SeaWorld Pushed to Release Killer Whale Trapped in “Tiny” Tank

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Corky jumps into the air from the water at SeaWorld San Diego

Credit: Mliu92 via Flickr

After 50 years in captivity, activists are pushing for SeaWorld to release its oldest killer whale.

Captive killer whales are a controversial topic. For decades, orcas have been used as a form of entertainment – performing in daily shows at marine theme parks and aquariums such as SeaWorld, Marineland of Canada, and Miami Seaquarium.

A few Orca Whales perform tricks and stunts during a show at SeaWorld as Guests look on from the stands.
Credit: SeaWorld

Related: 14 Whales Die at Popular Theme Park, Raising Concerns About Animal Welfare

However, the tides of public opinion have turned on the subject over the past decade. The life of the infamous orca Tilikum was documented in the release of Blackfish (2013), exploring how his years in captivity contributed to his three fatal attacks on humans, such as his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.

Since then, social pressure (and plummeting attendance) has led to SeaWorld ceasing its orca breeding program across all three of its parks in the United States: SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando, and SeaWorld San Antonio. Orcas are also no longer used for theatrical shows, instead appearing in presentations that don’t involve any kind of performance, and its new park – SeaWorld Abu Dhabi – opened totally orca-free.

Tilikum performing
Credit: Milan Boers via Flickr

One thing that hasn’t happened, however, is theme parks releasing their killer whales back into the wild. Even those against orca captivity are apprehensive about this, citing Keiko – the whale who played the eponymous character in Free Willy (1993) – as a cautionary tale of why freeing captive orcas into the ocean is a bad idea. Keiko failed to adapt or bond with other orcas, instead seeking out human company and ultimately passing away from pneumonia.

That was until earlier this year when Miami Seaquarium unveiled plans to free Lolita (also known as Tokitae) into a sea pen in the Pacific Northwest. As the second oldest orca in captivity, her transition needed to be meticulously planned – but sadly, it never came to fruition, as Lolita passed away from suspected kidney problems on August 19, 2023.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

Related: Dolphin and Trainer Injured in Attacks at SeaWorld Orlando

While Lolita never made it back to the Pacific Ocean, activists believe there’s no reason why other killer whales can’t. Animal rights activists have made a public plea for SeaWorld to free Corky, the only orca in captivity longer than Lolita.

PETA’s executive vice-president, Tracy Reiman, told Daily Express US: “Like Lolita, Corky has known only misery for more than 50 years, with no life other than to swim in endless circles in a tiny, barren tank, and she must be released.”

PETA has called for Corky to be released into a sea pen – as was planned for Lolita – where she can “dive deep, swim fast, and even possibly reunite with her family before she dies in captivity as Lolita did.”

Corky jumps into the air from the water at SeaWorld San Diego
Credit: Mliu92 via Flickr

Born in 1965, Corky was captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1969. She was subsequently sold to Marineland of the Pacific, in Palos Verdes, California, before relocating in 1987 to SeaWorld San Diego, where she still lives with seven other orcas.

While several attempts were made to breed Corky with a male orca named Orky II, one of the largest whales ever held in an aquarium, all of her seven calves died in infancy. She later acted as a surrogate mother to Orkid, an orca whose mother, Kandu V, died in 1989 from injuries sustained by charging at Corky during a performance at the park.

Are you for or against freeing Corky back into the wild? Let us know in the comments.

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