By Ken Balcomb, Founder and Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research
“My first acquaintance with the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) we designated L41 was in 1977, the year after we began the annual Orca Survey of this population that continues to this day. His mother was L11, who was one of nine females to produce new babies that year following the cessation of captures in 1976. We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.
L41 last seen by the Center for Whale Research on August 11, 2019 (Encounter #51). Photo by Mark Malleson, Center for Whale Research
L41, with an adoption name Mega, traveled with his mom and sisters in a subgroup of L pod that became known as the L12s, named after his presumed grandmother, who was the likely mother of L11. It should be noted that the alpha-numeric designations are not in the birth order sequence in the early years of the Orca Survey – because nobody knew the population composition prior to our study. The whales were numbered in those early years in the order that they were first seen, and it was only after we had all of them identified in 1976 that subsequent new babies received the next sequential alpha-numeric designation for identification. L41 was among the first to receive a designation that identified him as a member of the new known-age youth cohort of the SRKW population.
L41 with L124 on January 11, 2019 (Encounter #2). Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
When he reached social maturity in his early twenties around 1997, L41 began to father babies. And, he became the champion male breeder in the SRKW population with fourteen known offspring that survive to this day in all three pods. Only J1, with the fathering of eleven living offspring in the SRKW community, has done as much to increase the population. A very few other males have contributed one or two offspring in this population.
L41 with L25. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
We will greatly miss L41 as an important breeder and as a prominent indicator of the L12 subgroup that now rarely ventures into the Salish Sea. In 2019, we only saw the L12s twice – once on January 11 in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and once on August 11 off Carmanah Point Lighthouse on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. It will be extremely difficult to monitor the demographic vigor of the L12s if they do not come into the study area, and if this indicator male is not present. We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community.
While captive orcas all lead miserable lives, the breeding policies and forced separations may make life harder for the females. The males are sub-dominant in the studied wild orca cultures, and among the Southern Resident orcas, they remain with their mothers their entire lives, so a case could be made that psychologically the forced separations as calves might be more difficult for them than for the females who eventually form their own family units in the wild (but they too remain in the same pod as their own mothers). But the breeding program hurts the females both as calves and as adults.
The females have to endure having their calves taken away, and at Seaworld females have been forced to mature early and to have calves through artificial insemination while they are the equivalent of a six- eight year old human child – orcas mature much the way we do, entering puberty about 10 – 13 years old on average and very rarely producing calves that young in the wild. The calves are taken away from the mothers as young as two years old.
The death of the 10 month old orca Vicky yesterday in Loro Parque underscores another problem for captive born female orcas – not being prepared to nurture their calves. Vicky had been rejected by her mother who in turn had been separated from her own mother at too young an age to learn how to care for a calf. Had Vicky survived, she likely would have been brought into maturity by manipulating her hormones, then borne a calf that she doubtlessly would have rejected.
Last week Fins and Fluke created a petition to call for the end of captive breeding, and now with Vicky’s death the number of surviving calves has dropped to just 17.
This is a call to action to end the captive breeding programs at SeaWorld Parks. SeaWorld continues to boast about their “successful breeding program” when in all actuality that is far from the truth. There have been thirty-seven known pregnancies at SeaWorld parks since the first survived captive birth in 1985. Only eighteen of these calves still alive today, barely half. The captive breeding program at SeaWorld has resulted in 6 stillbirths, two miscarriages, and five maternal deaths during childbirth. One remaining calf is a result of inbreeding.
Prior the first successful live birth in 1985, captive orcas produced 10 calves, and all 10 were still born or died within 2 months (Wikipedia).
Rivalry and dominance squabbles among females can be deadly, and fourteen percent of the mother whales at Seaworld have died giving birth. One gave birth during a show – the calf survived, but when just a year old witnessed her mother bleed to death from a broken jaw, the result of an altercation with another female…again, during a show. The calf, Orkid, was raised by humans and nurtured by other female orcas (one of whom was Corky who had been bred 7 times and lost 7 calves by time she was just 21 years old and stopped ovulating.) In 2002 Orkid and another young whale teamed up and dragged a trainer into the water where they “roughed her up severely, fracturing her arm and leaving her hand a bloody mess”, and she continues to be a very aggressive whale. (See more – Death at Seaworld)
Any woman who has given birth knows how challenging the process can be, and it is unimaginable that Seaworld has its pregnant whales perform so close to term (Orkid came a month earlier than the average gestation of 17 months), and I can’t think of another industry where near-term animals are forced to perform in the late stages of pregnancy. Visualize a pregnant race horse – the idea is ludicrous.
Recognizing that inbreeding is a huge problem Seaworld has gotten its hooks into the wild Norweigian killer whale, Morgan, hoping to infuse their gene lines with viable stock. Morgan has a chance to escape the dismal fate of female killer whales at Seaworld. You can help in the court battle to return her to her home waters in Norway: Free Morgan Foundation.