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Releasability Chapter 6

A Review of the Releasability of Long-Term Captive Orcas

Chapter 6
Social systems and bonds


To maximize the likelihood of success when releasing a captive orca, there should first be clear recognition and acceptance by its natural family. Family membership begins at birth and continues throughout the life of the animal. Orcas for which reliable field data is known maintain extremely tight cohesion of the family group. Within Lolita's extended family both the male and female offspring remain with their mothers for life. This indicates that a high survival value is placed on permanent inclusion of every member of the family.

This lifetime bonding presents both opportunities and problems. Keiko's family is unknown, and it is not certain whether the community structure that has been documented among Pacific Northwest orcas is a reliable guide to North Atlantic populations. It is likely that Keiko's closest family members are still alive, and it is believed that they would recognize him if given the chance, but whether that family numbers 3 individuals or many hundred, and whether they travel to the coast of Iceland on a regular basis is not known. In spite of this relative lack of knowledge of Keiko's pod and community of origin, because of the species' ability to send vocal communication through dozens of miles of ocean it is probable that Keiko will be able to contact his relatives if they enter nearby waters.

For Lolita the situation is much easier. Each member of her family has been documented in photographs every year since the early 70's. Photographs taken at the time of her capture show at least six identifiable individuals that were too old for capture and were released. Four of those photographed are still alive today. At least 22 members of Lolita's family who were present when she was captured are still alive today, and at least nine of those could possibly be her mother.

At this writing Lolita's extended family consists of 92 individuals, up from 71 when captures ended in 1976. The community is made up of three pods, J, K, and L pods, with 23, 16 and 53 members, respectively. The oldest females are the focal point of each family group within the three pods, though the overall authority system that guides the pods or the community is unknown. The three pods usually travel separately, and to varying degrees, each pod may split up into matrilineal subgroups from time to time. All three pods may usually be found within the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia from early June through September each year. Whale watching boats satisfy the increasing interest in seeing them. J pod tends to spend most of the winter in the inland waters, often visiting the southern reaches of Puget Sound.

Perhaps the most revealing discovery of the field research was that the offspring simply never leave their mothers' company. For every other mammal known, either the males or females, or both, depart the family of birth at or before the onset of maturity and either join another group or become independent. For orcas, at least the Southern and Northern communities, about 300 whales altogether, the adult males remain within a few hundred yards of their mothers for her entire life, while females and their young may travel a bit farther away from time to time, but still remain well within hearing range.

In the late spring or early summer of each year K pod and L pod usually return to the protected marine waters. Upon their re-entry there is typically a "superpod" greeting, lasting from a few hours to a day or more, in which the members of each pod mingle with members of the other pods, in groups of around a dozen at a time, in slow motions, rubbing and nudging one another, seemingly maximizing bodily contact while a wild cacophony of vocalizations can be heard with a hydrophone. After this apparent ceremony, which may take place several more times during the summer, each pod or subpod departs in a different direction within the 400 mile long, convoluted inland sea.

Wherever they may be born, or wherever they may find themselves after capture, orcas tend to form into tight, highly organized families. The primary method of communication is vocal, but a variety of physical behaviors reinforce family bonds and relationships. Physical contact is commonplace among orcas.

In captivity, a primary method used by trainers to establish dominance over orcas is to separate families and social groups. "Time-outs," or turning one's back on an orca, is also a way to reinforce obedience. Food deprivation is used as a last resort to coerce cooperation. Still, the orcas tend to organize themselves into cohesive groups with clear leaders. As if to reinforce these bonds, physical contact among captive orcas occurs often during self-imposed exercises and random activities.

There can also be friction while establishing role relationships in captive settings, for example if females do not agree about which one is dominant. At Sea World in San Diego, the Icelandic female Kandu was dominant when Corky, an older orca from the Pacific, was delivered there in January of 1987. When Kandu attempted to bite or ram Corky's tailstock, Corky kicked with her tail, which broke Kandu's jaw and severed an artery. Kandu died within a few minutes from loss of blood. There are many other examples of aggression among orcas in captivity (Appendix J).

In natural communities, relationships and rules are established early in the life of each member and transitions appear to be smoothly accomplished. Since females average over fifty years of life and may live into their eighties, there is a great deal of stability over the years. No aggression between adult orcas of the same community has been observed. Although the general configurations of the social groups have been discerned, very little is known about actual relationships, even among the communities that have been intensively studied.

Given that 22 members of Lolita's family were present and aware that she was captured, plus the species' large memory capacity and lifelong membership in cohesive family groups, it follows that Lolita would know her family, would be recognized by them, and, after a time would rejoin them without any significant aggressive incident.

Chapter 5 | Contents | Chapter 7


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