How the Oldest Killer Whales On Earth Stay Young
August 2, 2016
How would you react if you were told, for the first time, that your species was only expected to walk the Earth for 30 or so years at a time? 50 years? 100 years? You’d probably race to the nearest health food store to pick up some kale and spinach, either to prolong your life or to ensure you make it as far as you should. The oldest killer whales on earth have heard no such predications (mainly because they don’t walk) so they just soldier on as they always have, outliving humans at an alarming rate.
Way back in 1911, over a hundred years ago, a brand new orca calf was born that would live through two world wars, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the invention of Pokemon Go. The matriarchal queen of Victoria’s J-Pod, Granny has been guiding her pod through the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest for years now.
It’s truly remarkable to work in such close proximity to an animal of this age. Orca whales have been the victims of hunting, capture, and pollution all over the world, yet right here in our marine backyard lives the oldest known orca whale on the planet.
So how does she do it?
The Wild Secrets of Earth’s Oldest Killer Whales
“The average lifespan of the female orca is between 60 and 80 years.” That’s straight from OS’s research section, and it demonstrates just how impressive Granny’s tenure has been. She spends her days caring for J-Pod’s young and passing her vast wisdom to the next generation of BC’s orcas. And the generation after that. And the generation after that.
In the wild, it’s been difficult for marine biologists to pin down precise reasons for orca longevity. That’s partly because we don’t have up close access to these wild animals, and partly because the factors upon which their lifespans depend vary so much from habitat to habitat.
If that sounds familiar, you’re on the right track. Many scientists attribute orca longevity to the same set of circumstances present in human lifespans.
In fact, the similarities between orcas and humans are striking.
- both species depend on the characteristics of their environment (air quality, water quality, etc.)
- females in both species are physically able to bear young at approximately the same age (14 – 16 years)
- Orca and human females both exhibit menopause and live for 3 or 4 decades following typical child-bearing age
So we know how long they tend to live in the wild, we just don’t exactly know why. And that’s ok.
Captivity, on the other hand, is completely different.
Orca Lifespans in Captivity
While we might not know why orcas live as long as they do in the wild, we know exactly why they don’t live that long in captivity.
According to research done in a 2011 study by The Orca Project, “approximately 157 orcas have died in captivity, not including stillborns and miscarriages. Based upon the MMIR data, and represented in Appendix A, we have calculated the mean duration of captivity (MDC) to be less than nine years. This is regardless of whether an orca was extracted from the ocean, or born at a theme park.”
Orcas in captivity are subjected to severe stress, close conflicts with other orcas (apex predators unable to scratch their biological itch), lack of natural nourishment, disease, and infections.
In fact, orcas in captivity face the crippling reality of dehydration, which, in the wild, is solved by water ingested through the natural food they consume. In captivity, however, this is impossible, so the animals are given gelatin, an unnatural substance.
The Answer? Live Free.
The tone of these posts often switches from hope and wonder to depression and frustration, but that’s the reality with which our industry is still faced.
The good news is that fewer and fewer orcas are being confined in captivity for the amusement of human beings. It’s terrifying to imagine a world in which our beloved 105 year old Granny lives out her days in an aquarium. Although, as the evidence clearly shows, she probably wouldn’t have made it nearly this far.
Be well, Granny.