EMORY (US)—The death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau in Florida this week—after a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum pulled her into a tank—has raised new questions about the confinement of dolphins and whales in theme parks.
Emory neuroscientist Lori Marino, an expert on the brains of cetaceans—including porpoises, dolphins, and whales—discusses the toll captivity can take on killer whales.
What are some common misconceptions about killer whales, also known as orcas?
“Killer whales are actually dolphins. They are called whales because they are the largest dolphins, but they are in the same family as the bottlenose dolphin. Although they are top predators, they are not naturally aggressive to people. I have colleagues who research orcas and swim with them in the wild. People will go out in very small boats and paddle among orcas. They could easily reach up and grab you and gobble you up. And yet there is not a single incident of an orca injuring, let alone killing, a person in the wild.”
What do we know about killer whale intelligence?
“The orca brain is the most convoluted brain on the planet. These are very, very intelligent animals with major, impressive brains.
“I think people would be surprised to know that orcas form cultures in the oceans, and they pass these on through generations. It’s stunning. Different groups of orcas make distinct sounds and we call these dialects. It’s like a Brooklyn accent versus a Manhattan accent.
“Orcas have really creative ways of getting prey. In the Arctic, a sea lion may try to escape them by getting on a floating chunk of ice. A group of orcas will form a line and rush forward together to create a wave to make the ice chunk wobbly and throw the sea lion into the water. You see a lot of group cooperation like this among orcas.”
Why are you so strongly against keeping killer whales and other cetaceans in theme parks?
“The normal range of an orca is several 100 kilometers per day, and they like to dive really deep. They don’t have room in these tanks to swim as far as they would like to. There is no evidence that they kill each other in the wild, but they have been known to kill each other in captivity. When you take all of that energy and put it into a small tank, a lot of stress builds up and it’s like a perfect storm waiting to happen.
“I understand that people want to see these animals up close, but I want people to understand the price that the animals are paying. What happened at SeaWorld is tragic all around, for the trainer who lost her life and for the whale.”
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