8 Surprising Facts About Captive Killer Whales

John Hargrove, author of Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, Seaworld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, shares eight amazing stories about killer whales.

QDT Editor
3-minute read

1.) They Plan Ahead

During a show in San Diego a pesky seagull that had been clearly increasingly agitating Kasatka; it even stole her fish. To distract her, I asked her to do a basic aerial routine. Whales as smart as Kasatka have a nearly 100% success rate on such routines. But at 36 feet, down on the bottom of the pool, Kasatka changed her position; she performed a front flip in the middle of the pool, striking and killing the seagull instantly. After being propelled so high in the sky, we all lost sight of it, the bird landed dead on stage.

2.) They Are Super Mothers

After Takara gave birth to Sakari in 2010 she didn’t stop swimming for going on three months, making sure her calf would not run into the glass, sides or bottom of the pool, nor get close to the gates of the whales who were in the back pools.  She wouldn’t even stop for feeding; she would circle, opening her mouth wide and turn her head so I could toss her food.  I had never witnessed such devotion by a mother for her offspring.

3.) They Stun Their Prey

Wild orcas have the capability to stun large schools of fish to make them easier to catch. Once a trainer at Shamu stadium in Florida said he had been temporarily stunned by the orca he was swimming with; for a while he had absolutely no control of his body.

4.) They Can Be Considerate

Ear and sinus infections were commonplace for those of us trainers who swam everyday with the whales.  Once I had an inner ear infection  serious enough to cause me to suffer from equilibrium issues. When I got in the water with Kasatka for a show she began to echolocate on me and could tell I wasn’t well and she refused to foot push me from the back pool into the front show pool to perform the big acrobatic behaviors. 

5.) They Can Get Inside Your Head

During one show I dove in the water while Takara was sent from the back pool by another trainer. I could immediately hear and feel her echolocating on me to identify who I was. I also felt a very pronounced snapping in the back left side of my brain—exactly like a rubber band snapping. Once she stopped echolocating, this distinct sensation went away. What that was is anyone’s guess.

6.) They Use Tools

The whistles or “bridge” as we trainers called them, which hung by a lanyard around our neck, had a breakaway rubber scuba O-ring. If that safety measure wasn’t in place then the whales could drag us around underwater by these lanyards.

7.) They Make Up Their Own Tricks

In Texas, Tuar was sent to perform aerials in the front show pool but he never surfaced.  He eventually showed up in the back pool and opened his mouth to return a baby squirrel that had fallen from the lighting superstructure around the pool. The squirrel was in shock -- from the trauma of being grabbed by an orca as well as from the freezing water.  Once his body temperature returned to normal he ran off with a big story to tell his fellow squirrel buddies.

8.) They Look Out for Their Friends

I was performing double waterwork during a night show following the meticulously detailed plan we had set to prevent an accident.  When I dove in the water and was picked up underwater on a foot push by Takara, the other trainer mistakenly sent her 7,500lb male orca Keet on a center pool aerial.  Underwater Takara immediately stalled out on my foot and began to emit upset vocalizations in the process preventing Keet from landing on me and potentially killing me instantly or permanently disabling me.

Although these are memories from my long career as a senior orca trainer at SeaWorld, this is not an endorsement of keeping the orcas in captivity. In fact, I have campaigned tirelessly to end it. We finally succeeded with the passing of The Orca Protection Act ensuring this will be the last generation of orcas in captivity and I couldn’t be prouder of this achievement. If you would like to get involved, please check out the Born Free Foundation, PETA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and/or the ASPCA. These are just some of the wonderful organizations who fight tirelessly on behalf of those who cannot.

For more from John Hargrove, check out Beneath the Surface, available now from Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, Booksamillion, and Apple.

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