Orcapedia, A guide to the victims of the International Orca Slave Trade

By Captain Paul Watson & Tiffany Humphrey

GroundSwell Books, 2020

Reviewed by JoeAnn Hart

            This book should be handed out at every visitor center in Florida, because Orcapedia, A guide to the victims of the International Orca Slave Trade contains all you need to know about Sea World, or any other aquarium that holds Orcas captive. The Orcas, also known as killer whales, blackfish, and grampus, are on display because humans are curious creatures, so we pay big money to see them. Orcas have no predator but us, so even our viewing is a predatory act.

            I know, you are wondering about where the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 fits into this. As authors Watson and Humphrey explain, the Act does not restrict the taking of marine mammals for “public display” and scientific research. Public display has meant more than anyone could have imagined, resulting in the public deaths of trainers by Orcas who have been unnaturally raised. In the wild, Orcas swim 75 to 100 miles a day, but in their goldfish bowl at marine amusement parks they have just enough room to perform tricks for our entertainment. There are fifty thousand Orcas in the world who live in distinct, matrilineal pods, and the Orca’s language is learned in their pod, so when individuals are thrown together in tanks from different parts of the world, as often happens, they cannot talk to one another, which adds to their chronic stress. Worse, the sonar that allows Orcas to see in their underwater world is ill-suited to a smooth tank that reflects their own sights and sounds, creating a disturbing funhouse mirror of their prison. It is enough to make any sentient creature snap. Consider Tilikum. Orcapedia suggests watching “Blackfish,” a 2013 documentary produced by Gabriela Cowperthwaite about Tilikum’s tragic life, which began with his abduction from his family at the age of two. Over the course of a life spent in close confinement and isolation he killed three humans, two of whom were trainers, who Tilikum murdered in full view of a paying audience of children and adults. The killing of humans by Orcas does not happen in the wild. In spite of the fact that we get among them in small inflatables there has yet to be a single documented death or injury. A domesticated wild animal is an unnatural animal, and an unnatural animal is dangerous. Kamogawa Seaworld in Japan is the only park that still allows trainers in the water with the Orcas, that we know of.

            Without attempting to create a narrative, Watson and Humphrey present a comprehensive assessment of Orcas by simply sharing the facts. Males top out at 32 feet and 22 thousand pounds, females at 29 feet and 16 thousand pounds. Females in the wild can live fifty years, the males thirty. Compare this to the virtual headstones in Orcapedia of those who died in captivity, listing their ages, when and where they were captured and the cause of death, which is not always available. Seaworld stopped releasing autopsy reports years ago. Wanda was the first Orca captured in 1961 and she died within 48 hours of captivity. Since then, 162 are known to have died in aquariums of various causes, almost all prematurely, and mostly due to being kept in confinement. Some Orcas on this list were born in captivity, and although Seaworld claims to have ended its breeding program in 2016, it remains in partnership with Loro Parque in Spain which has continued the program, producing a female Ula as recently as 2018.  

            There are currently fifty-six documented Orcas imprisoned in water parks around the world, and probably more we don’t know about. This is an industry that needs to be dismantled, so it was particularly disturbing to find out that there are 78 marine mammal parks in China, with another 26 under construction. Little is known about the Orcas in their captivity. The same with Russia. The photo of the Seaside Dolphinarium in Strednyaya Bay looks like a gulag.

It is understandable for humans to want to be up close to these intelligent sea mammals, but looking at them in a glass prison or water theater is not just cruel, it’s not even necessary.  Whale watches abound, and are the perfect way to see an Orca in its natural, playful state. Sadly, captive Orcas can’t survive in the wild due to – among other physical and psychological limitations – drilled teeth, so the authors suggest they be released into sea pens and monitored by humans. Orcapedia ends with a list of groups who are working to shut down Orca prisons around the world because, as Capt. Watson writes in his Introduction: The industry is “perversely cruel, unnecessary, unethical, inhumane, and a foul disgrace to humanity.”

JoeAnn Hart
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford '76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s.
JoeAnn Hart

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Author of the true crime memoir Stamford '76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, And Feminism in the 1970s, and the novels Float and Addled.
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