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How the First Orcas Were Captured and Sold to Marine Circuses

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Lolita was one of the orcas captured in 1970. Today she still lives alone at the Miami Seaquarium

In August 1970, TV cameras were on hand as seven orcas (killer whales) were captured off the coast of Seattle and taken to marine circuses like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium.

People who saw the video on the news were appalled, and the outrage that followed led to the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, banning the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters. But SeaWorld continued to get “exemptions” for another four years until the company was caught in yet another scandal after they’d bought orcas who’d been driven into nets by having explosives dropped into the ocean all around them.

(In reality, since SeaWorld and other circuses have agreements with marine circuses overseas, there’s still much trading back and forth of orcas and dolphins who have been caught in the ocean, including from the infamous Taiji massacres in Japan which continue to this day.)

This video is a segment, recently made available for general viewing, from the Emmy Award-winning 1999 special “Baby Wild Films Presents: The Killer Whale People.” The video was recently made available for general viewing. (Details of some of the legal wrangling over the use of this footage over the years is on YouTube. Thanks to Jeff Ventre of Voice of the Orcas for directing me to it.)

The video includes footage of the TV broadcast of the deeply troubling Penn Cove orca roundup of August 1970, in which seven Southern Resident orcas were taken.

One of the orcas captured in that roundup was Lolita, who has been held ever since in a small pool at the Miami Seaquarium. Today, 42 years later, she is still performing tricks for people who pay to watch her, and her only orca companion is is a plastic blow-up orca doll. Every day, when she’s left alone, she calls out to the family from whom she was taken and who live off the coast of Seattle.

During the 1970 Penn Cove roundup, four orcas drowned in the nets. And in the video, diver John Crowe describes how he was in charge of secretly disposing of the dead orcas to avoid them being counted in the “take.”

The man organizing the hunt was Don Goldsberry, whom you can see in the video saying how much he “loves” the animals he captures. In a 2010 article in Outside Magazine, “The Killer in the Pool,” Tim Zimmerman writes about how Goldsberry and Ted Griffin had started capturing orcas five years earlier, which led to the birth of orca entertainment industry.

In October 1965, Goldsberry and Griffin trapped 15 killer whales in Carr Inlet, near Tacoma. One died during the hunt. Another—a 14-foot female that weighed 2,000 pounds—was captured and named Shamu (for She-Namu). In December, a fast-growing marine park in San Diego, called SeaWorld, acquired Shamu and flew her to California. Goldsberry says he and Griffin were paid $70,000. It was the start of a billion-dollar franchise.

Over the next decade, around 300 killer whales were netted off the Pacific Northwest coast, and 51 were sold to marine parks across the globe, in Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere. Goldsberry, who became SeaWorld’s lead “collector” until he retired in the late 1980s, caught 252 of them, sold 29, and inadvertently killed nine with his nets. In August 1970, concerned about backlash, Goldsberry weighted some dead orcas down with anchors and dumped them in deep water. When they were dragged up on a Whidbey Island beach by a trawling fisherman, the public started to understand the sometimes brutal reality of the “orca gold rush.”

Goldsberry went on to capture Tilikum (the orca who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, last year at SeaWorld Orlando) from the waters off the coast of Iceland in 1983.

There’s much more about SeaWorld, orcas and dolphins on this website. Start with The Big Business of Dolphins, which is part two of a series. And for more, just search on “orca.”