Keiko. Shamu. Lolita. These captive whales have experienced worldwide fame for all the wrong reasons, performing tricks and stunts in severely deprived environments. And while there are currently 42 orcas in captivity, there are thousands of whales in the wild that attract attention for their cleverness, their uniqueness, their inspiring stories—and their freedom.
Here are some of the most famous wild killer whales in history:
Iceberg is the first white killer whale ever filmed in the wild. Young, all-white orcas have been seen before, but none have been recorded living into adulthood.
Spotted in the North Pacific, east of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the Commander Islands, Iceberg is believed to be around 16 years old. Scientists plan to continue observing the whale to try and determine whether Iceberg is albino—a genetic condition that results in animals being unable to produce melanin, the pigment responsible for skin, hair and eye colour. Many albino animals never make it to adulthood because their visibility is a disadvantage in the hunt for food and protection against predators.
Luna, also known by her scientific name, L98, or by her traditional Maquinna name, Tsuux'iit, was a killer whale born in Puget Sound. She was separated from her mother when she was just a toddler and spent the next 5 years alone in Nootka Sound, off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
At first, Luna steered clear of both boats and people. But after a year or so, she began to engage boats, nudging vessels and even bouncing them up and down like a toy in a bathtub. The DFO tried to keep people away, but Luna was so insistent in her interactions that it was nearly impossible to steer clear of her.
In 2004, Fisheries and Oceans Canada tried to lure her away, but gave up after 9 days of trying. Then, on March 10, 2006, the inevitable happened: Luna swam too close to a tugboat, and was pulled into the blades and subsequently killed.
Springer (third from the top), is a wild killer whale that was born in late 1999 or early 2000. Orphaned in 2001, Springer was found alone and emaciated near Seattle, Washington—over 250 miles from home. Researchers were able to locate Springer’s family, and after much debate decided to capture her and reunite her with her family. The relocation was successful, and Springer is now seen each year with her relatives in Johnstone Strait. Springer is still the only whale in history to ever be successfully re-integrated into a wild pod after human intervention.
Old Tom, born in 1895, was the leader of an Australian pod of killer whales who were famous for helping human whalers hunt down other species. The killer whales would intercept baleen whales on their migration journey and then, working as a team, would herd them into Twofold Bay near the town of Eden, on Australia’s southeast coast. Old Tom would then alert the human whalers to the whales’ presence by breaching or tailslapping.
Old Tom died in 1930 and his enormous preserved skeleton—he measured 22 feet and weighed 6 tons—is now on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum.