Conservation & Research

Killer Whales

Conservation & Research


  1. Killer whales have never been consistently exploited on a large-scale basis. They have been hunted on a small scale for their meat, hides, blubber, and internal organs (which are processed into fertilizer and used as bait).
    • Before 1981, nearly 6,000 killer whales were taken by Japanese, Norwegian, and Soviet whalers.
    • Small numbers of killer whales are legally subsistence-hunted by certain indigenous arctic tribes.

Views from the Past

  1. Humans have long been fascinated by killer whales, but until recently very little was known about their lives at sea. Killer whales are animals shrouded in myth, and many times this misinformation has led to the destruction of these whales.
  2. The image of a killer whale was found on cave drawings in northern Norway, and it is estimated to be some 9,000 years old.
  3. Tribes native to the Pacific Northwest
    incorporate killer whales into art and myth.

  4. A few cultures respected killer whales, yet much of the ancient world did not. During the first century A.D., a Roman scholar named Pliny the Elder wrote that killer whales "cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth".
  5. In 1835, R. Hamilton wrote that the killer whale "...has the character of being exceedingly voracious and warlike. It devours an immense number of fishes of all sizes...when pressed by hunger, it is said to throw itself on every thing it meets with...".
  6. Many in modern civilization still envisioned killer whales as terrifying threats to humans, with a 1973 United States Navy diving manual warning that killer whales "will attack human beings at every opportunity".

Confrontations with Fishermen

  1. In some areas, killer whales feed in connection with fishing operations, “stealing” fish from the fishermen. They eat fish from commercial longlines in New Zealand, Alaska, and Brazil. In Brazil, observers reported that more than 50% of the daily swordfish catch may be eaten by killer whales, and that occasionally the whales eat the entire catch.
  2. In the past, confrontations between humans and killer whales led angry fishermen to demand the destruction of these cetaceans. In 1958, the government of Japan sanctioned the use of 50-caliber guns to be used against killer whales. An average of 60 killer whales were caught annually off the waters of Japan, with the meat being sold in local markets while the blubber was boiled for its valuable oil. Sometimes their thick hides were made into soles of shoes.
  3. Governments, such as the United States, were inclined to side with the fishing communities. One such example of this historic, bitter conflict can be found in the following 1956 article prepared by the United States Navy:

    December, 1956, pg. 19

    Killer Whales Destroyed
    VP-7 Accomplishes Special Task

    Adm. Jerauld Wright, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, has announced the completion of another successful mission by VP-7 against killer whales off the coast of Iceland.

    Killer whales annually plague Icelandic fishermen by damaging and destroying thousands of dollars worth of fishing nets. Last year, VP-18 destroyed hundreds of killer whales with machine guns, rockets and depth charges. Before the Navy lent a hand last year, killer whales threatened to cut the Icelandic fish catch in half. This created a crisis because the fishing industry employs about 20% of the population and accounts for the majority of Iceland's foreign currency income.

    The Icelandic Office requested help, and Capt. Sherrill, Commander of the Naval Forces in Iceland, assigned VP-7 to the task of ridding the coastal areas of killer whales. Ranging from 20 to 30 feet in length, they are feared as one of the deadliest of ocean animals.

  4. Some fishermen blame the destruction of millions of dollars of equipment and fish loss on killer whales, and on rare occasions some have taken to shooting killer whales. Recently, researchers have attempted to develop non-lethal killer whale deterrents, including acoustic harassment devices, electric currents, sparker devices (emits a flash of light to startle whales), rubber bullets, bubble screens, chemicals such as lithium chloride ether (to induce nausea), and reducing the sounds caused by the fishing operations. None of these deterrents have been very effective.
  5. The International Whaling Commission (IWC).
    • In 1946, 14 countries signed the International Whaling Convention for the regulation of whaling, forming the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The goal of the IWC is to manage whale stocks as a resource.
    • The IWC monitors whale populations through scientific advisory groups and coordinates and funds a variety of whale research.
    • In 1986, the IWC declared a moratorium on commercial whaling. The moratorium - which is still in effect - allows for the possibility of regulated commercial whaling in the future.
    • Traditionally the IWC’s focus has been on whales that have been harvested in large numbers, such as the baleen whales and the sperm whale. While the IWC does not manage populations of small whales such as dolphins, the IWC Scientific Committee studies various populations of small whales and provides advice on them.
    • The IWC Scientific Committee has identified the incidental capture of whales and dolphins in fishing gear as one of the most important threats to their populations.
    • International Whaling Commission


  1. Both natural toxins and human-made toxins can harm killer whales.
  2. Chemicals that are used on land enter waterways through runoff and eventually end up in the oceans as pollution.
    • Industrial pollutants are introduced to the marine environment through mining operations, agriculture, pulp mills, and other coastal industrial development.
    • Household and garden pesticides can enter waterways through sewers and storm drains.
  3. Some pollutants enter the ocean food chain and become concentrated in the bodies of killer whales and other marine predators.
    • Some of these pollutants (which may not be harmful in small quantities) are stored in an animal’s body tissues after they are ingested. Prey animals that contain such toxins in their bodies pass the toxins on to animals higher in the food chain. Pollutants can become concentrated and reach dangerous levels in the bodies of large predators such as killer whales.
    • Organochlorines are a group of environmental pollutants that include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). When ingested, PCBs aren’t metabolized or eliminated. These fat-soluble molecules accumulate in fats, such as blubber.
    • Scientists analyzed blubber biopsy samples from killer whales of the eastern North Pacific Ocean.
      • Experts haven’t yet defined a “toxic threshold” of PCBs for killer whales, but they do know at what concentrations these pollutants adversely affect harbor seals. PCB concentrations in most of the killer whale blubber samples surpassed these dangerous levels.
      • PCB concentration increases with age in male killer whales and in sexually immature females. On the other hand, reproductively active female killer whales showed lower PCB levels than did adult males or sexually immature females. A mother killer whale transfers PCBs to her calf as the calf develops and also through fat-rich milk as the calf nurses.
      • Transient whales were more contaminated than resident whales, probably due to differences in diet. Marine mammals (the preferred prey of transient killer whales) have higher PCB levels than do fish (which make up the diet of resident whales).
  4. The possibility of oil spills is a threat to killer whale populations.

Whale Watching

  1. Whale watching expeditions bring people close to wild whales and help people learn about them.
  2. Tours to watch whales in the wild are increasing in popularity around the world.

  3. The steady growth of recreational whale watching has raised some concerns with killer whale researchers. Higher concentrations and closer proximity of boats can force whales away from their traditional habitats.
  4. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries has developed "Marine wildlife viewing guidelines” to protect marine animals. Among other recommendations, the guidelines instruct whale watchers to keep their distance. Impeding the whales' right of way is not allowed. Chasing, harassing, touching, and feeding animals also are prohibited.

IUCN / The World Conservation Union

  1. IUCN/The World Conservation Union is a worldwide conservation organization. It links together government agencies, non-government agencies, and independent states to encourage a worldwide approach to conservation.
  2. The IUCN Red List is a system for assessing an animal's relative risk of extinction. Its goal is to categorize and raise global awareness of species that face a high risk of extinction. The killer whale is categorized as "Data Deficient.” Species are placed in this category when there is insufficient information to make a direct, or indirect, risk assessment based on the specie's distribution and/or population status.

Legal Protection

  1. The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 made it illegal to hunt or harass marine mammals in the U.S.
    • The primary objective of the MMPA is to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem and to obtain and maintain an optimum sustainable population of marine mammals.
    • According to the MMPA, all whales in U.S. waters (baleen and toothed) are under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
    • The MMPA does allow for certain exceptions: native subsistence hunting; taking marine mammals for research, education, and public display; and taking restricted numbers of marine mammals incidentally in the course of fishing operations.
  2. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) conserves endangered species and their ecosystems. A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction.
    • As defined in the ESA, a protected “species” may be a species, a subspecies, or a distinct population segment (DPS).
    • In 2005, the Southern Resident killer whales of the eastern Pacific Ocean were listed as an endangered DPS under the ESA. The population declined 20% in the 1990s and currently stands at 89 whales. This DPS faces risks including vessel traffic, toxic chemicals and competition for food, especially salmon. The small DPS is susceptible to potential catastrophic risks, such as disease or oil spills.
    • NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) share responsibility for implementing the ESA.
  3. The Convention in International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty developed in 1973 to regulate trade in certain wildlife species. Killer whales are listed under CITES Appendix II: species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.
  4. Convention on International Trade of Endangered
    Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)


  1. The non-profit SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund(SWBGCF) works on behalf of wildlife and habitats worldwide. The goal of the SWBGCF is to encourage sustainable solutions by supporting critical conservation initiatives worldwide.
    • The SWBGCF conducts grant awards each year. Selected projects are science-based, solution-driven and community-oriented - attributes needed to achieve effective and long-term conservation success. Groups working on killer whale conservation projects are invited to apply for a SWBGCF grant. Projects are carefully selected by a diverse mix of wildlife experts, scientists, business leaders and educators.
    • The SWBGCF accepts donations to support conservation projects in the U.S. and around the world. 100% of donations go directly to selected projects.
  2. Scientists all over the world continue to study the abundance, biology, reproduction, migration, and behavior of killer whales.
  3. The question of animal intelligence is intriguing. It is extremely difficult, and in many cases misleading, to rate the intelligence of different kinds of animals. In fact, we have yet to provide a reliable and consistent intelligence test for humans. It would be inaccurate to quantify or qualify the intelligence of marine mammals, for there is no way known to test and measure such a thing.
    • The brain of one large male killer whale weighed 7.2 kg (15.8 lb.), a weight significantly larger than the 2.2 kg (5 lb.) brain of a human. But again, it would be a mistake to judge an animal's intelligence on the size of its brain.
    • What we do know is that dolphins and whales are capable of performing some very complex tasks. Genetically, marine mammals are predisposed to responding more efficiently to stimuli found in aquatic environments. They learn different tasks at different rates and there is great variation among individual animals of the same species.
    • Researchers continue to gather information on short- and long-term memory in whales and dolphins, but much about an animal's ability to learn continues to be a mystery.

Marine Zoological Parks

  1. SeaWorld trainers and veterinarians perform regular health exams on the killer whales to monitor and maintain their health.
  2. Every two to four weeks trainers take body measurements on each whale, including
    body length; girth at several points; and dimensions of the flippers, flukes, and dorsal fin.

    Killer whales are trained to present their
    tail flukes for blood samples to be taken.

    Killer whales are trained to hold still and remain calm throughout
    procedures such as obtaining sonogram data.

    Several times a day, a killer whale at SeaWorld can have
    its teeth cleaned and flushed with a water pic.

  3. In the protected environment of a marine zoological park, scientists can examine aspects of killer whale biology that are different or impossible to study in the wild.
  4. The unique opportunity to observe and learn directly from live animals increases public awareness and appreciation of wildlife.
    • Most people do not have the opportunity to observe killer whales in the wild. At SeaWorld parks, people experience marine wildlife in a personal way that isn’t possible through books, television, film or the Internet.
    • More than 280 million people have visited SeaWorld since the first park opened in 1964, and these visits have played a role in developing a sense of respect for wildlife, especially killer whales.
    • Most people do not have the chance to observe killer whales in the wild.
      The unique opportunity to observe and learn from live animals
      increases public awareness and appreciation of wildlife.