SeaWorld could be in trouble because of â€œGranny,â€ the worldâ€™s oldest known living orca. The 103-year-old whale (also known as J2) was recently spotted off Canadaâ€™s western coast with her pod — her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But while the Granny sighting is thrilling for us, itâ€™s problematic for SeaWorld.
First of all, SeaWorld has claimed that â€œno one knows for sure how long killer whales live,â€ when simple figures or even living and thriving examples — like Granny — can give us a pretty good idea. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation project estimates that whales born in captivity only live to 4.5 years old, on average; many of SeaWorldâ€™s orcas die before they reach their 20s. Perhaps because of their reduced lifespans, the whales are forced to breed continuously and at perilously young ages, which could also diminish their overall health.
Another key aspect of an orcaâ€™s life — which is missing in captivity — is the ability to swim up to 100 miles per day. When Granny was spotted earlier this week, she had just finished an 800-mile trek from northern California along with her pod. According to animal welfare advocates, long-distance swimming is integral to orcasâ€™ psychological health and well-being; SeaWorld, however, has gone on record claiming that orcas do not need to swim hundreds of miles regularly, ostensibly to defend the parksâ€™ cruel practice of keeping massive, powerful orcas confined to cramped tanks.
Since Granny was first spotted (as early as the 1930s), sheâ€™s believed to have mothered two calves, who in turn have had calves of their own. (One of her grandchildren, Canuck, reportedly died at the age of 4 after being captured and held at SeaWorld). As her pod has grown, Granny has kept up with them — without being separated through human intervention — and traveled astonishing distances with her pod annually. Orcas at SeaWorld are routinely separated from their pods, which has been known to cause huge mental and emotional strain and can prevent calves from developing normally.
Granny doesnâ€™t simply represent an impressive feat of nature; she embodies whatâ€™s wrong with SeaWorld by being a living example of whatâ€™s right in the wild. While itâ€™s true that most wild orcas donâ€™t live as long as Granny has, their lifespans are still dramatically longer than those of SeaWorldâ€™s whales (the NOAA estimates that wild female orcas, like Granny, live an average of 50 to 60 years). Their lives are also filled with much more swimming, exploration, variety and bonding with family — in other words, their lives are likely filled with much more joy.
I was reading this post by Jason Kottke this morning and I watched this crazy video from BBC: Planet Earth of a Great White Shark hunting seals. What blew me away is while the shark is an incredible killing machine, it will flee thousands of miles if it runs into a single Orca Whale.
Although Pyle couldn’t confirm a white shark was killed in 2000, he did learn how one reacted. Tipfin, a 15-foot male, was carrying a satellite tag that Pyle and colleague Scot Anderson had attached the month before. When the tag popped off six months later and transmitted its stored data, the researchers had an almost minute-by-minute account of Tipfin’s movements.
"On the hour of the attack, Tipfin abruptly dropped to 500 meters and headed west," says Pyle. "He swam all the way to Hawaii."
I was impressed. Bumping a Great White Shark on itâ€™s back takes a lot of guts, even for a Orca whale.