Even after orca-related deaths at amusement parks and a few campaigns to release the animals, the movement to stop breeding orcas and training them for circuslike shows has never been fully realized. For all we’ve learned about killer whales, our embrace of them in the past 50 years has been driven less by science than by mythology. We may not quite deify them anymore, but our romantic notions of orcas often have nothing to do with the creatures themselves—and parks such as SeaWorld depend on our willful ignorance.
Wild orcas have complex and still mysterious social lives, and studies around the world have shown that they behave differently in different places. Social structures are matrilineal, and the animals communicate with one another with their famous calls. Transient whales are less vocal and gather in smaller numbers than whales that stay in one location, which are the ones most often spotted off American coastlines. Large orca pods that share similar vocalizations and dialects seem to commune with one another most often.
Orcas are apex predators, but their diets vary widely. Some regional varieties subsist on salmon, others are legendarily fearsome hunters of sharks and marine mammals. They stalk prey in pods of up to 40 killer whales in sophisticated and ruthless ways. Disturbing footage shows them throwing themselves on beaches to grab seals or knocking floating pieces of ice methodically to dislodge their prey.
Orcas also go after dolphins, huge whales, and in at least some documented instances, injured orcas. Killer whales off the coast of California regularly rush gray whales after waiting quietly for them to move out of safe areas, disorienting mothers while attempting to separate and dine on calves. Different orcas around the world develop their own effective strategies. No matter where they hunt, they are not seriously threatened by any other creature in the ocean.
So why don’t we have a reverent fear of orcas as we do of sharks, or even of terrestrial apex predators like grizzly bears? At least partly, it seems, because orcas don’t eat people—not that they have often had the opportunity. No fatal attacks in the wild have been reported. Rare incidents of killer whales “bumping” or otherwise menacing humans seem similar to most shark attacks, with the orcas likely mistaking a person for their favored, juicier prey.
Captivity, of course, is another story. I detailed Brancheau’s autopsy report not to suggest orcas are generally dangerous to people but to underscore the awesome power they can wield with little effort. Tilikum, the orca who killed Brancheau and who is closely tracked in Blackfish, was also involved in killing two other people. Their autopsy reports are no less gruesome, and there have been dozens of serious injuries involving other captive orcas. And yet even in an otherwise clear-eyed movie like Blackfish, only brief glimmers of orcas as the animals they truly are break through. Otherwise it presents a familiar version of angelic, elevated creatures adulterated only by captivity and evil corporations.
In truth, orcas’ journey in the public imagination from feared deity and indiscriminate killer to noble, fun-loving master of the sea has had dire consequences for them. SeaWorld is absolutely guilty in its disgusting exploitation of killer whales, but what about our enduring need to mythologize them? SeaWorld itself depends on this sentimental refusal to recognize the sublime, unknowable animals orcas are on their own terms. (“We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that,” a SeaWorld official opined to the New York Times this week.) That’s one of the reasons the company has managed to dupe much of the public into believing that its trainers are not in danger—and why the movement to stop captivity for good has never really taken off.
Must we return to a reflexive state of fear and anxiety over these amazing creatures? Of course not. But the next time you see adoring footage of an airborne orca glistening against a sunset, maybe think less about the animals’ ethereal majesty than about what would happen if it landed on top of you. That’s the kind of admiration and respect killer whales really need.