You’ve likely seen, or at least heard about the documentary Blackfish, exploring the life and striving times of captive killer whales, or orcas, at SeaWorld marine parks. While SeaWorld has been goaded by the resulting uproar into some changes in planned habitat restructuring and living conditions for their largest resident animals, there are many who feel captive orcas can never be appropriate.
The main storyline of the film focuses on a particular whale named Tilikum. This 35-year-old cetacean over-earned the “killer” moniker by being responsible for the deaths of three people while in captivity for more than two decades. Now, SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida has announced that Tilikum has an infection from which he will not recover, and he is in declining health. It’s a rough life in a cement pool too small for comfort, no matter how attentive the care (and, to be fair, SeaWorld’s staff caretakers and medics are dedicated and skilled animal lovers) and many believe it has been tantamount to torturing the whale for the majority of his life.
The flip side of this difficult coin is the marine study of orcas in their natural habitat, like this brand new volunteer expedition from Earthwatch: Killer Whales and Their Prey in Iceland. The first of several offerings of this 12-day voluntourism service trip is offered in June of 2017, where you will help study the feeding behavior of orcas in Vestmannaeyjar in the Westman Islands in the south of Iceland. Some of your time will be on shore, some on boats, as you scan for whales and take detailed scientific research notes on behavior of individual whales. You’ll be thoroughly trained and also get up close and personal as you assist the scientist research team to collect small (non-harming) skin and blubber samples from whales to biopsy and record diet, pollutant levels, and genetic information. You’ll be living at the research field station in dormitory accommodations, cooking and sharing time and laughs with your fellow volunteers.
This is a leading study of the species, and, like all Earthwatch volunteer opportunities, the work you do actually advances scientific understanding–this work, in particular, will help establish policies to better protect killer whales.