Two orcas die at Russian facility after being captured for entertainment

The Moscow aquarium that housed them has conceded capturing wild orcas should now be banned.

Orcas have been nudging and sinking boats off the European coast, so if you’ve been wondering why these highly-intelligent marine mammals might have reason to hate us, look no further than the situation that transpired at a Russian aquarium last week.

Moscow's Moskvarium has 80 fish tanks with over 12,000 marine mammals including beluga whales, dolphins and until recently three orcas.

On Friday, the facility reported Nord had died — he was a 16-year-old male orca captured from the wild in 2013. This was its second orca death this year, with Narnia dying in January at age 17. In the wild, the animals can live for between 30 and 90 years.

A trainer in a red jumper with Nord the orca at a Moskvarium tank.
A photo from 2017 shows Nord in captivity during a dolphin show at Moskvarium. Source: Oxana Fedorova

Of course, there is no actual link between the wild orca attacks on boats and the captive deaths, but given our history of subjugating their species, you couldn't blame them for taking revenge.

'Heartbreaking' look at orca captivity in Moscow

Marine mammal campaigner Oxana Fedorova petitioned against Moskvarium's capture of the three orcas and later visited them in 2017, taking a series of photos of their condition. She watched as the once wild animals were forced to perform jumps, tricks, and slide out of the water onto platforms.

“It was heartbreaking. They should not have been captured for entertainment,” she told Yahoo News Australia. “We tried to find a way to get these animals back into the wild. Less than 10 years later they are gone."

A number of captive dolphins performing in a show with trainers at Moskvarium. There is a big moonscape behind them.
A number of captive dolphins remain at Moskvarium where they perform shows. Source: Moskvarium

Moskvarium revealed Nord died of an acute peptic ulcer while Narnia succumbed to acute intestinal volvulus. "Despite the high level of competence of the centre's experts... it is extremely difficult to approximate the artificial conditions for keeping large marine mammals to natural," it said in a statement.

The aquarium said Nord's death confirms its new position that there should be a “complete ban on catching marine mammals for educational and cultural purposes”.

Orcas never saw the sun during Russian captivity

Internationally renowned orca expert Dr Ingrid Visser spoke to Yahoo from Europe after Nord’s death, saying she was “struck” by the conditions Nord and his companions Narnia and Naya were held in.

“All the marine mammals there were kept indoors all the time. They never see the sun, which must be torture for all these wild-captured individuals," she said.

Dr Visser hopes Naya, the surviving orca, will now be rehoused into a sanctuary. “Due to her captivity, her teeth are now in very poor condition so it is unlikely that she could be returned to the wild.”

She said those who captured the orca, confined them, and bought tickets to see them should feel “shame”. “What they have done to these magnificent orca is disgraceful and unethical. It should be illegal around the world,” she said.

Concern for other mammals held in captivity

Moskvarium opened to great fanfare in 2015, with visits from president Vladimir Putin, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and billionaire investor God Nisanov.

Despite the two orca deaths in 2023 and ongoing concerns about animal welfare, the facility continues to advertise shows that use captured wild marine mammals. It also exhibits dolphins alleged to have been sourced from the bloody hunts in Taiji, Japan.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and God Nisanov looking at a tank at Moskvarium.
Russian president Vladimir Putin visited the Moskvarium in 2015 with its billionaire investor God Nisanov. Source: Getty

Hope for solitary captive orca in Florida

It's not just Russia where orcas continue to be held in captivity — they're also kept in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Confinement of these highly intelligent wild animals is believed to contribute to significant physical and mental ailments.

Attacks on humans by wild orcas have been historically rare, and no fatalities have been recorded, but confined animals are known to sometimes target their trainers and each other. The documentary Blackfish chronicled the story of Tilikum, a large male who was captured in Iceland in 1983 and forced to perform tricks in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando. He is believed to have been involved in the deaths of three humans. He died in 2017.

Since Kiska, “the world’s loneliest orca”, died on March 9 after 12 years alone in captivity at Canada’s MarineLand, there have been growing calls to end orca captivity.

On March 30, Miami Seaquarium was acquired by new owners who committed to a binding agreement to relocate its solitary orca Lolita to an ocean sanctuary in the next 18 to 24 months. She was captured in waters off Washington in 1970 and forced to perform in front of tourists for decades.

“We are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever,” its CEO Eduardo Arbor said.

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