In October 1978, a baby orca, now known as Katina, was captured off the coast of Iceland.
She would have been a couple of years old. Orcas usually stay with their pod (their social grouping) for life and there can be many generations in one pod.
But Katina was caught and taken to be displayed at Marineland in Canada.
Since learning her story, I’ve always felt a connection with Katina. Why? Because Katina was captured the exact month and year that I was born which means she has spent my entire life in captivity.
Before my first birthday, Katina had been bought by SeaWorld and moved from Canada to their (now closed) park in Ohio.
For the next few years she moved back and forth between SeaWorld Ohio and SeaWorld San Diego and then finally when I was about 6 years old, Katina was moved to SeaWorld Orlando where she remains to this day.
Oddly, and unknowingly at the time, I may well have seen Katina perform when I went to SeaWorld Orlando with my family, aged 7. Along with hundreds of others, I watched the Shamu show, unaware that ‘Shamu’ had died years before and the name was used for whichever orca was doing that day’s show. It is quite possible that it was Katina who performed the role of Shamu that day, soaking the crowd with a flick of her tail.
Then I left, probably went to another theme park, flew home and Katina stayed there, swimming around her tank, thousands of miles from her pod, being fed frozen fish and performing tricks for the crowds. And every day since has been the same for her.
Image credit: Bart Van Meele.
Following the 2013 release of Blackfish, the documentary that followed the story of the orca Tilikum and exposed the trauma experienced by captive orcas, the acceptability of orca shows dropped and while they are still bred in venues across the world, in 2016 Sea World committed to stop the captive breeding of orcas, great news for the orcas but business as usual for the other whales and dolphins in the SeaWorld parks.
The most common marine mammals in captivity are the smaller members of the dolphin family (orcas are the largest species of dolphins), and in particular it is bottlenose dolphins (the classic ‘Flipper’ dolphin) which make up 80% of dolphins in captivity.
The acceptability of dolphin shows and swimming with dolphins has certainly dropped (our 2019 survey showed that the acceptability of swimming with dolphins had dropped from 67% to 58% in 5 years) but these smaller dolphins are still waiting for their ‘Blackfish’ moment – that moment when the collective eyes of the world are opened to the trauma that we are putting on highly intelligent, social animals for our own entertainment.
A human baby can recognise themselves in a mirror from the age of about 18 to 24 months – bottlenose dolphins have been seen to recognise themselves as young as 7 months of age. Their intelligence has been demonstrated time and time again, as has the strength of their bonds within their social groupings and yet we live in a time when they are used by trainers as surfboards or trained to jump through hoops with the promise of chunks of frozen fish.
Just last month I was in Scotland, on boats and cliffs with my binoculars, being treated to the incredible sight of minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and harbour porpoises, marvelling at just the glimpse of a fin.
Image: Wild orcas in Scotland
On the final night, after numerous excited text messages about sightings down the coast, I was scrambling over the headland with my camera and when I had almost given up hope, there they were. Six orcas moving tightly together, their whole bodies visible from my viewpoint above them. And my thoughts returned to Katina. In her tank, long separated from her pod, performing tricks for frozen fish for my whole lifetime.