The endangered killer whales of the Pacific Northwest live very different lives from orcas in captivity.
They swim up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) a day in pursuit of salmon, instead of being fed a steady diet of baitfish and multivitamins. Their playful splashing awes and entertains kayakers and passengers on Washington state ferries instead of paying theme park customers.
But the captive whales are nevertheless providing a boon to researchers urgently trying to save wild whales in the Northwest.
SeaWorld, which displays orcas at its parks in California, Texas and Florida, has recently published data from thousands of routine blood tests of its killer whales over two decades, revealing the most comprehensive picture yet of what a healthy whale looks like. The information could guide how and whether scientists intervene to help sick or stranded whales in the wild.
“For us, collecting blood from free-ranging killer whales is exceedingly difficult, so it’s something we would rarely ever do,” said Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Having partners that are in the managed-care community that can provide us with blood values from those animals is very useful. It’s giving us a very robust baseline data set that we haven’t had previously for these whales.”
The round-up of killer whales for theme-park display in the 1960s and ’70s was devastating for the Pacific Northwest’s resident orcas: At least 13 were killed and 45 kept to awe and entertain paying crowds around the world, according to the Center for Whale Research on Washington’s San Juan Island. Only one of those orcas survives: Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium.
Washington state eventually sued SeaWorld to stop the hunts. Today, 17 of SeaWorld’s 20 whales were born in captivity, including some descended from orcas captured near Iceland; the company hasn’t collected a wild orca in more than 40 years. Under public pressure, it ended its captive breeding program and is replacing trained orca shows with what it describes as “more educational experiences where guests can still enjoy and marvel at the majesty and power of the whales.”
It took decades for the so-called southern resident killer whales, which spend several months every summer and fall in the marine waters between Washington state and Canada, to recover from the hunts. By the mid-1990s, their population reached 98.
Half a century later, the orcas are struggling against different threats: pollution, vessel noise and, most seriously, starvation from a dearth of Chinook salmon, their preferred prey. There are just 75 left, and researchers say they’re on the verge of extinction.
Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed $1.1 billion in spending to help the whales, with much of the money going toward protecting and restoring salmon habitat. The National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, is planning to propose expanded habitat protections this year for the whales’ foraging areas off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.
SeaWorld has also boosted its efforts to help the southern resident orcas, pledging $10 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program.