Orca (Orcinus Orca) are the largest member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae), in the order Cetacea which includes all whales, dolphins and porpoises.  They are found in all oceans of the world. Orca evolved from a common ancestor of land mammals the even-toed ungulates (cows, hippos, deer) during the early eocene about 50-55 million years ago.  Around 45 million years “Ambulocetus”, a “walking/swimming whale, had evolved. They further adapted to aquatic life as front feet became fillers and nostrils migrated to the top of their heads for easier breathing.  By 30 million years ago modern cetaceans appeared and split into two groups: Mysticetes (baleen whales) and Odontocetes (toothed whales – including orca).

By 15 million years ago orca had evolved into their current forms and their large brains, which are four times the size of human brains, and very complex with cortical folding.  In addition, orca brains developed a large limbic system with a para-limbic lobe which humans do not have, and spindle cells with their high speed neural connections, which give orca their high level of emotions, empathy, and social bonding.  Orca also possess “mirror self-awareness” that only humans, great apes, elephants, and possibly other higher level animals possess. Resident orca live in matriarchal pods in which all offspring stay for life with their mother’s pod.



Orca also developed highly sophisticated sonar, and communication using clicks, whistles, and calls.  It is thought that orca “signature calls” are like names that identify each individual orca.

Thus, orca’s highly evolved, intelligent and emotional state explains why captivity in small concrete tanks is especially torturous and inhumane.   Orca are deprived of their natural seawater habitat, their families, foraging on live fish, swimming 50-100 miles a day, deep diving, and the inability to use sonar and vocalizing in a concrete tank.  It is no wonder that captivity causes depression, boredom, depressed immune systems with high incidence of infections and early death. In their frustration, orca destroy their teeth from grinding on concrete walls and metal gates, and have them drilled out and irrigated daily to prevent infection. Aggression between orca, which is rare in the wild, often occurs in captivity as it did with the ramming of Corky by Kandu resulting in her broken jaw and bleeding to death.  There are many documented attacks by orca against trainers, including the three deadly attacks by Tillicum, (one not a trainer) and one by Keto. It is standard practice at SeaWorld to give their orca doses of antidepressants, tranquilizers, antacids, and antibiotics. See this Documentary.


The captures started in 1964 when the Vancouver Aquarium, had an orca harpooned to provide a model for an artist to make an orca sculpture.  The orca was named Moby Doll in the belief it was a female, but turned out to be a male. He survived for only three months. He was docile in captivity disproving the belief that orca were aggressive killers, and became a huge attraction.  

Moby Doll Capture, first Orca ever captured.jpg

Then the next year, another orca, named Namu, was caught in a fishing net and sold to Ted Griffin of the Seattle Public Aquarium, where he became a huge attraction with 120,000 people coming to see him in the first two months.  Griffin swam with Namu further proving that orca were not dangerous killers, rather would form close bonds with humans. Namu lived just 11 months. Thus began the onslaught of captures for killer whale shows in marine parks. Griffin partnered with Don Goldsberry, and between 1965 and 1977, captured 262 orca in the Pacific Northwest, killing at least 11 in the process, and selling off 50 young juveniles – mostly to SeaWorld. (ref Orca-The Whale Called Killer by Erich Hoyt) One of these orca was named Shamu, and became the iconic attraction at SeaWorld San Diego. The name continues on to this day, and is given to any orca as a stage name to carry on the show as others die off.

In 1968 and 1969, the A Pod of the Northern Residents was devastated by two captures in Pender Harbour, BC.  In the 1969 capture, Corky was taken from her mother as a four year old baby. See the Corky page for the complete story.

Another orca taken during this period was Tokitae, captured at Penn Cove, Whidbey Island in 1970, during a violent capture in which five orca were drowned and seven orca, including Tokitae, were sold off to marine parks. Tokitae was sold to the Miami Seaquarium and renamed Lolita, where she has been performing ever since.  All the other orca taken that day died within five years. Lolita lives with no orca companion, in an illegal under-sized tank.

There has been a longstanding campaign to retire Lolita to a seaside sanctuary in the San Juan Islands, with a possible reintroduction back to her Southern Resident L-pod family and her mother, which is believed to be L25 Ocean Sun.  

In this orgy of captures in the 1960-70’s, the southern resident orca of the Puget Sound area were decimated, losing almost half of their numbers.  Captures in the Pacific Northwest ended in 1976 after Goldsberry, under contract for SeaWorld, used airplanes and underwater explosives to capture six orca in Budd Inlet.  The captures were witnessed by the Washington State Secretary of State, Ralph Monroe, who was outraged and took legal action resulting in federal legislation banning orca captures in the US.  But orca captures continued on switching mostly to Iceland.

Iceland was the capture location of the two orca, Keiko, of the Free Willy Movie fame, and Tillicum, known for killing three people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau as covered in the documentary “Blackfish.”


In recent years, orca captures have grown rapidly by the Russians in the Sea of Okhotsk, with a reported 20 orca taken there since 2012. Three of these orca are held in tanks in Moscow, performing killer whale shows.  It has been reported that 15 orca and 200 belugas have been sold to China in the past 5 years for their growing marine park industry.

In May 2018, the Russian government approved the capture of 13 orca for 2018.  Actress Pamela Anderson, a member of PETA, recently sent a letter to President Putin writing:

“Taking intelligent marine mammals from the wild and selling them to marine parks—especially those in China where no animal-welfare laws exist—is inhumane. … America’s history with marine mammals is far from great, but Russia can do better. Will you ensure that Russian orcas and beluga whales are protected and halt plans to take them from the Sea of Okhotsk?”

In early August 2018, the Russian activist group, Ocean Friends, reported two orca had been captured in Nicholay Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk.  Ocean Friends were monitoring the capture boat and when they attempted to film with a drone, they were fired upon by the fishermen.

Ocean Friends are committed, and will continue this dangerous job of monitoring and letting the world know of the Russian orca captures.