This anthology is a growing collection of literary works written by authors around the world. Their voices lend an imagined translation of the captive orca’s experience.
Scroll this page to read the stories of orca currently surviving captivity. Additional details, like the distance from their home waters and their family ecotypes, follow each story.
The website is a living, breathing, multimedia collaboration. Visit every few weeks to discover new stories and updated features, such as audio recordings and interactive maps. Follow the creative journey!
Welcome to my show. I am Juliet, the star performer of us three.
I love entertaining, always have. The lights, the applause, the smiling children oohing and aahing, delighted, their voices squeaking bursting from joy. I hunger for the power I have in creating this atmosphere that vibes, vibes, vibes. I, Juliet, crave the praise heaped upon me by strangers and those I trust the most. I relish their validation. A life of performance is rigid but worthwhile. There is a schedule. There are rules. I know my place, I belong here.
Theatre is my family. We are close, so so close, always close. So close we practically feel each other’s warmth when we swim next to one another, fins bumping, a powerful grazing of soft skin, electric, forceful.
Welcome to my prison. I am Naja – splash sounds – which was assigned to me.
Night after night there are bright lights. Noises like thunderstorms and nowhere to retreat to. I seek calm and quiet, quiet, quiet, but when I get it, the silence cuts me, slaps me, distorts my
soul. There is a schedule. There are rules. It’s not my place, but I belong here.
The regime is my family. We are so close, so so close, always close. So close we become violent towards one another in our desperation, our undersized fins bumping, only unwanted
Seaweed fronds swept back and forth
like waves flushing the aorta.
We chased salmon, a thousand shimmers
of silver, when Mother taught me to swim.
She weaved in and out of the water
and nudged me to surface beside her.
Call and response. Two phases of the same heartbeat.
The constant rhythm of breach, soar, dive, and repeat.
We rippled smooth as eelgrass and ventured into vastness.
Our pod moved as one. An ocean of rollick and plunge.
That cantata still echoes in my arteries and veins.
Ebb. Surge. Ebb. Surge. Even here, estranged
in this circus pool of hop, spin, lap, and turn,
I throb, but I dare not yearn.
They used to call me, Baby Shamu.
When I quickly learned tricks and concepts,
they called me the most intelligent orca
in captivity. Unlike my parents, I wasn’t captured
from the sea. I was the first successfully born
at Sea World, San Diego, 1988. I’m native
to these stagnant pools. I don’t know what wild
means. I don’t know the currents of the open
ocean, or how salt water soothes skin.
They call us killer whales. Yet who hunted us
for profit? Who makes a killing when we perform?
My father died three days after my birth.
The next year, I watched my mother surface
for air—spraying blood. When she sank, I swam
in circles above her breathless carcass. They call me
the most aggressive orca in captivity. Count my behavioral
incidents. Note my self-inflicted harm. Yet why do you
inseminate me over and over? How long
until you learn that I’ll never birth a calf
to be caged in this cruel circus? I would berth you
underwater. But not to drown you, no—
I want you to listen to my rake-marked voice echo
into the chambers of your human heart.
Believe me. Your mother did not want to leave you. We swim all our lives beside our mothers. I know what it is to lose your mother. I do not know if my mother lives, or if I have sisters and brothers who swim in waters I once knew, waters that don’t end in hardness.
What waters don’t end in hardness? Believe me. My daughters and sons never heard what I tell you, but how to tell what can only be known, to swim from first light to last, to swim even as we sleep, even as we dream, to dive deep into water surrounded by the clicks of dolphins, the low grunts of fish that hide in rocks amid eels and urchins — what are those? an eel is like one of the ropes they toss us but it swims as it will, and an urchin is like one of the balls they toss — oh yes, and the songs of the big whales, and the heartbeats and calls of our own kind, and to surface as a little one alongside your mother, the old males never far from their mothers, the young mothers with their calves, and in the center of us, the oldest mother, and to swim through endless waters past the slow whales we do not eat, through clusters of fish so thick it is as if a silver-sparkled cloud moves through the sea.
Do fish swim? Believe me. Fish swim. They are not dead and fed to us. We swim and we hunt in that cloud of fish swimming for where the sea meets the sweet water flowing from land, our teeth sharp, our jaws open for that snap of flesh, that crack of bone, that sweet blood in our mouths. I would have told my daughters and sons this if they had lived. I was not so much older than you when I lost my home.
What is home? Home is mother, her sisters, her brothers, our kin. Home is where we swim together, in sun and storms, and then there was a storm, and we took shelter where the land curved and the water was calm, and I pressed tight to my mother. Thunder. And waves. And rain. And darkness. They came. Where the shelter touched the open sea they placed long strands that seemed like tangles of sea vines but stronger, with openings we could see through to the sea beyond, and I stayed close to my mother, and somehow we were no longer side by side, and something clutched me and lifted me high above my mother, high above water, high as the clouds and sun and the endless sky I thought I was being taken to, but no. It was to waters smaller than these. Waters that ended in that hardness that never ends, and there was a male I knew, and he had left our endless waters sometime before, and we swam together round and round and round and round, we spun together, we slapped our fins atop water together, we squirted water together, we pressed our tongues to where each morning the first light touched hardness, and we had our first calf, and our baby’s soft head crashed against hardness, that endless round of hardness, and the baby didn’t know how to nurse, and I didn’t know how to nurse, and our baby starved. Then came our second calf. That one swam into the hardness at the water’s end. I nudged my baby away from that hardness with my head, and that one too tried to nurse from the white near my eyes and not the white of my nipples, so ready with milk. They came. They put food down my baby’s throat. Still my little one grew thin. They took my baby. I slammed against the hardness. I slammed. And I slammed. And I slammed. And the hardness trembled but remained. And I sank to the bottom of the water. My face against hardness. And I called. And I called. And I called. And my mate called and circled and called and circled and called and circled. Light became dark, and dark became light, and light became dark, and dark became light. And I rose. And we swam together. Our blowholes opened together. Our top fins broke through water together. Our calls came together, first one of us, then the other. Only then did I take food.
There were other sons. There were other daughters. We breathed together. We swam together. Their heads hit the hardness. I pushed them away from hardness with my head. They saw the white around my eyes and tried to suckle there, and with every tail stroke milk flowed from my nipples, and they lived for a time, and they starved. And some were born dead. And some died within my womb.
And then my mate and I were lifted out of those waters and brought to these waters, and he mated with Kandu, and you were born, and Kandu rammed into me, and I heard you call when these waters filled with Kandu’s blood, and when Kandu died you became my daughter, and I became your mother, and as my mother told me, I tell you stories from waters that never end.
Where are these waters? Believe me. Where seas narrow amid islands. Where trees torn from land toss atop waves and float past creatures dark and ugly with fur and flippers to haul them on to land. Where waters without bitterness flow from land into our endless waters carrying tiny fish vast as storm clouds, and we follow them to the open seas, and we follow them into waters so cold ice gathers and glistens with sunlight, and we follow those fish as they return to the waters they came from, thick with flesh, fat, eggs, fear. And we dive, my mother and I, the water echoing with our clicks that lead us to fish in the cold and deep. And where the waters turn from shore out to sea, we hunt the ones that swim where sunlight sparkles. And near the shore, where the biggest of them hide in cracks and crevices of rock, we wait, and we wait, and we sway our bodies and make waves that gather those fish into our open mouths. And where we swim to shallow waters where we rub our bellies on sand and stone. Believe me.
What is an island? What is a tree? Why tell of those seas when we are here? Very well. Here is a story of these waters. I heard it from one of them who came on his day to atone, who told a story of another one of them, one told by the Creator of all life not to make calls of sadness, or cries of grief, but to tell others of his kind to act anew. That one refused. He fled to sea on one of their boats, and the waters rose in waves and storms unlike any you’ve known, and he asked to be thrown overboard to calm the seas, and he was, and he was swallowed by one of the slow whales, and there he stayed, under the thunder of the whale’s great heart, in the wind of its breathing in, and the wind of its breathing out, alongside sea worms and the shreds of fish, through dives deeper than any in this shallow place, through swimming that never ends, until his stubbornness softened, and he agreed to do his duty, and so he found his freedom. The whale spat him out. Of the whale, nothing more is said. I think she still lives if the seas still exist.
If I was that whale, and if that man nestled in my womb of age and sorrow, and throbbed with the pulse of my blood, I would call to him – how blessed are these wild and turbulent seas, what joy in crashing waves, in wind soft with raindrops, in swimming in cold and endless water with mother, brother, sister, son, daughter from birth to death, what a glorious life! I lived it. Believe me. I lived it once. And if I could, I would say to that one trapped in me as I am trapped in him, nothing can be done for the past, but perhaps there can be joy in the future. Believe me.