Orcas are clever, social dolphins that prowl huge habitats. Captivity can alter their bodies and behavior, as seen in the 2013 film "Blackfish." Yet SeaWorld supporters say captivity also helps orcas, raising their profile by giving people a chance to see them up close.
That may be true, but as two new videos illustrate, marine parks aren't the only places where humans can connect with orcas. A performance by wild, free orcas is often less convenient and reliable than a show at SeaWorld, but that rarity, spontaneity and authenticity also makes it more exciting. And while you might spend more idle time in a boat or on a beach, waiting in nature isn't a bad substitute for theme-park lines.
One of the videos, filmed from above with a GoPro camera and a quadcopter, shows two orcas playing with a group of kayakers in Norway. It should be noted orcas' alternate name of "killer whales" is apt, and it's not necessarily safe to swim with them or get close in small boats. It also should be noted, however, that despite several tragic killings of people by captive orcas, there's no record of such attacks in the wild. Given the calm demeanor of these apparently curious orcas, it's unlikely the kayakers were in any danger.
If serenely mingling with wild orcas isn't exciting enough, the tourists in this next video enjoyed a more action-packed performance during a recent dinner cruise in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. And as you can hear in the background, they sound at least as entertained as anyone splashed by captive orcas in a choreographed show at SeaWorld:
Of course, while the orcas in these videos are free, the experience of seeing them rarely is. The cost varies widely based on where you see them and how you get there, but it often involves traveling to an area frequented by orcas and then paying for an organized whale-watching tour (or possibly renting kayaks). Depending on the details, though, an encounter with killer whales in the wild can be comparable to a SeaWorld vacation.
According to journalist David Kirby, author of the 2012 book "Death at SeaWorld," a Chicago family of four could spend similar amounts of money traveling similar distances to see wild orcas in Washington state or captive ones at SeaWorld San Diego. While a three-day, two-night trip to SeaWorld would cost them about $735, he calculates, a visit to San Juan Island would be slightly cheaper at $708. And for local families, Kirby says a day trip to SeaWorld or to San Juan Island would cost $311 or $170, respectively.
These numbers can easily vary with location, season, gas prices and other factors, and they may already seem meaningless if you live near a marine park or far from an ocean. But amid the rising tide of public discomfort about keeping killer whales in captivity — fueled partly by recent exposés like "Death at SeaWorld" and "Blackfish" — they at least serve as reminders that SeaWorld doesn't have a monopoly on orca infotainment.
At San Juan Island's Lime Kiln Point State Park, for example, people can watch wild orcas from land and learn about them from the Friends of Lime Kiln Society (FOLKS), a volunteer group that calls the park a "living laboratory" for ecological education and appreciation. "The frequent sightings of our resident pods of orca whales ... can motivate people to change the way they live in deference to these threatened creatures," says a statement on the group's website. "FOLKS believes that Lime Kiln Point State Park is a critical education habitat that must be protected as passionately as the whales themselves."
Wild orcas ply waters all over the planet, so Lime Kiln Point is just one of many options for seeing the animals in their element. They can be found at various points along the western coast of North America at certain times of year, from Baja California to Monterey Bay to Vancouver Island to Alaska. Atlantic orcas also congregate around places ranging from Norway, Iceland and Scotland to Argentina and South Africa.
To learn more about seeing killer whales in the wild, check out these travel tips and the short film below, "The Real Sea World," by the Humane Society of the United States.