The Killer Whale’s Guide to Captivity

A voluntary captivity, for an unknown purpose

I don’t know if you’ve ever been captive – it’s not the same as being imprisoned. It’s not the clarity of a locked door. You can be held captive by invisible things – a custom, a habit, an incapacity to fit into the world. You can be too big for a space. Your movements could be dogged, hampered, contained. You simply might not have the space to grow. Maybe the biggest captive force is fear. 

It’s very hard to know what you could’ve been, if you hadn’t been captive. If you were always in the wrong place, you can’t really know what it would’ve been like to be in the right place.

You can also hold yourself captive. I did this, some time ago. I walked back into the place where I didn’t fit, where my movements were restricted, where I was afraid, where I couldn’t be. Walked back and shut the doors behind me. I didn’t know why I was doing it at the time.

Captivity, unlike imprisonment, doesn’t leave you entirely without resources. So I also voluntarily cut off all my resources. I stopped reading, watching movies, going out, working on projects, meeting friends, eating out. I kept myself to a bare minimum. In fact, you could probably look at this whole exercise as a sort of social or creative minimalism.

It felt like being underwater. The surface was visible, but it felt unattainable. I could go, but I couldn’t.

Whale-watching in a time spent underwater

Being underwater

Without precisely making the connection, I started watching videos of whales on youtube. Most of these videos were of whales breaching, spectacular breaks through the surface, massive bodies reaching up towards the sky, stunning crashes. They make waves. It’s most often humpback whales, in these videos. They’re almost a way to witness the sea, or to vicariously experience it. (At the time when I was watching these videos, I was in a completely landlocked city, in the middle of a plateau.)

After two weeks of extremely distant obsessive youtube-whale-watching, I saw a video of hundreds of belugas having a big mashup somewhere off the coast of Canada. Something about this video gave me this almost-shockwave of longing. It was all these streaks of white in chilly blue water, and something about this great gathering at a time when my own life had reached peak loneliness, that made me not just crave companionship but actually believe that it might be possible to achieve. It woke me up.

Belugas in the sea

After receiving this almost-inscrutable message of companionship, love and freedom, it gave me a second shock to discover that I couldn’t spend the next one week obsessively watching belugas on youtube. Because most of the videos out there were of belugas looking through glass walls at their human captors and or their paying public with their gleeful offspring. 

Maybe the closest thing I’ve read that can describe how I felt about this is Atticus telling his kids why you shouldn’t kill a mockingbird. You shouldn’t kill a mockingbird, you shouldn’t imprison a beluga.

Down the rabbit hole of the internet – orcas because not belugas

There’s actually a long list of things you shouldn’t imprison. Dolphins, belugas, orcas. Birds, tigers, elephants. Knowing this, I don’t look for every story of captivity. I look for a symbol of captivity, instead. One that I can bear, at this time. I couldn’t bear to read about or watch captive belugas, so I started looking up captive orcas, or rather, tripped on that story on my way somewhere else.

Orcas are apex predators, and even in their weakened state, they can fight back, and make their suffering known. The reason why I even came across this story is because orcas did make their suffering known. The life that captive orcas live is actually one that I recognize, because I did, over a few years, work as a paid entertainer for events. It’s of course nothing like the same, because I chose to do that work, I was paid in money and not in food, and we worked for about four hours a day, for about a day or a maximum of two weeks.

Orcas do about seven or eight shows a day. They’re paid in fish.

Apart from making shows, their other work is to make babies and to provide sperm (both of these will no longer happen, in the United States at least, until further notice). So let’s say their other work was to make babies and provide sperm. If you’re wondering how they provided spermthe male whale is trained to lie at the surface belly-up and then is stimulated and masturbated by trainers.

In some sense, living was also work, because they were being watched through glass walls while they were doing this.

How did they get there?

Once upon a time, orcas were hunted. We don’t know if this still happens in other waters, in different climes. But for the purposes of this story, we’ll treat the hunting as history. Whale pods were chased, babies separated from their families, put in containers and transported to their new home/workplace/prison. There wasn’t too much concern about how they’d get along with their fellow cellmates, and if you go by the accounts, they didn’t get along too well. 

After there were enough whales to breed, new generations were born straight into concrete-walled pools, never having had a glimpse of the sea.

Why are we still talking about orcas?

Orcas show their pain. You don’t see tears, you see blood in the water. And while in the still entirely-net-based world of orcas, I came across the story of Tilikum.

Tilikum the orca was kidnapped at the age of two and kept in something like a holding cell, then transported to an entertainment park that didn’t survive, then transported to one that did. I wonder whether he survived as long as he did because he hoped that some day he’d make it back to the sea.

Tilikum’s kind of like the ‘killer’ in the killer whale – having been responsible for the deaths of three people, having literally ‘killed’ them – not eaten them, not defended himself against them, but actually harmed them with intention. He was the biggest whale in captivity and seems to have survived the longest.

SeaWorld, an American theme park chain, could be called his former owner, employer or slave-taker, depending on how you look at it. Sea World is as secretive a place as most institutions (like families), and maybe a lot could have been and has been kept hidden, but Tilikum’s third killing happened in front of an audience. He killed a trainer who was known, experienced and liked – as much a public figure as he was, in a way, but a lot less invisible – entertainer orcas are all given a stage name, a brand name – Shamu. Dawn Brancheau went by her own name, as he now goes by his.

In a faraway place called Sea Land, Tilikum had been one of three orcas that pulled a trainer into the water and pulled her apart. In Sea World, employees arrived to work one morning to find a dead man draped across Tilikum’s back. All of these stories could be smoothed over by one more big noisy orca-splash show, but the death of Dawn Brancheau happened on camera, in public. And this world changed, albeit with great resistance.

A door was opened. The movie Blackfish came out, exploring the incident, talking to trainers, starting a movement – kind of like a peephole into the backstage horrors of the circus.

Tilikum, rage and the power of a cathartic story

Why this story, why a killer whale of all things, why not even a human story?

There have been many human stories of cathartic violence, stories of worms that turned, stories of explosive rage after long spells of suffering.

The story of Tilikum came to me when I was underwater. The story of Tilikum came to me because I couldn’t bear to read about imprisoned belugas. The story of Tilikum came to me because it was big, explosive, painful, intimate, familiar, and above all cathartic.

In the time when my captivity was not self-imposed, I had felt too big, too wrong, maybe even the wrong species – I was often called some animal or the other. In the time of self-imposed captivity, I felt like my rage was a massive, uncontrollable beast. And yes, I do count humans as one of the beasts, though we don’t physically have the size to match the imaginative enormity of that word.

Watching orcas that break away from the show and swim in furious circles, I trace the circles I paced in a small room dominated by a bed.

There’s another pain that connects. In a much smaller, not-so-much-world-altering way, simply by having had the power of speech, I also understand what it means to be the messenger of darkness. To be the hole that opened up in a world.

What we could’ve been, if we’d been home free

In some way, all this whale-watching also gave me hope. It made me feel that I wasn’t so much bad, or intrinsically wrong, as living in the wrong place. I got a sense that there might be a place for me, just like somewhere off the coasts of Iceland there was a pod and a place for Tilikum.

In all the non-captive orca encounter videos, none of the actions of the whales seemed hostile. They mostly showed curiosity and in the case of the humpbacks a desire to rub their bellies on something. Wild orcas approach a tiny little rowboat, circle around it, the four young men inside giggle with terror, and then they go away. An orca nibbles on a surfboard, hovers for a minute, then goes away. In the most beautiful video I’ve seen, an orca family discovers a swimmer. Who knows what kind of educational exercise this is? It’s a family, a mother and two young ones. The mother explores, first. Then they each take turns – the slightly older young one, let’s call it the teen, swims next to the human. Then the mother. Last, the smallest, the shiest, hovering just for a few seconds before dashing away from the scary human. They linger for awhile longer, before finally swimming away together. 

What happened after?

What happened to Tilikum, after Dawn Brancheau’s death? Do they treat this as the natural act of a predator who came across an opportunity for attack? Do they treat this as a punishable act by an ungrateful employee/slave? Do they punish him?

In fact, Tilikum did spend a year in isolation. Not so dumb animal. He also spent a lot of time possibly in sedation.

A blogger wrote about frequent visits to Sea World to check on Tillikum, soon after the death Dawn Brancheau. He said he was bewildered not just by the extreme contrast between what they said and what they did but also by the behaviour of the whale itself. Tillikum, he said, spent hours doing nothing. Floating. Sometimes swimming in circles. Treating a fallen fish as an event. Tossing it aside after half an hour. He wasn’t given a toy or a friend or a thing to interact with. Why doesn’t he do anything on his own, though? And why don’t we do anything, when we’re confined, when there’s nowhere to go, when there’s nothing to love, when we’re isolated from our worlds? Why do we lie in bed or pace around in circles?

Tilikum was kept alive for a few years after Dawn Brancheau’s death. He was still useful as a spectacle and as a sperm donor.

He did finally die in captivity, probably not in peace and pretty soon after Sea World’s breeding program came to an end.

Lessons in captive living

Tilikum, soon after he died

When they talked about the potential release of whales in the wild, they said that whales like Tillikum, who barely had any teeth left, wouldn’t survive, couldn’t hunt, couldn’t integrate. The reason captive orcas have such few teeth left, as they get older, is because they’ve spent a lifetime chewing on their prisons. They’ve spent a lifetime exploring their confinement with their teeth. That means chewing on concrete and steel. This makes them susceptible to dental problems, a host of infections, and they’re treated by having their teeth drilled out and flushed daily. What is lost cannot be regained.

If the beluga is the caged bird that sings, the orca is the one that gnaws on concrete, on steel, every single day, because you never know one day a hole could be made that could lead to the ocean.

Author: Priyadarshini John

More about captive orcas:

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