Western attitudes towards killer whales have changed dramatically in recent decades. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, killer whales came to much greater public and scientific awareness, starting with the first live-capture and display of a killer whale known as Moby Doll, a resident harpooned off Saturna Island in 1964. So little was known at the time, it was nearly two months before the whale's keepers discovered what food (fish) it was willing to eat. To the surprise of those who saw him, Moby Doll was a docile, non-aggressive whale who made no attempts to attack humans.
Between 1964 and 1976, 50 killer whales from the Pacific Northwest were captured for display in aquaria, and public interest in the animals grew. In the 1970s, research pioneered by Michael Bigg led to the discovery of the species' complex social structure, its use of vocal communication, and its extraordinarily stable mother–offspring bonds. Through photo-identification techniques, individuals were named and tracked over decades.
Bigg's techniques also revealed the Pacific Northwest population was in the low hundreds rather than the thousands that had been previously assumed. The southern resident community alone had lost 48 of its members to captivity; by 1976, only 80 remained. In the Pacific Northwest, the species that had unthinkingly been targeted became a cultural icon within a few decades.
The public's growing appreciation also led to growing opposition to whale–keeping in aquarium. Only one whale has been taken in North American waters since 1976. In recent years, the extent of the public's interest in killer whales has manifested itself in several high-profile efforts surrounding individuals. Following the success of the 1993 film Free Willy, the movie's captive star Keiko was returned to the coast of his native Iceland in 2002. The director of the International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute, David Phillips, led the efforts to return Keiko to the Iceland waters. Keiko however did not adapt to the harsh climate of the Arctic Ocean, and died a year into his release after contracting pneumonia, at the age of 27. In 2002, the orphan Springer was discovered in Puget Sound, Washington. She became the first whale to be successfully reintegrated into a wild pod after human intervention, crystallizing decades of research into the vocal behaviour and social structure of the region's killer whales. The saving of Springer raised hopes that another young killer whale named Luna, which had become separated from his pod, could be returned to it. However, his case was marked by controversy about whether and how to intervene, and in 2006, Luna was killed by a boat propeller.
The earlier of known records of commercial hunting of killer whales date to the 18th century in Japan. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the global whaling industry caught immense numbers of baleen and sperm whales, but largely ignored killer whales because of their limited amounts of recoverable oil, their smaller populations, and the difficulty of taking them. Once the stocks of larger species were depleted, killer whales were targeted by commercial whalers in the mid-20th century. Between 1954 and 1997, Japan took 1,178 killer whales (although the Ministry of the Environment claims that there had been domestic catches of about 1,600 whales between late 1940s to 1960s) and Norway took 987. Extensive hunting of killer whales, including an Antarctic catch of 916 in 1979–80 alone, prompted the International Whaling Commission to recommend a ban on commercial hunting of the species pending further research. Today, no country carries out a substantial hunt, although Indonesia and Greenland permit small subsistence hunts (see Aboriginal whaling). Other than commercial hunts, killer whales were hunted along Japanese coasts out of public concern for potential conflicts with fisheries. Such cases include a semi-resident male-female pair in Akashi Strait and Harimanada being killed in the Seto Inland Sea in 1957, the killing of five whales from a pod of 11 members that swam into Tokyo Bay in 1970, and a catch record in southern Taiwan in the 1990s.
Killer whales have helped humans hunting other whales. One well-known example was the killer whales of Eden, Australia, including the male known as Old Tom. Whalers more often considered them a nuisance, however, as orcas would gather to scavenge meat from the whalers' catch. Some populations, such as in Alaska's Prince William Sound, may have been reduced significantly by whalers shooting them in retaliation.
Whale watching continues to increase in popularity, but may have some problematic impacts on killer whales. Exposure to exhaust gasses from large amounts of vessel traffic are causing concern for the overall health of the 75 remaining southern resident killer whales (SRKWs) left as of early 2019. This population is followed by approximately 20 vessels for 12 hours a day during the months May–September. Researchers discovered that these vessels are in the line of sight for these whales for 98–99.5% of daylight hours. With so many vessels, the air quality around these whales deteriorates and impacts their health. Air pollutants that bind with exhaust fumes are responsible for the activation of the cytochrome P450 1A gene family. Researchers have successfully identified this gene in skin biopsies of live whales and also the lungs of deceased whales. A direct correlation between activation of this gene and the air pollutants can not be made because there are other known factors that will induce the same gene. Vessels can have either wet or dry exhaust systems, with wet exhaust systems leaving more pollutants in the water due to various gas solubility. A modelling study determined that the lowest-observed-adverse-effect-level (LOAEL) of exhaust pollutants was about 12% of the human dose.
As a response to this, in 2017 boats off the British Columbia coast now have a minimum approach distance of 200 metres compared to the previous 100 metres. This new rule complements Washington State's minimum approach zone of 180 metres that has been in effect since 2011. If a whale approaches a vessel it must be placed in neutral until the whale passes. The World Health Organization has set air quality standards in an effort to control the emissions produced by these vessels.
The killer whale's intelligence, trainability, striking appearance, playfulness in captivity and sheer size have made it a popular exhibit at aquaria and aquatic theme parks. From 1976 to 1997, 55 whales were taken from the wild in Iceland, 19 from Japan, and three from Argentina. These figures exclude animals that died during capture. Live captures fell dramatically in the 1990s, and by 1999, about 40% of the 48 animals on display in the world were captive-born.
Organizations such as World Animal Protection and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation campaign against the practice of keeping them in captivity. In captivity, they often develop pathologies, such as the dorsal fin collapse seen in 60–90% of captive males. Captives have vastly reduced life expectancies, on average only living into their 20s. That said, a 2015 study coauthored by staff at SeaWorld and the Minnesota Zoo suggested no significant difference in survivorship between free-ranging and captive killer whales. However, in the wild, females who survive infancy live 46 years on average, and up to 70–80 years in rare cases. Wild males who survive infancy live 31 years on average, and up to 50–60 years. Captivity usually bears little resemblance to wild habitat, and captive whales' social groups are foreign to those found in the wild. Critics claim captive life is stressful due to these factors and the requirement to perform circus tricks that are not part of wild killer whale behaviour, see above. Wild killer whales may travel up to 160 kilometres (100 mi) in a day, and critics say the animals are too big and intelligent to be suitable for captivity. Captives occasionally act aggressively towards themselves, their tankmates, or humans, which critics say is a result of stress. Between 1991 and 2010, the bull orca known as Tilikum was involved in the death of three people, and was featured in the critically acclaimed 2013 film Blackfish. Tilikum lived at SeaWorld from 1992 until his death in 2017.
In March 2016, SeaWorld announced that they would be ending their orca breeding program and their theatrical shows. As of 2020, theatrical shows featuring orcas are still ongoing.