Friday, July 6, 2007

Victims of Captivity


Perhaps the world’s most famous orca, Keiko’s life began in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Iceland, in 1977 or 1978. In 1979, the young orca, barely two years old, was caught in a herring fish net, separated from his pod and taken to Saedyrasfnid, an Icelandic aquarium.

In 1982, Keiko was sold to Marineland in Niagara Falls. One of six orcas at the park, he was the youngest and most timid. By 1985, Keiko started to develop skin lesions and it was evident that his health was failing. Marineland sold him to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City for $350,000. There he was forced to perform five shows a day, in a small tank, alongside bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

In 1992, Warner Bros. began filming Free Willy with Keiko as the lead. The film, about a boy, a whale and an attempt to rescue it from the marine park, was an instant success, especially with millions of schoolchildren, when it was released the following year. Moviegoers were asked to call a toll-free number, displayed at the end of the movie, demanding Keiko’s release. More than 300,000 people from around the world did so.

With his health further deteriorating, steps were taken to find Keiko a new home. In January 1995, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation was formed and millions of dollars were raised to move Keiko from Mexico to a new rehabilitation facility at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in the United States, which took place the following year. It was the first time Keiko had experienced real seawater in fourteen years.

By the end of 1996, he had gained over 1,000 pounds, could hold his breath for over 13 minutes, had lost most of his skin lesions, and was mentally alert and engaged. In August 1997, Keiko was catching and eating live fish.

In September 1998, he was flown to a protected holding pen in Klettsvik Bay off the coast of Iceland. There, his rehabilitation continued although he was suffering from a possible liver ailment and respiratory infection.

Over the next few years, Keiko’s progress continued, surprising everyone as he ventured out to sea, interacted with wild orcas and competed with other animals for food. Keiko was behaving just like other wild whales.

On December 12, 2003, Keiko succumbed to pneumonia and died. As the marine park industry is quick to point out, animals, whether in the wild or in captivity, will succumb to illness. Critics have suggested that perhaps Keiko wasn’t the best candidate for release. Nevertheless, Keiko died with dignity and spent the last years of his life free.


Another Icelandic orca, Kandu was born around 1978 and captured for the marine park industry in 1984. He was brought directly to Marineland and kept in a small concrete tank until Friendship Cove, the “world’s largest whale habitat” was completed 14 years later. Kandu was transferred to Friendship Cove shortly afterwards but was kept isolated from the other orcas, except for breeding purposes.

On December 21, 2005, Kandu died of unknown causes. He was 27 years old, half the normal life expectancy of wild male orcas. He spent most of his last years by himself, floating motionless; his dorsal fin flopped over. Kandu sired all the captive-born orcas - eleven in total - at Marineland. Except for Athena, they are all dead.


In November 1980, three orcas were captured off the coast of Iceland and taken to the Vancouver Aquarium. Vigga was sent to California a year later but Bjossa and Finna remained together for 17 years, until Finna died from a bacterial infection in 1997.

Bjossa gave birth to three calves over the course of her life. The first died because Bjossa could not nurse it properly. Her second calf survived for three months before succumbing to a brain infection. The third died moments after birth from labour complications.

In 2000, Bjossa was taken from public display after she contracted a respiratory infection and later the next year was sent to Sea World in San Diego. Bjossa became seriously ill and on August 20th had a “near-death experience” but survived. On October 8, 2001, Bjossa died of a chronic lung infection. She was 21 years old.


For more than four years an Icelandic orca named Junior lived in a small, indoor tank at Marineland, devoid of sunlight, fresh air and normal companionship. It was reported that the park was trying to sell the whale for $1.2 million but there were no takers. In 1994, the surplus whale that nobody wanted died.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think keeping orcas in captivity is horrible. Its a problem i want to spend my life trying to fix. This article has been very helpful.