Whales are some of the most interesting mammals we can have contact with in the natural world and there has been a great amount of research done with the aim of trying to understand them better. While the growing interest in these animals has been beneficial to the species, the way in which the public has begun to come in contact with these large animals has become harmful. Today, many groups and organizations are using the whales as a form of profitable entertainment instead of educating the public on why these whales are so majestic in the first place. Currently, many different whale species are being kept in captivity largely for the entertainment of the public, performing aquarium tricks in small tanks despite their humongous size. This way of life is not healthy nor sustainable for these powerful animals.
All over the world, there are dozens of different species of whales that have a massive impact on our marine ecosystems. Whales serve as both predators and prey, and they also become a food source for scavenger species when they die. In fact, as whales lie at the top of the food pyramid, any decline or increase in their population is an indication of a change in their habitat (Whales online). Whales of all species also contribute to the economic wellbeing of countries around the world. Wildlife-based ecotourism is defined as tourism based on encounters with non-domesticated animals which can occur in either an animal’s natural environment or in captivity (Frontiers). Whale watching is a popular part of ecotourism and provides a profitable alternative to whaling while also informing the public on the local whale species and habitats. Additionally, it adds several billions of dollars to the US economy while also creating thousands of jobs for those connected to the industry (NOAA).
The life of the average whale is incredibly unique, but it differs depending on the specific type of whale. There are two main groups of whale species– baleen whales and toothed whales. The difference between the two is that baleen whales have baleen plates instead of teeth which allows them to filter the water and eat large amounts of small creatures (Sciencing). The mating rituals of male whales differ depending on the species as well, but common mating practices include singing in rhyming verses for consecutive hours, swimming around each other, and also contending with their competition (Wildlife Animals). The verses these whales sing are particularly interesting because, based on the verses they sing, a whale can tell how genetically distant a potential mate is from themselves. Orcas tend to prefer a mate that is genetically different from them to ensure genetic diversity in their offspring, so this singing helps orcas find their best mate (The Guardian). They are highly social creatures and, depending on their species classification, prefer to stay within their native pod for the entirety of their lives. In this way, whales of all kinds are incredibly intelligent and loving additions to sea life.
One class of whales called the Orcinus orca, most commonly known as the killer whale or the orca, is particularly interesting. These specific whales are found in a large variety of habitats around the world due to their expansive diet, yet some populations are still considered endangered in the United States and Canada. killer whales also attack in a highly coordinated fashion with other whales in their pod. Interestingly, killer whales also stay in their natal pod throughout their lifetime, meaning that they prefer to stay with the same whales from the time of their birth. Each pod has their own unique way of communicating with each other. They use a distinct set of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls that are learned at birth and culturally transmitted amongst each whale, similar to that of a native language passed down through several generations (NOAA). It is an interesting time for Pacific North American orcas due to newly found evidence that the species in the area might actually be splitting into two entirely different species. The characteristics of these whales in this region have been increasingly diverging as one population has been shown to be smaller with high tooth wear, known as residents. This is because when they hunt sharks or slurp on certain types of fish in the area, the scales rub against their teeth and cause damage. This then restricts the whales to hunt primarily smaller fish and seals. However, the other population of whales is becoming larger with less tooth wear that allows them to hunt whales and dolphins, called transients (Britannica). With this new information, it has become evident that the Orcinus orca is quickly becoming a rare and fascinating species.
The story of a particular orca named Lolita, also known as Toki, has become increasingly controversial following her death on Friday, August 18, 2023 likely due to a renal condition. Toki’s story begins back in 1970 in the Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington. She was captured along with six other killer whales, killing one adult whale and four babies in the process. She spent most of her life doing tricks in an aquarium pool while living in a tank no bigger than 80 feet by 35 feet by 20 feet deep, the smallest of its kind in North America. In 1980, her mate, Hugo, died due to a brain aneurysm he suffered from repeatedly bashing his head against the side of the tank (Athens Banner Herald). She was finally retired from performing public shows in March 2022, and in March 2023 was intended to be sent to a netted 15 acre natural habitat off the coast of the San Juan Islands as part of her gradual reintroduction to the wild. Being a part of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the plan was to reconnect her with her suspected family in the L-pod, one of the three pods made up of Southern Resident killer whales (Dogo News). Since Toki had spent so much time in captivity, there were concerns that she would no longer be able to hunt for herself and that she had grown completely dependent on humans. However, she never did make it to her new habitat (Miami Herald).
It is extremely rare for captive orcas to be released into the wild. The only captive orca to be released in North America was Keiko, the star of the 1993 film “Free Willy”. He was released in 2002 after several petitions for his release, but died from pneumonia shortly after in 2003 in Norway. Another formerly captive orca was released into the wild in Russia and filmed playing within a pod of wild orcas which suggests that full reintegration is possible. Due to the varying levels of success, releasing orcas from captivity is still under strict debate (Live Science).
In light of Toki’s passing, masses of people and organizations have come together to honor her and countless other whales who have been mistreated while in captivity. There were candlelight vigils planned by the public for Friday and Saturday on Widney Island, Washington as well as in front of the Seaquarium on Saturday evening. Additionally, PETA held two more vigils outside the Seaquarium on Friday and Saturday as well (The Guardian). These vigils are a beautiful opportunity for community members and seasoned advocates for Toki’s release to come together in her memory. Toki’s story has become yet another awakening for aquariums, tourists, researchers, advocates, and more. It has exposed the reality of ecotourism and displays how urgent these types of crises need to be resolved.