Remembering Wanda, The First Killer Whale Taken Into Captivity

Each year, millions of visitors are drawn to marine parks to see captive killer whales perform in shows for their amusement, cheering along as the animals circle and leap from within the confines of their tanks. But more than 50 years ago, as the first live orca was taken into captivity, the sentiment of onlookers was decidedly different.

On the morning of November 18, 1961, thousands of people flooded the shores around Newport Harbor in California to witness a spectacle no one among them had ever seen before. A lone killer whale had been spotted swimming in the harbor the day before, and a collection crew from the now defunct Marineland of the Pacific was scrambled to try to capture the animal so it could be put on exhibit.

Never before had an orca been captured alive, and the 17-foot-long animal, named Wanda, was trying her best to avoid being the first. For hours, the team from the marine park played a game of cat and mouse throughout the harbor. A nylon net was deployed to try to catch her, but she managed to break free.

"Shortly before her escape," Marineland staff later wrote, "she was seen to lie on the surface and emit a number of loud eructations through the pursed blow-hole, after which the animal was observed to lie on her back in the water and smack her flukes upon the surface with great force."

Two subsequent attempts also failed, as "the animal appeared to anticipate the intentions of the men and evaded the net, surfacing to breathe some 50 feet outside the encircled area."

A report on the incident published the following day in theLong Beach Independent Press Telegram describes the reaction of the rapt crowd that had gathered to watch the commotion.

"Not everybody ashore, however, was pulling for the crewmen as they drew the net tighter around the errant Wanda. When she broke out, cheers rose from thousands lining the banks. Every time a lookout on the bowsprit missed her snout with his lasso, or broke his line, she got cheers."

At one point, someone on the capture crew fell into the water while trying to tie a rope around the orca, eliciting "pandemonium" from the audience rooting for the animal to escape.

By sundown, the Marineland team's persistence eventually paid off to the chagrin of the assembly of spectators. The orca, exhausted from her repeated efforts to dodge the boats trying to entrap her, finally became trapped by the tangle of nets and was carried ashore to be trucked to her new life in captivity.

Wanda "was docile as she sloshed about in a few feet of water on the truck's low-bed trailer," the report says, awaiting her overland journey to Marineland in Los Angeles. Once there, Wanda was placed into a 100 by 50 by 19 foot oval tank where she at immediately swam into the wall, perhaps trying to flee, before proceeding to swim restlessly around the borders of her enclosure.

Less than two full days after being taken from her home in the Pacific Ocean, Wanda was dead -- believed by many to be an act of suicide.

"At 8:30 AM on 20 November, the whale became violent and after encircling the tank at great speed and striking her body on several occasions," Marineland staff wrote. "She finally swam into a flume way, convulsed and expired."

It wasn't until five years later that a killer whale would be captured alive again, though it soon became a trend as marine parks sought to draw in visitors with the exotic attractions. Since 1961, 144 orcas have been taken from the wild to be put on public display.

Today, there are 53 orcas held in captivity around the world, 19 of which, like Wanda, were stolen from the wild.