Why Was The Sea World Trainer Killed By Captive Orca Tilikum?

After considerable time spent researching this latest tragic death at a theme park, I am left more with the question of how captive orcas can survive mentally, emotionally, and physically than I am with any question of why this happened. Tilikum’s story illustrates all that is wrong with the management of captive cetaceans, and underscores the need to increase legislation to protect these animals because those institutions have found ways to circumvent laws and eviscerate the marine mammal protection act.

For those of you who may have missed coverage of the death of a Sea World trainer yesterday, here is a news clip:

I also recommend OrcaNetwork’s thoughtful press release for more insight into the event.

But what about Tilikum? He was captured in Iceland in 1983, at the age of two years – this is about the equivalent age of a two-three year old child, an age when young orcas are still tightly bound to their mothers and other family members (whom they stay with throughout their lives).

Once captured, he was kept in a holding facility at Hafnarfjord Marine Zoo, Saedyrasafnid, in a small pool made of concrete (measuring 66 x 49ft and only 20ft deep). There are many allegations that Sea World financed the captures and holding of orcas in foreign countries to skirt the marine mammal protection act, but I have not been able to substantiate this yet.

Tilikum, still very young, was then sold to Canada’s now defunct Sealand of the Pacific where he was kept with two other young orcas. The training regimen there is reputed to have included food shortage and sensory deprivation:

Walters reports that some marine mammals including seals, sea lions and orcas were kept in a permanently “hungry” state at Sealand or deprived of food if they did not perform or co-operate. In an April 1991 letter to the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association, Walters wrote: “If the killer whales did not enter the module pool [a small, dark, metal holding pool about 20 feet (6 m) deep and 26 feet (8 m) in diameter] at the end of the day to spend the night, we, as trainers, were instructed to withhold their end of-the-day allotted food. This was usually at least 25 to 35 percent of their daily food intake.”

While in the module, the three whales, one male (Tilikum) and two females, were barely able to turn around, much less escape from each other. They often cut or scratched their skin on the metal sides. Walters told me that he once saw the young male with flukes abraded and bleeding. As well, the orcas sometimes fought and suffered other injuries. Walters, now a biologist who has spent many hours observing wild orcas, said that the injuries were more severe than the usual rakes and scratches which result from orca play in the wild. On one occasion, the female, Nootka, was fighting with the others and crashed into the module, striking her head on the metal side. Her head was bleeding and blood came out of her blowhole.

Those factors no doubt contributed to the attack and drowning of an assistant trainer at Sealand in 1991 by Tilikum and his tank mates. Following that unfortunate event at least one of the three orcas – Tilikum – was slated to be returned and to be set free in Iceland, but Sea World, eager to acquire another orca, stepped in. Sea World managed to persuade the National Marine Fisheries Service and the government of Iceland that they should be able to import and keep Tilikum even though the marine mammal protection act did not allow for it as a first resort. In a letter to the government of Iceland, Sea World wrote:

The provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act under which the emergency permit was granted provide that if it is “feasible” to return the imported animal “to its natural habitat” then “steps to achieve that result shall be taken.” Although this provision was intended to address the rescue and release of beached and stranded animals, it was nevertheless incorporated by reference into the emergency import permit for Tilikum. The permit also stated that if Sea World’s November 7, 1991 application for permanent placement of Tilikum was disapproved, then NMFS could require Sea World to release Tilikum “at the original location of capture.

And where did this get Tilikum? Known to be dangerous, his public performances are limited as are his interactions with other orcas, even though it looks like Sea World allows him to ‘mentor’ young whales, which makes no sense whatsoever.

But Tilikum’s main job these days is to breed – public sentiment is against capture of wild orcas and the captive gene pool is limited so his function as a breeding male is priceless to Sea World. The problem: actually getting him together with females is astronomically difficult since the females are in theme parks all over the world.

Sea World’s answer? They trained this unfortunate, unhappy and deprived animal to give up his sperm. They tease him with estrous (‘in heat”) females, or excite him by putting other males in his tank, then he has to ejaculate into a specially designed container. The sperm is frozen and shipped all over, and these geniuses cross-breed Atlantic and Pacific range orcas, and unbelievably…even the meat eating “transient” type (which eat seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, and otters) with the fish eating “resident” types.

Why did Tilicum grab his trainer, drag her around the pool, drowning her? Every one of us who works with animals knows one thing: there is always a measured risk because ultimately our ability to communicate with other species is limited. You can never let your guard down or go unconscious around even normal ones – something can trigger a reaction from an animal quicker than you can react. They have bad days, and hormonal shifts just like we do. Make an animal like Tilikum half crazy, and you have to redouble your efforts to read them, tread carefully, and never expect them to care for you.

So I ask: when do we decide to do something to stop the companies that are making so much money at such a high price?

Sea World Trainer Killed By Whale – Tragically, More Proof That These Animals Do Not Belong In Captivity

The tragic death of a Sea World trainer underscores the fact that orca whales just don’t belong in captivity. While there are many rumors circulating about both the animal’s history and the circumstances that led to the death of an experienced trainer – I would caution you to reserve opinions until the all the facts have been considered.

In the following video clip, please note both the size of the pool and the lack of stimulation and companionship for the whale. Please notice also his behavior and breathing rate, symptoms of stress:

Report on whale trainer death

Finally, the reports I read mentioned that the whales were behaving peculiarly that day, always a red flag for any animal trainer.

New Baby Orca Whale!

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New orca calf L114 and mother L77 (Photo by Dave Ellifrit)

Twenty – three year old L77 showed up near Vancouver B.C. with a new baby in tow yesterday – the first one she is documented to have had (although there may have been previous unknown births). This calf was given the number L-114 by the Center for Whale Research, and brings the total population of Southern Resident orcas living in the wild to 89 (this excludes “Lolita”, the member of L-pod who lives in captivity).

Let’s hope this baby boom continues!

J, K, And L Pods Are Back!

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J, K, and L pods identified off Vancouver Island 2/21/10

Members of all three pods were spotted yesterday in the waters off Victoria, B.C. and north to the area around the Canadian Gulf Islands, creating quite a buzz among researchers and whale watchers. There is a possibility that there were new calves among them, although this has not been verified, but we will keep you informed!

Hungry Southern Resident Orcas Are Searching For Salmon

In recent weeks J-pod has been seen (and/or heard) as far north as Alert Bay, BC, as well as in Georgia Strait, and Haro Strait (between Victoria and San Juan Island). K-pod was photographed off of Florence, Oregon. No sign of L-pod.

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Creative Commons Map

Although J-pod was heard up by Alert Bay (Port McNeil towards the north end of Vancouver Island is the closest landmark on this map), J1 was seen alone near San Juan Island.

From the Center for Whale Research: “For two days (January 26 and 27), J1 has been seen alone in Haro Strait, and heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophone making what sounds like plaintive repetitive calls (S42 and S40) when no other whales were in sight or hearing range of the Haro Strait hydrophones.

Such a solo appearance was considered unusual, so on 27 January Dave Ellifrit and Ken Balcomb headed out in r/v “Orca” to check on J1’s condition. He was swimming steadily north in Haro Strait off Battleship Island taking four or five breaths at the surface and then diving for six or seven minutes when we found him. He paid little heed of us and appeared to be in good health with no apparent injuries, so we left him on his way off Stuart Island as he was apparently heading toward Swanson Channel.”

Postscript: We later learned that recordings made by Leah Robinson near Alert Bay and Paul Spong near Hanson Island on 23 January were identified by John Ford as being J pod calls.

Was J1 with them there, and did he simply hurry on down ahead of them (180 miles @ 4 knots = 45 hours travel)? Or had he come around the ocean side of Vancouver Island (360 miles @ 4 knots = 90 hours travel) while the rest of the pod apparently came through Johnstone Strait?

Either way, his arrival in Haro Strait two days before his pod-mates is interesting – was he scouting for salmon?” Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

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J1 looking for salmon?

Two days later the Center for Whale Research located the rest of the J1 sub-pod, and although the whales look healthy they did not seem to find many fish. And Balcomb goes on to say:

A little over a week later (Feb 8th and 9th), fishing was slow at the 2010 Roche Harbor Salmon Classic Invitational with 43 salmon caught, and the biggest being a 16 pound hatchery Chinook.

For perspective, compare that with the 1976 (all year) sport catch of Chinook salmon (all wild) of 55,248 fish from the San Juan Islands, and the 1986 (all year) sport catch of 30,208 fish from the islands!

The commercial salmon fishery in Washington State landed 782,000 Chinook salmon in 1976, and 422,000 Chinook salmon in 1986. The average weight of a Chinook salmon commercially landed in those years was about 15 pounds, and derby winners in the sport fisheries routinely exceeded 40-50 pounds!

Clearly, the times have changed for the salmon, and for the whales that depend upon the salmon for survival. Of course, things have changed for the fishermen, too.

Next, more on recent developments, then back to the subject of sound and communication!

Captive L-pod Orca Is Caught In A Legal Quagmire

One of the Southern Resident orcas captured in 1971 continues to reside in captivity at the old and tired Miami Seaquarium. This lonely whale was given the unfortunate name “Lolita” and lives in a sub-standard pool without companions of her species. She is getting old, has to perform tricks for her dinner, and has no other orcas for company. There is nothing for her to do but to circle her pool or lie on the bottom when she is not being forced to perform.

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Lolita performs for sparse audiences in a sad theme park.

This confinement is cruel for an animal species which has been shown to be bright and highly social – orcas have one of the strongest family bonds in the animal kingdom. They rarely sleep and they swim hundreds of miles a day.
Day after day, month after month, year after year…Lolita’s life never changes.

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Creative Commons Photo

Gone are the days when we enjoyed seeing large animals in small cages, or marveled at the sight of an elephant chained to a post on a concrete pad…yet magnificent whales and dolphins are allowed to be kept like giant fish in small tanks and are trained to dumb tricks for our amusement. If they are allowed to breed, the families are separated, sold, or traded.
Caring people have been trying to help Lolita (a member of L-pod) for decades – writing letters, protesting, raising awareness – but Lolita’s captors are indifferent and uncaring, and they hide behind loopholes in the laws designed to protect our rare and valuable wild animals.
I have talked to people in Senator Murray’s office, at NOAA, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (Governor Gregoire’s office directed my information request to them). Senator Cantwell’s office has never responded to emails or phone calls, on any of the orca issues (salmon, vessel regulations, or captivity).
What it boils down to is that Lolita needs a lawyer, and a good one. Here is why:
First, Lolita was captured right before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was implemented.
Second, because she was caught ‘pre-act’, the powers-that-be decided she should be directly excluded from the status of endangered that protects the rest of her family (the document reads ‘any member of J, K, or L pods’ in captivity).
Third, Animal Welfare is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. When it came to determining what standards a dolphin or whale should have in captivity, they asked the theme parks and aquaria to set the standards, not biologists.
Fourth, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (known as APHIS) is required to inspect and enforce compliance with the pathetic standards set by the theme parks. It is up to them to interpret the measurements, and they consistently measure Lolita’s pool incorrectly.
And fifth… no one in any of these organizations with whom I spoke feels they can do anything to change the standards set for captive cetaceans. But people made the decisions that allow a handful of individuals get very wealthy in the mistreatment of these gentle (and in the case of Lolita; endangered) animals. So it would seem that people can also change those laws and remedy the situation.
Meanwhile, individuals and groups continue their efforts to improve Lolita’s life. In 2009 Shelby Proie and SaveLolita.com used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain inspection records and to have their complaints addressed. As far as I can tell by looking at the documents, it looks like APHIS denied some of the information on the basis that “it’s release would cause a clearly unwarrented invasion of personal privacy”. The results that they did provide were not remarkable, other than to state that Lolita has the company of Pacific white-sided dolphins, and they are “biologically related” to orcas. That is like saying locking a human up with a monkey for company is equivalent to a human companion. That may be true for the owners of the theme park, but it certainly isn’t true for most of humanity.
It may take an Act of Congress to make it right – but given the fact that Lolita is one of only 89 whales like her in the world, shouldn’t that effort be made?

Do Baleen Whales Use Biosonar ?

Have you ever wondered how an animal as enormous as a blue whale,

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Creative Commons Photo

can manage to find enough krill (tiny shrimp-like organisms) to eat ,

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Nasa Photo

in an ocean this vast?

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Creative Commons Photo

Each adult blue whale needs to find about 40 million tiny krill every single day when the whale is feeding, and humpback whales can consume tons of krill and fish daily. They (and nine other species including our local minke and gray whales) are wonderfully equipped to filter-feed with baleen, the brush-like plates in their mouths which trap their prey.

But the krill is not everywhere all the time, and even where it is seasonally abundant the whales still need to find the specific location in the ocean where the krill occurs in enough density to support the whales’ requirements. How they can manage this involves a suite of factors – they learn where the rich summer feeding grounds are from their mothers, they communicate with other whales, and finally, scientists are discovering that some species may use a form of biosonar to navigate the ocean basins. In other words, for the species that migrate across the ocean between summer feeding grounds in the polar regions and the winter tropical breeding grounds, it looks as though the whales may use a kind of echolocation that allows them to locate underwater features which function a bit like signposts. But that is not enough.

Once the whales are in the region of their feeding grounds, how do they actually find the patches of krill or fish? The polar summer days are long, and the little shrimp-like krill seek the refuge of deeper water where it is darker, returning to the surface only in the darkness of night.

Answering how whales actually find patches of krill and how they use their long distance echolocation is going to take an explanation of the ocean world in which they live, so as we continue this series on sound and communication we’ll show you how sound works in the ocean, and how vital it is to the survival of most if not all cetacean species that we minimize the noise we add.

But since I have a few insights on the political front to write about next, I’ll leave you with this: scientists have documented that humpback whales produce sounds much like long, slow versions of dolphin sonar when feeding at night. More on this soon!