Less than a week into the new year, we have what may be the first celebrity death of 2017: SeaWorld’s orca whale Tilikum, the same whale who served as the star of the movie Blackfish, died today at age 36, after 33 years in captivity. By orca standards, Tilikum’s life wasn’t particularly long — the lifespan of the average male is around 30 years, though some can live up to 60 — but he left behind a powerful legacy for fellow members of his species: In 2016, three years after the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld responded to the backlash the film had caused by announcing that it would no longer breed whales in captivity.
The wrinkle in this plan, as Live Science noted earlier this week, is that SeaWorld will still have to care for its existing whales for decades to come. And in a new paper in the journal International Zoo Yearbook, a team of biologists offered up one suggestion for how to make life a little more pleasant for those orcas as they live out their lives in captivity: letting them make long-distance calls to fellow captive orcas, a sort of whale-specific version of Skype.
“Given that there are several groups of Killer whales in zoological institutions and that satellite-communication systems are relatively cheap and easy to maintain,” they wrote, it might be feasible “to link some or all populations in zoological institutions together so that they can communicate with their distant counterparts.” Killer whales are highly vocal animals — some of them even have regional accents — and giving them the chance to “talk” to a greater number of animals might make for a more fulfilling social life than they could have otherwise. (Plus, hearing the dialects of other whale groups might give them an added dose of mental stimulation.)
The researchers stressed that the idea is still just an untested theory, but argued that it had the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of captive whales. “We should think more about how unnatural it is to keep zoo animals in acoustic isolation,” paper co-author Graham Law, a biologist at the University of Glasgow, told Live Science. Cutting down on that isolation may be one way to bring them closer to the life they would have had in the wild — and make them a little bit happier in the process.