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#MigrationNation: Captivity and the Southern Residents – Those Who Remain


Once upon a time, orcas roamed the waters of the North Pacific widely and freely.  They were known to the Native people of the area, who recognized them as powerful beings, formidable hunters, and as a fellow community of the Northwest.   The strong family bonds that existed in orca society were observed and noted by the coastal First Nations, and orcas came to symbolize compassion and family to many tribes.  As time went on, the Native people were not the only ones to be fascinated by these striking whales.  The obsession of one man, Ted Griffin, who grew up watching the whales in Puget Sound, started the craze for orcas in marine parks. 

The live capture and display of orcas began in the 1960s, and the iconic orcas of the Pacific Northwest were the first to be hunted and sold to marine parks.  Resident orcas were heavily targeted due to their coastal range and close social bonds – the orca hunters had easier access to them and were able to catch large groups at a time.  The infamous Penn Cove capture in August of 1970 rounded up and trapped 80 Southern Resident orcas, including Tokitae (also known as Lolita, held at the Miami Seaquarium), the only one who is still alive in captivity.  Northern Residents, with their more remote habitat, also suffered losses, but approximately 40% of the Southern Resident population was sold to marine parks or died in the capture process in just a decade.  From a pre-capture estimate of about 120 individuals, the Southern Residents were reduced to 70 in the population in the first official census, conducted by the Center for Whale Research in 1976.  Some of the most famous captive orcas of the era were Southern Residents, captured during these cruel and relentless pursuits. 

At that time, little was known about the orcas of the Pacific Northwest, the different communities and ecotypes, and their different cultures and habits.  What was considered to be a “plentiful supply” of whales proved to actually be several distinct types and populations of orcas who were highly vulnerable to exploitation.  The drastic removal of individuals from the Southern Resident community essentially removed an entire generation of whales from the population, and they were subsequently declared endangered in 2005.  Live captures not only impacted those individuals caught and selected for a life in captivity, but also their families left behind.  These highly social whales live in family groups led by the elder females, and sons and daughters rarely leave their mothers’ side.  The disruption of these groups by the live captures and by removing individuals undoubtedly had an effect on those who weren’t captured.  Sadly, we don’t have the information from before the captures began to know exactly how things changed.

Granny, the “oldest living orca,”  survived the captures, but how many of her family members did not?  Two of her pod became the most famous orcas in the world – one of the first known orcas to be captured and displayed, and the very first Shamu.  Granny is still the leader of the whole community today.  Ocean Sun, the likely mother of Tokitae (aka “Lolita”), still travels with L pod down the coast, looking for salmon from the major west coast rivers and perhaps still mourning the loss of her daughter more than 46 years ago.  We hope that someday they will meet again.


The captivity industry may have driven the Southern Residents to their endangered status, but new threats are what keep them there.  Around the same time live captures were impacting the orcas in the ocean, dams were being built on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington State.  In the middle of the “big dam era,” these four dams cut off the largest tributary of the largest west coast river, and salmon populations, already reduced from overfishing and destruction of their river habitat, plummeted.  The four Lower Snake River dams blocked access to high elevation, snowpack-fed, pristine and protected spawning ground in the Snake River drainage.  Today, despite fish ladders, increased downstream spill, and intensive efforts to move juvenile salmon downriver, wild stocks are still declining.  We’ll talk more about salmon in upcoming #MigrationNation posts, so keep reading!

The Southern Resident orcas depend on these fish in the winter months, when they are ranging the outer coast of Washington, Oregon, and California and visiting river mouths to forage on the returning runs of salmon.  Before the era of live captures, and before dams cut off their food supply, Granny and Ocean Sun swam freely in waters with plentiful Chinook salmon.  They probably still remember the family members who were abruptly lost, taken from their mothers’ sides by people with boats and planes and harpoons.  And they remember the powerful, huge, fat King salmon gathering at the mouths of rivers before starting their epic final migration upstream.

We now have a chance, a once-in-a-generation opportunity, to make a huge move for salmon restoration in the Pacific Northwest.  Federal agencies are asking for your comments on the operation of dams in the Columbia River Basin, and we must make our voices heard to remove the four Lower Snake River dams.  Restoring the Snake River is the best thing we can do for endangered salmon populations in the Columbia Basin, and we need to make sure the agencies are aware of the needs of Southern Resident orcas, and the far-reaching ecosystem impact that dam removal would have.

Please join our #MigrationNation and demand the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams, and remind the Federal Agencies that so many beings besides ourselves depend on healthy rivers and salmon – the Southern Residents are in desperate need of abundant, healthy stocks of wild Chinook salmon.  Tell your Federal Agencies: Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed.

Take Action, and then tell your friends! Already signed? Share your action on social media.  Spread the news that we have a new chance to save these two imperiled populations and icons of the Pacific Northwest – salmon and the Southern Resident orcas.  Share, post, or tweet:

Captivity put Southern Resident orcas on the Endangered Species List; lack of salmon keeps them there.  Whales.org/dam #freethesnake #MigrationNation

Don’t let orcas be dammed! Unite the #MigrationNation to save orcas and salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Whales.org/dam #FreetheSnake

Are you part of the #MigrationNation? Healthy rivers help salmon, orcas, and people too! Don’t let orcas be dammed. #freetheSnake Whales.org/dam

For more on the history of orca captures in the Pacific Northwest, check out “Puget Sound Whales for Sale” by Sandra Pollard and “Orca: the Whale Called Killer” by WDC’s Erich Hoyt.