Whales for Sale

The shame of Shamu

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

She was swimming the sea even before the Titanic sank in the icy waters of the Atlantic. At 103, Granny—the oldest known member of her species—churns the waters of the North Pacific between Northern California and British Columbia. She is a member of the Southern Resident orca population, formally known as J-2, and her very longevity casts a long shadow over the ethical practice of confining captive members for pleasure and profit.

Granny’s pod is the most studied population of orca whales in the world, with estimates of her age based on studies of the family group that began in the 1970s.

“In her case, when we began the study, there were many whales that already had matured and already had mature babies, so we did not know the exact date of anybody’s birth at that time,” said biologist Ken Balcombe, executive director of the Center for Whale Research based in Friday Harbor. He has been tracking her since 1977.

“We base that age upon her being the probable mother of J-1, who lived to his 60th year and was born around 1951. We believe that he was Granny’s last offspring. These whales, like people, they have a reproductive senescence of about age 40 and she was probably about 40 in 1951, so we put her birth year right around 1911.”

Orcas in captivity live only a fraction of her age, and these intelligent mammals increasingly show disturbing—even deadly—behavior as a result of the stress of their captivity.

The infamous orca captures of the 1960sand ‘70s in Washington and British Columbia ripped dozen of whales away from their natural lives in the sea, author Sandra Pollard details in her new book. Pollard is a marine biologist who lives on Whidbey Island. Her extensively researched book yields a full picture of the events, actions and key individuals from that era.

“The unique personalities of the orcas themselves are revealed as they respond to brutal capture and monotonous circus acts in sterile tanks,” writes Howard Garrett in the forward. Grarrett works with Pollard at the nonprofit Orca Network on Whidbey. The network studies Southern Resident orcas placed on the endangered species list in 2005, their inclusion a small victory for a fragile population of fewer than 100 whales.

Pollard says she wrote the book “to serve not only as a reminder about the precious gift we almost lost, but also as a tribute and memorial to those whales whose lives were stolen from them.”

“Let us not forget,” she writes, “those whales in captivity today that have never known the open ocean or the strong bonds holding their cohesive family units together, or, most of all, the joy of freedom.”

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