Two Southern Resident killer whales, Lulu (a 37 year old female) and Indigo (a 13 year old male), have disappeared this season and are presumed dead. Both whales were members of the Southern Resident population, a tragically threatened pod of whales in the Pacific Northwest.
The SeaWorld-funded website awesomeocean.com has responded to the premature deaths of these wild killer whales by reviving the captive lifespan vs. wild lifespan debate. Author Eric Davis claims that activists are using a “fictitious narrative that whales live longer in the wild even when recent independent studies have shown that Marine Mammals in Seaworld’s care live longer than their wild cousins.” The recent independent study that Mr. Davis references has shown that some marine mammal species live longer at SeaWorld than in the wild; but killer whales were not one of those species. In fact, the analysis found that “the survival rate of all SeaWorld’s orcas, including those captured in the oceans, is lower than estimates of those in the wild.” It appears that Mr. Davis has shot himself in the foot by failing to read his own citation. The narrative being touted here as fictitious is not only supported by Eric’s own cited independent study, it is also supported by scientists.
The captive lifespan vs. wild lifespan debate doesn’t exist within the scientific community. According to scientists, average life expectancy for wild killer whales is roughly 50 for females and 40 for males, with a maximum longevity of 80-90 years for females and 50-60 years for males. These numbers are overwhelmingly supported by several different studies and researchers, including studies from Canadian Fisheries, the Zoology Department of Cambridge, and University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
According to scientist Ken Balcomb and other killer whale researchers, the oldest known killer whale is J2, also known as Granny, who may be as old as 103 years. Like most wild killer whales, Granny’s age is estimated based on her first sighting, the estimated ages of her offspring, and when she reached menopause.