Life expectancy of orcas in captivity

© Stefan Jacobs, Center for Whale Research


picture of Corky 2 provided by Terry Hardie

A point often leading to heated discussions when it comes to the pros and cons of orcas in captivity is whether the animals have a chance to live as long as in their natural environment.

Researchers have determined an average life exptectancy for wild killer whales of about 30 years for males and 50 years for females. Some individuals even double these averages. Despite those facts, which are commonly accepted within the scientific community, marine park officials still declare publicly that orcas donít live much longer than 20 years.

Of the 159 captive killer whales that have died, almost 2/3 didnít make it beyond 10 years in captivity. Just 30 orcas survived more than 20 years in captivity. Average time in captivity has improved steadily over the decades, but is still very low.

Do orcas in captivity have a chance to reach the same age as their free counterparts? Here are the numbers as of May 1, 2014:

average time in captivity for all whales in captivity (deceased and alive, n = 212):

8 years, 6 months

average time in captivity for all whales deceased in captivity (n = 159):

6 years, 5 months

average time in captivity for all whales currently alive in captivity (n = 53):

14 years, 6 months

average time in captivity for all whales captured or born between 1964 and 1973 (n = 54):

6 years, 10 months

average time in captivity for all whales captured or born between 1974 and 1983 (n = 58):

10 years, 1 month

average time in captivity for all whales captured or born between 1984 and 1993 (n = 40):

13 years

average time in captivity for all whales captured or born between 1994 and 2003 (n = 29):

8 years, 8 months

average time in captivity for all whales captured or born since 2004 (n = 31):

3 years

average time in captivity for all whales deceased between 1964 and 1973 (n = 28):

1 year, 2 months

average time in captivity for all whales deceased between 1974 and 1983 (n = 47):

3 years, 9 months

average time in captivity for all whales deceased between 1984 and 1993 (n = 29):

7 years. 1 month

average time in captivity for all whales deceased between 1994 and 2003 (n = 29):

10 years. 1 month

average time in captivity for all whales deceased since 2004 (n = 26):

12 years, 10 months

average time in captivity for all captive born whales (n = 67):

8 years, 2 months

average time in captivity for all whales caught in the wild (n = 145):

8 years, 9 months

CONCLUSIONS:

Within in the initial years of killer whales in captivity there was substantial improvement in keeping the animals alive, but in average orcas in captivity are still far away from reaching their natural life expectancies. This is quite astonishing if you consider the amount of medical treatment and observation put into those animals. It is difficult to prove but the quality of life might be the deciding factor in this puzzle.

REFERENCES:

Ford, John K.B., Ellis, Graeme M., Balcomb, Kenneth C. 2000.Killer Whales. UBC Press, 104 pp.

Hoyt, Erich 1984. Orca - The Whale Called Killer. E.P. Dutton, New York, 226 pp.

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