In October 2018, a news story broke of a ‘Whale jail’ in the Far East of Russia. The media threw the spotlight on 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales held captive in small cramped enclosures at Srednyaya Bay close to Nakhodka.
A Brief History of Whaling
It’s an incredibly sad fact that whaling is a huge business. Whaling (the capture of whales) has been conducted for thousands of years. Some evidence suggests our ancestors were hunting whales as far back as 8,000 years ago. Boats would scare the whale into the shallow shores where hunters would kill the animals.
The entire animal would be used – the meat, skin, organs and blubber were consumed. The bones were used to make tools or in construction.
As humans developed tools so too did whaling techniques develop. Harpoons were thrown into the whale. A large
During the industrial revolution, whale meat and blubber was used as oil and as a result, whaling increased. Whalebone or
As early as the 17th century, whaling ships were factory ships. Meaning the whale was caught, dragged onto the boat and the meat was processed on the ship. This meant that more whales could be caught in a single expedition and whalers could spend more time out at sea.
During the 19th century, speedy harpoon vessels were developed and used to make whaling much easier for the whalers.
In modern times, whaling remains a lucrative business.
How Much is a Whale Worth?
The obvious and only answer to the question ought to be priceless. An animal’s life should not have a value placed upon it.
However, the cold hard fact remains that whales do sell and for a huge profit. Whale meat remains a delicacy in Japan, Norway and Iceland.
In Japan, a superior cut of whale meat costs around £16.00 – compared to a cut of beef costing approximately £11.00.
A whole small minke whale can fetch over $100,000. The larger whales, such as orcas (primarily sold to entertainment parks) can sell for over $2 million dollars.
Why does Whaling Still Happen today?
Commercial whaling was officially banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. However, Japan, Norway and Iceland refuse to cease whaling activities. Japan claims that their whaling activities are for the purposes of ‘scientific research’ – (an internationally accepted lie and a cover for their commercial whaling activities) and are thus not commercial. The Japanese then sell the whale meat on the market.
Norway objected to the ban from the International Whaling Committee and are therefore not bound by the ban. The Norwegian government set their own quotas each year for the maximum number of whales permitted to be caught. The whale meat is consumed in Norway or exported to Japan.
Like Norway, Iceland continues to hunt claiming the meat is popular with tourists and thus there is a demand. However, the Icelandic government has come under increasing scrutiny while activists point out that whale watching rather than whale eating is more popular with tourists.
So, Why were the Whales in Russia Captured?
The Russian government permits the capture of whales for scientific research. However, Greenpeace believes the whales had been destined to be sold in China into one of the country’s 44 ocean theme parks. The popularity of these ocean theme parks in China has increased in recent years thus increasing the demand for whales.
Orcas and Beluga whales
Following the release of the American documentary film, Blackfish in 2013, Seaworld came under severe scrutiny for its treatment of its resident whales. (Seaworld currently holds 20 orcas).
Seaworld saw a drop in visitors following the release of the film which served to highlight to extent of the problem. In 2016, Seaworld ended its orca breeding programme. However, as yet, the company have not indicated that they intend to release the whales back into the wild.
As the spotlight was thrown onto the cruel practice of keeping and breeding orcas in the West, The Chimelong Group in China announced it would begin its own orca breeding programme. The Chimelong Group are China’s largest amusement park company. They recently purchased 9 orcas which had been captured in the Russian seas and have transported them to the ‘Ocean Kingdom’ theme park to establish their orca breeding programme.
Captivity and Behavioural Problems in Orcas
Orcas kept in an unnatural environment can develop aggressive behaviours.
A total of 63 incidents of aggression towards humans have been recorded of orcas in captivity. 4 fatal and 12 in which the person was severely injured. Compared with 6 (all non-fatal) encounters in the wild.
These unnatural behaviours were exemplified in the film ‘Blackfish’ with the death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. An orca named Tilikum dragged the trainer down to the bottom of its enclosure to her death. In 1991, Tilikum and another 2 orcas drowned another trainer and in 1999, Tilikum was responsible or the drowning of a man who broke into the park at night.
In the wild, Orcas do not eat humans nor do they naturally act aggressively towards people. Like all whales, orcas are friendly, sociable and curious creatures and encounters with humans are for the most part playful and sociable interactions.
However, there are reported incidents involving humans and orcas which would suggest the orcas had mistaken these people for their prefered prey – seals. For instance, in 1972 a surfer was bitten by an orca, he required 100 stitches on his injured leg. This is the only recorded incident of an orca biting a human I was able to find.
In 2017, a group of surfers experienced orcas charging at them in an aggressive manner. One orca came with a metre of a man before changing its course. Experts believe the orcas mistook the surfers for seals and then changed their direction once they realised their mistake.
Just to re-iterate, orcas do not act aggressively towards humans in the wild, in their natural habitat. However, orcas held in tiny metallic enclosures, filled with chlorine which irritates their skin and eyes. Forced to perform tricks for food, removed from their families, unable to hunt or exist in any natural way, can sometimes be aggressive. Is that surprising?
What You Should Know About Orcas in Captivity
- There are currently 70 orcas in captivity – 37 had been captured from the wild and 33 born in captivity.
- Over 156 orcas have been captured from the wild since 1961.
- 129 of these orcas have died in captivity.
- Over 44 orcas have died at Seaworld.
- In the wild, the average orca can expect to live for around 30-50 years. Some even go on to reach the age of 100 or more. In captivity, the average lifespan of an orca is 14 years of age.
- Annual mortality rates for orcas are 2-3 times higher in captivity than in the wild.
- Tanks at SeaWorld contain approximately 0.0001
percentof the quantity of water the orcas would traverse in a single day in the wild.
- As a training technique, food is withheld from orcas.
- Orcas become bored in their tanks and sometimes chew on the gates which damages their teeth.
- The collapsed dorsal fin is a characteristic of almost all orcas kept in captivity. Swimming long distances
keepsthe fin vertical. Seaworld claims that the collapsed dorsal fin is common in the wild, however, it is thought to affect only 1% of wild orcas and tindicative of health problems.
- In the wild, orcas travel in pods or families with perhaps as many as 40 other orcas. In the wild, they are kept in enclosures with other orcas who are not usually family members. This puts stress on these animals and
causestensions between them.
- Aggression between orcas in captivity is common – as they’re from separate pods, the orcas don’t share a language or culture. Once an orca establishes its dominance, the subservient orca cannot swim away as they would in the wild. Thus they must endure aggression from the dominant animal which can result in death.
Who is helping the Whales?
There are a number of organisations around the world who campaign to bring an end to whaling and the captivity of whales. Sea Shepherd is an international non-profit organisation who actively try to stop whalers in the oceans.
Led by the leader of the organisation, Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd volunteers have sabotaged the Japanese whaling activities in Antarctic waters for over a decade. Between 2002 and 2017, the organisation has prevented the deaths of over 6,000 whales.
A dedicated site has been established to promote the plight of the Russian whales: Free Russian Whales. Not only have they set up a petition calling for the release of the orca and beluga whales, but they have also called for an ‘online flash mob’ to highlight the cause.
To take part in this online flash mob, share the image below on your social media and use the hashtages:
#FreeRussianWhales #LetTheWhalesGo #FreeOrcasAndBelugas #СвободуКосаткам #СвободуБелухам
What is the Fate of the Whales in the ‘Whale Jail?’
The Russian whale jail has attracted the attention of international media. Leonardo Di Caprio asked people to sign a petition to secure the release of the whales. The petition can be signed here. Pamela Anderson (a long time animal rights activist and an ambassador for Sea Shepherd) also drew attention to the problem.
Some of the whales have received injuries, undoubtedly due to the floating blocks of ice in the enclosures which formed during the winter. Orcas and beluga whales are accustomed to cold temperatures, however, they retain body heat by swimming tens of miles daily.
French marine expert Jean-Michel Cousteau visited the prison and entered talks with the Russian authorities in an effort to secure the release of these animals. The Russian government have been co-operative and seek to assist in the release of the whales and the prosecution of the company involved.
Releasing the whales is not without its problems. It is a dangerous task and requires careful planning. And so, the whales are to be released but in the safest way possible – plans to release the whales are ongoing.
Once the Russian whales have been released, the fight for whales continues and sadly will undoubtedly continue for some time.