Killer Whale Social Structure

Thanks to its groundbreaking research and decades of work with killer whales, SeaWorld’s population of killer whales has been successfully producing healthy offspring since our first whale was born in 1985.

The success of this program has made it possible for SeaWorld to care for and display killer whales to the public without collecting a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.

In fact, only two of the whales in our care were collected from the wild by SeaWorld. Those two whales are doing well today and both have given birth at SeaWorld. One of them, Katina, was the first killer whale to successfully reproduce in a zoological setting, and she is now the head of a lineage that includes four generations of killer whales born at SeaWorld.

The continued success of this program depends on our ongoing research and understanding of killer whale reproduction, respect for their social structure and adherence to internationally recognized zoological standards.

Producing Groundbreaking Research

According to published studies, the neonatal mortality in a studied population of wild killer whales (those between birth and six months of age) is roughly 43 percent,[1] making the more we learn about the reproduction and the early years of killer whales important to the species. SeaWorld research and that conducted by scientists working with SeaWorld’s animals have added significantly to science and society’s understanding of this remarkable species: reproductive physiology, vocalization, development, and learning capacity.

SeaWorld scientists have authored multiple peer-reviewed, publications on killer whale reproduction, birth and development. That research has helped advance scientific knowledge around topics such as length of nursing for killer whales[2], the gestation period of female killer whales[3] and sexual maturity for males[4]. In recent years, SeaWorld has developed a successful program of artificial insemination that has produced four healthy killer whales at SeaWorld[5].

Not only is our research beneficial to the whales in our care, but it also has increased the scientific understanding of animals in the wild. By understanding normal reproductive function, we are better able to determine if environmental changes have adverse affect on the reproductive function of wild populations.

Respect for Social Structure

In our breeding program, as well as all aspects of our husbandry programs, SeaWorld recognizes the important bond between mother and calf, and everything we do in the care of our young whales is centered on that bond. We conduct the breeding program in a way that promotes genetic diversity. Where it was once necessary to move whales to ensure that diversity, advances in artificial insemination, pioneered with killer whales at SeaWorld, have made inter-facility whale transfers less common.

On the rare occasion that a mother killer whale cannot care for the calf herself, we have pioneered the techniques to successfully hand raise those calves. Our ability to assist in this manner is due to our years of experience working closely with these animals, our comprehensive health and wellness management programs, and our understanding of whale behavior and handling. It is this expertise, which we developed and disseminated, that has enabled us to help successfully rehabilitate and release one orphaned killer whale.

Internationally Recognized Standards

SeaWorld’s successful development of its population of killer whales allows us to manage a healthy population of animals, while keeping young calves with their mothers and respecting the whales’ social structure.

Importantly, the program is carried out according to internationally recognized zoological standards applicable to breeding programs. SeaWorld is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Our veterinary and zoological staffs are active members and leaders of various professional organizations including the American Association of Zoological Veterinarians, the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine and the International Embryo Transfer Society.    

[1] Olesiuk, P. F., G. M. Ellis and J. K. B. Ford. Life history and population dynamics of resident killer whales Orcinus orca in the coastal waters of British Columbia Research Document 2005/045. 2005; Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada.

[2] Clark, S.T., and D.K. Odell: Nursing parameters in captive killer whales. Zoo Biology. 1999; 18:5, p. 373-384.

[3] Robeck, T.R., and N.H. Nollens: 2013. Hematologic and serum biochemical parameters reflect physiological changes during gestation and lactation in killer whales (Orcinus orca). Zoo Biology. 2013; 32:497-509.

[4] Robeck, T.R. and S.L. Monfort: Characterization of male killer whale sexual maturation and reproductive seasonality. Theriogenology. 2006; 66(2): 242-250.

[5] Robeck, T.R., Steinman, K.J., Gearhart, S., Reidarson, T.R., McBain, J.F., and S.L. Monfort: Reproductive physiology and development of artificial insemination technology in killer whales (Orcinus orca). Biology of Reproduction. 2004; 71: 650-660.