The Inadequate Space Captive Killer Whales Endure And The Neurological Effects It Has On Them
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The Inadequate Space Captive Killer Whales Endure And The Neurological Effects It Has On Them

Killer whales live a longer, fuller, more natural life when left in the wild.

The Inadequate Space Captive Killer Whales Endure And The Neurological Effects It Has On Them

Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Humans have known for over a century that humans are not the only animals with cognitive abilities. Various animals have proved their intelligence through communication, individual personality, and interpersonal relations within their species since the beginning of time. It was only recently that humans had began to realize this. This essay examines the cognitive complexity of a killer whale's brain and the neurological effects being held captive in aquariums has on these animals. Killer whales should not be held in captivity just as other intelligent animals such as apes and dolphins should not be held captive in habitats smaller than what said species would experience in the wild. Animals held captive in enclosed habitats are more likely to lash out in aggressive behavior and react more violently towards humans than they would in their natural habitats.

Orcas are a marine mammal of the cetacea order in the taxonomic rank. Animals in this rank include dolphins, porpoises, and other whales. Cetaceans are the most intelligent order as a whole in the taxonomic rank. Humans, of the primate order, are the most intelligent animals on the planet, but are only one of the hundreds of species that make up the primate order. For bigger animals such as primates and cetaceans, scientists use unique ways of measuring intelligence and brain size. Because of the cognitive complexity scientists have found in killer whales by using these methods, connections are able to be made between the bonds animal trainers seem to have with these huge mammals and the aggression the whales have had towards trainers as shown by Blackfish and other sources.

Cognitive Complexity

Killer whales have the second-largest brain of all ocean mammals after the sperm whale, weighing at up to 15 pounds. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University and speaker in Blackfish teamed with a group of scientists to explore the massive brain of a dead killer whale after running MRI scans on the mass of neurons and flesh. What the scientists found was astounding. Not only do orcas brains have nearly all of the same anatomical features of those in a human brain, but they have an extended part of their brain that processes emotions (Blackfish 2013). This shows that killer whales not only have a wide range of emotions and are able to communicate and act on those emotions, but the data suggests that these animals may also have a sense of self. The communication portion of a killer whale's brain is so strong that scientists believe that, not only can these animals communicate through echolocation, but they can also produce auditory images through different pitches and sound waves while communicating with eachother (Montgomery 2014). This would be like saying the word "dog" and picturing a dog in your head, except killer whales are believed to be able to skip the first step entirely. Whales are able to perform this type of communication interpersonally with other whales in their pod and even whales of different pods and families.

In the wild, orcas travel in pods made up of their own kin and themselves. Pods are segregated by blood and what the killer whales eat. There are at least three distinct populations of killer whales. Ones that eat flesh and wander widely along coasts, orcas that eat fish and stay in one general area, and a third group that swims deeper than the rest. Each pod, group, and population of killer whales has their own "language". According to neuroscientists Lori Marino, the three groups have starkly different diets, languages, hunting techniques, and manners of behaving around other marine life…if they didn't have the same paint jobs, you'd call them a different species (Marino 2013). This clearly shows how diverse these animals are within their own species, yet somehow they are able to communicate with each other thanks to the extended emotional processing portion of their brain. Although orcas are able to make use of these abilities in the wild, they are not so fortunate when born into captivity, as most of SeaWorld's killer whales are.


There are a total of 56 orcas held in captivity today, 23 of them being held by SeaWorld parks around the country. Tilikum, SeaWorld’s most famous wild-caught whale, is the largest wild-caught whale in captivity and resides at SeaWorld’s aquarium in Orlando, Florida. Before his capture off the coast of Washington, Tilikum, like all killer whales, swam up to 100 miles per day with his pod. The depth and width of the ocean needed for this daily travel is readily available for wild orcas to swim and explore in their element. In captivity, killer whales and other wildlife have only a fraction of what they would experience in the wild. An orca at SeaWorld would have to swim the circumfrence of the main pool more than 1,400 times to match the equivalent daily distance traveled in the wild. The human equivalent to Tilikum’s pool is about 9.5m in length, 5.7m in width, and 2.1m in height (Whale and Dolphin Conservation 2016). This is roughly the size of a small swimming pool. The miniscule amount of room to move around and explore new environments can have significant life effects on the whales living in captivity. A killer whale’s lifespan in captivity is significantly shorter than the life expectancy of orcas in the wild. Male orcas in the wild can live up to 45 years while females can live up to 70 or 80 years old. However, 92% of all SeaWorld’s orcas did not live past the age of 25 (Whale and Dolphin Conservation 2016). This means that the annual mortality rate of orcas is more than 2.5 times higher in captivity than in the wild. SeaWorld claims that 30 years is the average life span of all killer whales, but that their whales tend to live longer because of the proper veterinary care provided and special care given to the animals by the humans (Blackfish 2013). Not only does SeaWorld make false implications regarding the lifespan of orcas in the wild versus in captivity, but the multi-million dollar entertainment corporation also implies that a significant amount of Shamu ticket money goes to orca research in the wild (SeaWorld Cares 2014). According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, only about five cents per ticket is going towards orca research and rehabilitation. This means that for every million dollars in SeaWorld tickets sold, only 600 dollars goes to relevant research to learn more about their social habits and life in the wild.

Aggression in Captivity vs. Wild

Blackfish has raised a significant amount of controversy regarding whales in captivity by exploiting the numerous injuries and deaths caused by killer whales residing in SeaWorld's aquariums. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and speaker in Blackfish, suggests that the acts of aggression are linked to the amount of time the whales have been held in captivity.There have been over 100 incidents where SeaWorld's animal trainers have been injured by their killer whales and four total deaths by the whales. These numbers are significantly lower in the wild. there has only been one reported act of aggression in the wild with zero deaths (Whale and Dolphin Conservation 2016). There is not enough research to prove that the difference in numbers of aggressive acts towards humans is directly linked to the smaller space orcas endure in captivity than in the wild, but studies suggest there is a high probability that killer whales in captivity are becoming frustrated, then taking their anger out on their trainers.

Studies have also shown that, because wild-caught orcas are taken away from their families and put into a group of new whales, confusion and loneliness can lead to the frustration that causes the animals to act aggressively. Because whales in the wild have their own pods and communities, many times the separate pods develop their own variety of sounds and language, making it extremely difficult for wild-caught orcas to communicate with each other in captivity after being taken away from their pods in the wild. This clearly makes living with almost a complete other species of whale difficult, especially when the social scene is the equivalence of a small swimming pool.

In conclusion, the psychological effects being held in captivity has on killer whales may be greater than scientists now realize. There is still worlds of research to uncover and mysteries to solve regarding cetecean brains and behaviors. Although there is much to learn from these magnificent animals, one thing is obvious: killer whales live a longer, fuller, more natural life when left in the wild. Orcas, and any animal for that matter, are able to communicate freely with their pods, exceed captive life expectancies, and live without becoming a spectacle for entertainment when born and raised in their natural habitats.


Spear, K. (2010, March 08). How smart are killer whales? Orcas have 2nd-biggest brains of all marine mammals. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from, K. (2010, March 08). How smart are killer whales? Orcas have 2nd-biggest brains of all marine mammals. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from

Blackfish.Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Magnolia Pictures, 2013. DVD.

H. (2014, December 4). Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here’s Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from

The Fate of Captive Orcas. (2016, January 6). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from

The Truth About Blackfish. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from

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