The Captivating Issue Of Captive Whales

An athlete of its own kind has been rumored to make an appearance at this year’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Courtesy of Sochi aquarium, a pair of Orcas captured in north Japanese waters is said to be on display at the event. Currently, over 100,000 people have requested Russia to not feature the whales through an online petition. The petition claims the Orca display is featured “in hopes of making more money during the Winter Olympics,” and comments that the imprisonment of these animals should not “be associated with an event as positive as the Olympics.”

Right now, it has been confirmed in a written statement from Aquatoria officials that a legally captured single whale was shipped to special facilities where it can adapt to captivity.

As advanced as our society is today, it is dumfounding that the capturing and forceful training of wild animals for our own amusement remains a debate. It seems so obvious that this should not happen. The recent film “Blackfish,” attempts to reveal this by discussing the politics within sea-parks and the relationships developed between whale and trainer.

The film specifically follows the story of the Orca Tilikum, his capture, relocations and the multiple lives he’s taken throughout his career.

Neuroscientist Lori Marino, was featured in “Blackfish,” and in an interview she provides insight into the Orca’s neurological development. The limbic system is the emotion-processing area in all mammals’ brains; Marino explains a part of this system in dolphins and whales have changed.

There is something within an Orca’s brain that has not developed in other mammals, including ours. Marino discusses that an Orca’s brain does something incredibly complex while it processes emotion; the level of sophistication surpasses that of humans. Their social cohesion is unique, even “unmatched in other mammals including humans,” said Marino.

The social behaviors towards Orcas such as mass stranding and slaughtering is astounding.  Orcas exhibit not only a sense of self but a feeling of inclusiveness and identification through their society. When an Orca family sees one of its own in distress it will remain with it. A whaler interviewed for “Blackfish” commented on this behavior as well saying that after the baby Orcas were secure in their nets, the crew let the barriers down for the rest of the family to leave, but none did. They remained and cried out for those being taken.

Why are these whales still being captured? Why would an awesome event demonstrating skill, dedication and empowerment equivocate itself to the oppression and suffering humanity places on these beautiful creatures? Ex-trainers of SeaWorld commented that as young adults, being provided the opportunity to work with such amazing and big animals was inviting. Later, reflecting on their choices, it was the responsibility of the whale’s imprisonment that had most of them staying a trainer rather than the supposed magical relationship between animal and human.

In a recent conversation with a mom of two kids, six and four, I asked her about SeaWorld: would she ever take her kids? She said she’s screening herself from any activist films or comments so her kids can experience SeaWorld just once, and then never again.

If everyone wants to experience it, just once, such a franchise and magnitude of attraction will be perpetuated. Why else would it still be running after all these years? Having Orcas present at such a prestigious event, these Olympics, only makes the disease of oppression more rampant. Soon we’ll be turning on MTV and the new Sweet 16 thing to do will be to have Orcas perform, that is, if daddy can afford it.

As a society, I would think, our goal is to improve. We’re proud to sound astounded and perplexed at our past. Excited to gasp, “Can you believe we had Jim Crow laws at one point?” or “Computers used to be the size of televisions!” My hope is in the next decade, we’re able to look back and be awe struck that  my kids, their generation, is able to look back on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and say, “That started the revolution of putting a stop to whaling.”


Sophia Spann is a second-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at