A Review of the Releasability
of Long-Term Captive Orcas


An orca mother and calf

In recent years there has been a great deal of discussion about the capability of many animals to use language and possess culture. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos (smaller relatives of chimps) have mastered large and complex vocabularies using sign language (de Waal, 1997; Savage-Rumbaugh, Lewin, 1996). Field studies of elephants have indicated their ability to transmit cultural information and communicate across great distances through low frequency sounds (Moss and Shettleworth, eds, 1996; Payne, 1998). Studies with dolphins have demonstrated that they can communicate in syntax using printed symbols and gestures (Herman, et al., 1993; Morrel-Samuels and Herman, 1993) and form complex societies (Pryor and Norris, 1991).

Beginning in the early 1970's John K.B. Ford of the Univ. of British Columbia has been listening in on communities of orcas. After almost ten years he discovered that each community uses its own extensive and complex vocabulary of calls, and that each call is a discrete, recognizable sound, ranging from multi-note whistles, to honks, chirps, bleats, trills and ratchety sounds. These are not just a few calls among a background of moos and grunts. Virtually every sound seems to be a recognizable call. Hundreds of different calls are made by each community, and if you listen long enough, you'll likely hear each one again sooner or later, perhaps with a little different inflection or coming from a different voice. Orcas broadcast at about the volume of a fire engine siren, and sound travels five times faster and further through the water than in air, so it isn't difficult to eavesdrop on their conversations.

Orca communities are made up of separate pods, and Ford found that each pod has developed a few calls that the other pods don't use. The Northern community is also divided into three "clans," with several pods in each clan. Clans are defined linguistically; that is, most of their calls are unique to each clan. The Southern community is considered all one clan on the basis of the similarity of the three pods' calls.

There are two other known orca communities that inhabit the waters around Vancouver Island, called Transients and Offshores. None of the members of any of the four communities mingles with any of the other communities, and each community uses a totally distinct vocabulary of calls. Other communities around the world have now been recorded and each also uses its own set of calls, and has none in common with any other community. The call systems are not believed to change much over time.

This means that orcas communicate and determine their behavior by using highly complex symbolic call systems. These findings have been replicated by many researchers since Ford began his pioneering work.

These communication systems have been found to be retained in the memories of captive orcas regardless of length of time in captivity, indicating the ability to effectively communicate even after a long absence (J. Ford, pers. comm.). Lolita has been recorded in recent years making calls that are the same as the calls made by her family—the calls Lolita learned in the six years before she was captured.

According to Dr. Hal Whitehead (submitted manuscript): Keiko also expresses himself in distinct calls, although Keiko was only two years old at the time of his capture. According to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation web site:

Lolita could be connected electronically to her family at any time by long distance telephone transmission, simply by placing a speaker and a hydrophone in her tank and in the water within a few miles of her family. The resulting conversation could confirm that she is still able to communicate with her family. Beginning in 1987 a series of proposals have been presented to the management of the Seaquarium to conduct similar experiments to confirm that Lolita still vocalizes using her native calls, but the park has consistently rejected the idea.

After Lolita is placed in a sea pen in a protected cove in her native waters, within weeks or months her family would inevitably swim by in their normal travels, communicating vocally among themselves as they typically do. Lolita would presumably hear them and would respond, to which they would probably respond. It is assumed that they would approach her and meet her from the other side of the net, which would be a clear indication of mutual recognition. The reunion to follow would be one of the best documented greetings in history, possibly second only to Keiko's.

Mutual recognition is expected. The logic is compelling. Each community has a set of calls, which are symbols that it uses to coordinate behavior and maintain social relationships. Recordings of Lolita show that she still retains the memory and the use of those symbols, although she is, in a sense, talking to herself. It's as if she still knows the secret handshake and initiation rituals. These calls will inevitably be of interest to her family. The event will probably be unprecedented in the collective memories of Lolita's family, but among Transient orcas which share the same waters, adolescent females have been known to depart from the maternal group for several years, then return and rejoin them.

The principle of parsimony is that the simplest and most obvious explanation, or prediction, is probably the correct one, at least until further information is available. The best guess is that her family's renewed relationship with the long lost Lolita will be re-established by vocal communication, and will be maintained and deepened after the initial encounter. What will happen in the initial encounter remains to be seen, but it probably will be seen when Keiko meets up with his family off the coast of Iceland, possibly as early as the fall of this year. The world's major nature documentary filmmakers will make sure we are all able to share in that moment.

  1. Introduction
  2. Survival rates in captivity
  3. Precedents
  4. Disease issues
  5. Foraging ability
  6. Social systems and bonds
  7. Communication
  8. Consciousness and memory
  9. Emotions
  10. Conclusions
  11. Recommendations
  12. Bibliography