew.
Then a killer whale was captured alive and appeared gentle, making no attempt to escape the flimsy net used to catch him. But though killer whales have proven to be generally friendly in captivity, they occasionally show their trainers their keen intelligence and demonstrate the muscle (and teeth) behind their “smile.”
In 1968 in the Pender Harbor Marina, Graeme Ellis jumped into a pool with Irving, a large male killer whale, only to see Irving come at him with teeth bared, snapping his jaw shut inches from Ellis’ face. After scrambling out of the pool, Ellis decided to call Irving’s bluff and jumped back in. The same whale charge occurred, but this time Ellis stayed in the pool. Then Irving then rubbed up against him, let him scratch his back and sit on his stomach. The whale’s lesson? Don’t be scared. I’m not going to hurt you, even though I could.
In 1969 trainer Paul Spong had a similar occurrence with a female killer whale named Skana at Vancouver Aquarium. Spong was rubbing Skana’s head and body with his bare feet, an activity Skana thoroughly enjoyed. So Spong was surprised and terrified when Skana suddenly opened her mouth and dragged her teeth quickly across the tops and soles of Spong’s feet. After pulling his feet out of the pool, it took ten or eleven more timid dips before Spong was able to face Skana’s bared teeth with his feet in the water. No injuries were reported.
Even seagulls have received gentle “discipline.” Hyak, a male killer whale at Pender Harbor, was being teased by his trainer, who fed Hyak’s fish to a gull. When whale and bird reached the fish at the same time, Hyak grabbed the seagull’s legs and towed him to the bottom of the pool. One dead bird? No. Suddenly the gull bobbed up, shook his head, paddled around and then flew away. This same encounter happened on five separate occasions. Once the whale even grabbed the seagull’s head, but never harmed him.
But what if you met a killer whale face-to-face in his world, the ocean?
Erich Hoyt in his book The Whale Called Killer describes the nervous thrill he felt when he saw a large killer whale coming straight towards him. Alone in a small dinghy, he could easily be swamped by such a large animal. As the whale surfaced alongside the dinghy, Hoyt grabbed the sides to steady his tiny craft. Suddenly the whale’s dark eye appeared. After a penetrating look at Hoyt, the killer whale left without harming either fragile boat or its awestruck owner.
In fact, the killer whale is the only large predator with no documented evidence of killing a man. Not like sharks, bears, elephants, hyenas and even “man’s best friend,” the dog.
Man’s record towards the killer whale has not been as clean. Killer whales have been killed or shot at with guns, but approach men in a friendly, trusting fashion even with bullets embedded in their flesh.
However, captive killer whales do not get along happily in the tiny cement ponds that have brought them so close to mankind. Graeme Ellis, an experienced trainer, says, “A captive (killer) whale has only a year, maybe two, before his mental health starts going downhill. Some get bored, lethargic … others turned neurotic and perhaps dangerous …” Add to this problem rookie trainers who don’t understand the whales, trainers riding the whales, an activity they don’t enjoy, and you can better understand the sporadic reports of killer whales biting their trainers, holding them underwater and bumping them against the bottom of the pool.
Paul Spong and other trainers have begged aquariums to release their captive killer whale friends from these “cement concentration camps” after a two-year period. Aquarium owners, however, perhaps understandably, are reluctant to let such valuable creatures go.
So does the killer whale deserve its name? “Yes” and “no.” It is a savage killer of certain prey in the wild but has proven to be a gentle, intelligent friend to man. And man should, in return, treat the killer whale humanely and, after a few years of enchanting performances, release it to the vast, cold ocean it loves to live out the remainder of its life in peace.
EVANS, PETER G. H. The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins.
New York: Facts on File, 1987.
HOYT, ERICH. The Whale Called Killer. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981.
MATTHEWS, L. HARRISON. The Natural History of the Whale.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
MINASIAN, STANLEY M., KENNETH C. BALCOMB III, LARRY FOSTER.
The World’s Whales. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1984.