Island Science

Orcas: Too Big to Hold

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay, Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

I just got back from the Nantucket Film Festival’s (NFF) showing of “Blackfish”, an excellent and provocative documentary describing in excruciating detail the many issues of keeping Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in captivity. The majority of my marine mammal research colleagues have disapproved of Seaworld type shows for the past two decades. For many years, Seaworld type exhibits were the only way people could learn about some of the most magnificent and complicated creatures on the planet, but the more scientists learned about the negative effects of enclosing animals with large brains (four times larger than a human’s), even larger territories, and intricate social networks in tiny tanks and exhibit spaces, the more they became convinced that the educational gains were not justified. Much of the behavior observed in large and intelligent marine mammals in captivity is not equal to behavior in the wild. You might not know, for instance, that killer whales live much longer in the wild (equivalent to human life spans) or that 60-90% of male killer whales held in captivity exhibit dorsal fin “floppage” versus 1% of the ones in the wild. The dorsal fin is one of the defining traits of killer whales in the wild, it distinguishes them from other large whales and they can grow to a height of six feet in males. The dorsal fin is very straight and is exercised hard in the wild as the whales swim at pretty high speeds (45 kph or 28 mph) and great distances (known to travel often up to 160 km/ 100 mile in a day). In captivity, whales swim much less and often in circles, so their dorsal fin and flukes lose musculature and begin to flop over due to atrophy. It’s probably not painful, but certainly not natural. I can totally see them getting a complex over it (fin comb-over?).

I wrote about the ethics (or lack thereof) of training and exhibiting sentient animals back in 2009 when the excellent and groundbreaking film “The Cove” was feature in NFF. I wrote a long piece that week which can be found here (I know, I am always handing out homework, maybe in another life I was one of those uber strict Catholic nun teachers. ) Fortunately, there are some success stories. According to, the United Kingdom is a “captive dolphin and whale free zone.” Since the early 1990s, there have been no captive dolphins or whales on display in the UK, following the closure of the last remaining facilities. That website has some excellent information on captivity myths and realities and also recognizes the atrocities of dolphin dive hunts.

This year marks the third year of collaboration for the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group (WDC- formerly known as WDCS), Shearwater Excursions ( a local whale watching, eco-tour and education business managed by Blair and Rachael Perkins, and the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program ( We share interns, housing, and resources. In fact, we all got together to see the movie. Each of our organizations in ways large and small educates people about the various types of marine mammals in our waters. The WDC is mainly concerned about right whales as are many conservation/scientific groups in Massachusetts such as the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (another UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station partner).

The WDC interns have a great blog at which shows several of the whales they have been following documenting for many years now. There are perhaps 4-5 agencies on the mainland who do some type of research on humpback and right whales in Massachusetts. The Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program works tirelessly on the behalf of marine mammals, bringing scientists and speakers to the island and they have a new webpage at

Back to the movie, in case you don’t know, the term Blackfish is a common term for First Nation (Native American) people when they refer to killer whales. I did not know killer whales had been seen anywhere in this neck of the woods until Blair Perkins told me of one he saw up in the Gulf of Maine. Closer to home, I have heard that four reputable (well at least when it comes to wildlife sightings) folks out on a bird watching excursion saw the tell-tale straight up dorsal fin of a killer whale a few weeks ago off  Madaket with a recent resighting soon afterwards off Cisco.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are toothed whales that can grow as long as 32 feet (9.8 m) and can weigh as much as 22,000 pounds (10,000 kg)! They are usually closer to 19 to 22 feet long and 8,000 to 12,000 pounds. Killer whales are members of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. Orcinus orca is the only recognized extant species in the genus Orcinus, one of many animal species originally described by Linnaeus in 1758 in Systema Naturae. Konrad Gessner wrote the first scientific description of a killer whale in his “Fish book” of 1558, based on examination of a dead stranded animal in the Bay of Greifswald that had attracted a great deal of local interest.

Killer whales are highly social and often travel in groups of up to 40-50. They have been observed to have different vocalizations in their specific family pods and do not share “languages” between populations, in effect exhibiting what we would call a cultural environment that is matriarchal in nature. They are black on top with white undersides and usually have white patches near their eyes. Males typically live for about 30 years, but can live as long as 50-60 years; females typically live about 50 years, but can live as long as 80-90 years (from Killer whales have been prowling the oceans for millions of years, and their large and complex brains continued to evolve over time. The typically eat marine mammals like seals, other whales (ganging up and trapping or separately large whale calves), and large fish such as tuna. They are amazingly effective hunters and will even eat moose and deer swimming in the ocean. Other hunting tactics include beaching themselves In steeply banked beaches off Península Valdés, Argentina, and the Crozet Islands, to feed on South American sea lions and southern elephant seals in shallow water. They sometimes capture trapped sea lions and seals on ice floes by swamping them in coordinate waves created by swimming in a deadly Ethel Merman swimming extravaganza. They are also known to spy hop, which is when they rise starught out of the water, nose up to see prey. They are the ocean’s top predator (other than humans) and the most widely distributed animal on Earth after humans, they are found in all oceans, even in the tropics. Total population is estimated at 50,000-100,000, perhaps half of them around Antarctica. You can know see why they were trained to do the tricks they do in aquatic shows, many of which although strange for whales, are normal behavior for killer whales. Orcas may in fact, be the most interesting animal on the planet. Many movies and books have been written on the subject. Blackfish include shots from the 1977 Jaws rip off horror movie movie Orca which I remember very very well (and not in a good way).

For your dose of high octane science, according to NOAA, killer whales are rare or uncommon in New England waters but they have been seen on occasion. Our local stock is called the western Atlantic stock. NOAA population estimates for killer whales in the western Atlantic: “Killer whales are characterized as uncommon or rare in waters of the U.S. Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Katona et al. 1988). The 12 killer whale sightings constituted 0.1% of the 11,156 cetacean sightings in the 1978-81 CETAP surveys (CETAP 1982). The same is true for eastern Canadian waters, where the species has been described as relatively uncommon and numerically few (Mitchell and Reeves 1988). Their distribution, however, extends from the Arctic ice-edge to the West Indies. They are normally found in small groups, although 40 animals were reported from the southern Gulf of Maine in September 1979, and 29 animals in Massachusetts Bay in August 1986 (Katona et al. 1988). In the U.S. Atlantic EEZ, while their occurrence is unpredictable, they do occur in fishing areas, perhaps coincident with tuna, in warm seasons (Katona et al. 1988; NMFS unpublished data). In an extensive analysis of historical whaling records, Reeves and Mitchell (1988) plotted the distribution of killer whales in offshore and mid-ocean areas. Their results suggest that the offshore areas need to be considered in present-day distribution, movements, and stock relationships.” This excerpt and attached references can be found at

From an April 2010 news article in the Portland Press Herald (

“Crew members on several New England fishing boats had a rare encounter with a pair of playful orcas five years ago on Wilkinson Basin, about 90 miles south of Portland…..Trawler captain Billy Train of Falmouth photographed a killer whale while fishing off the coast of Massachusetts. Although such sightings are rare, it was the second time for Train, who said he saw two orcas while fishing in 2005. Train photographed a male killer whale as it followed his slow-moving trawler, the Black Beauty, late last week [in April 2010] on Georges Bank, a famed fishing ground 100 miles east of Boston.

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued an advisory Tuesday warning boat crews off the coast of Massachusetts to steer clear of migrating whales moving into the Gulf of Maine. North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales are endangered, and they’re especially vulnerable to collisions with boats because they swim near shore, the groups said.

Killer whales have been seen in the area in past years, including some that were hunting tuna, said Anne Smrcina, spokeswoman for the sanctuary. But such sightings are indeed rare.” In other words, if you see a killer whale here, start making some calls and consider yourself extremely lucky!!

For teachers reading this article who would like an excellent classroom resource, check out WhaleNet which is an interactive educational web site that focuses on whales and marine research. WhaleNet is sponsored by Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts with initial support from the National Science Foundation.

To read more about whales in Nantucket waters, check out some of my older articles. I wrote about right whales (the most endangered ones in our waters) back in 2008 which can be accessed at,. The subject of humpback whales came up in 2011 when a humpback calf stranded itself and died in July near Smith’s Point I have written about both pygmy and dwarf sperm whales and did a generalist survey articles about whales last September (

The most common sightings around Nantucket are humpback whales, which range in length from 35 feet to 55 feet and weigh nearly 37 tons. Also common are finback whales, ranging from 45 feet to 70 feet and weighing 40 tons. Minke, right, and pilot whales are also spotted in Massachusetts waters. On rare occasions, smaller species, including sperm, beluga, sei and blue whales, have recorded. Whales seen within 30 miles of Nantucket on local whale watches or that have washed ashore over the past ten years include finbacks, humpbacks, pygmy sperm, dwarf sperm, minke, and northern right whales.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that the World Wildlife Fund ranks Massachusetts as the 10th best place in the world to whale watch. The best time for whale watching in Massachusetts is from April to October, although whales have been spotted in Bay State waters as early as mid-March and as late as early November. Whales migrate to Massachusetts to feed on mackerel, herring, krill, and other schooling fish that breed in these nutrient-rich waters. As soon as the cold weather settles in, however, whales travel to warmer waters to mate and give birth.

Last but not least, check out the whale photography lecture(s) by the Nantucket Historical Association who is sponsoring a visit by internationally acclaimed underwater diver and photographer Tony Wu on Monday July 8th. More about his work and their lectures can be found at . I think the first one is sold out but there may still be tickets for the second one. This is slightly off topic but I found a photographer in Gloucester who takes whale pictures named Mehmet Oktay Kaya ( For those that might not know, Oktay is a relatively common first name in Turkish for men and last name for families. These are great photos so check them out at

Read more and come to your own conclusions about captive killer whales at Learn about orcas at

Articles by Date from 2012