How long do captive killer whales survive?

Whales held captive outside the U.S. fare much worse than those in American facilities, a new study suggests. According to the report, killer whales typically live almost three times longer in captivity in the U.S. than in other countries.

The study authors obtained U.S. data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Inventory Report, which contains information about each captive whale’s age, time in captivity, date of death, and other details. The team also examined data on whales outside the U.S. from The Orca Project.

The final analysis included 83 killer whales in U.S. facilities and 118 in other countries, recorded from 1961 to 2014. One-third of the animals had been born in captivity, and the rest had been caught in the wild.

Nearly two-thirds of the whale deaths during that time occurred during the first five years of the animal’s captivity, the team reports in Marine Mammal Science. Whales held in the U.S. survived in captivity for a median of 12 years, while those outside the U.S. lived for a median of only about four years. Put another way, the whales in non-U.S. facilities had a “61% higher chance of death on any given day than for those held in U.S. facilities,” the authors write — perhaps because regulations in other countries are looser.

Although captive whale survival has risen over the years, these animals still lag their wild counterparts considerably. The authors note that 62 to 81 percent of wild female killer whales live at least 15 years. In contrast, only 27 percent of the now-dead females in the captive study survived that long. Roughly half of the still-living captive female whales are at least 15 years old.

The research also holds some lessons for managers. Captive-born whales faced a higher risk of dying between two to six and 11 to 12 years old. So managers could try to avoid separating whales from their mothers or transferring the animals to other parks during those times.Roberta Kwok | 23 April 2015

Source: Jett, J. and J. Ventre. 2015. Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival. Marine Mammal Science doi: 10.1111/mms.12225.

Image © Lars Christensen | Shutterstock



  • Jeff Boettner April 23, 2015 at 9:19 am

    What???? This article sounds like an ad for SeaWorld US???

    So why are the authors not comparing their data to wild whales? Because it would show they ALL captive whales are NOT doing well in captivity. See attached article for the news last year of a 103 year old WILD orca:

    The best Conservation for Orcas is pretty obvious…don’t hold Orcas in captivity…in the US or ANYWHERE! I am disappointed to see this article make it in CONSERVATION magazine. Please don’t start watering down this superb magazine with PR stories like this from SeaWorld that are simply a wash job of the real story on longevity.


    • Diane Livia April 23, 2015 at 11:27 am

      I have to agree with “Jeff.” Burying the most important finding of the study, (“…these animals still lag their wild counterparts considerably. The authors note that 62 to 81 percent of wild female killer whales live at least 15 years. In contrast, only 27 percent of the now-dead females in the captive study survived that long.) is a bit misleading.

      Comparing low survival rates betweeen countries and methods is a bit like comparing survival rates of ebola victims: just because some victims survive longer than others, doesn’t mean we don’t want to eliminate the disease.

      The study itself appears to be an attempt to amass data supporting the practice of capturing and torturing orcas. I would have hoped Conservation would have seen through this. Your stated mission is “…changing the conversation about what it means to be “green.”” In this case, it seems you blindly reported on a study that merits little interest, except as an apology for the industry. I look for deeper insight in your articles. And, funding sources should be investigated when this kind of study gets published.

      thanks for your other good work.


    • Candice Millage June 16, 2016 at 12:12 am

      A bit of guess work was done to come-up with the age of 103. The age is likely closer to 80, which is still very good.

      When they say that wild killer whales CAN live to be 50 to 100, they are averaging out from the 1960’s to today. When Sea World says that the life expectencies are similar, they are using a more recent range, from 2000 to 2015.

      This article also uses dates that are all over the place. Since wild whales have not been captured in the U.S. for decades and other countries currently are, they are comparing information that is decades apart, which seems to be saying that, decades ago, Sea World was better at keeping newly aught killer whales alive than other countries are today.


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