When Baby Whales Get Lost, What We Do Matters

Luna, Springer, and Morgan are all young whales who got separated from their families, and although the stories vary in time and space, each tells a tale of how humanity reacts when a young wild animal is found lost and alone.
Luna chose to befriend people, and lived for years a short 300 mile distance from his family. No attempt was made to reunite him with his family because of politics, complicated by an attempt by SeaWorld to take him into captivity, and he eventually died without being reunited. (Luna’s story).
Springer, also 300 miles from her family, was rescued, kept in a seapen and rehabilitated, then transported back to her family. She still swims wild, and was seen just this year – healthy and sleek, in the company of her relatives. (Springer’s story).
More recently, Morgan was rescued but she was taken into captivity, and like Luna, her story is complicated by attempts by the captive industry to retain her:

In a thoughtful and poignant essay on the value of these stories, filmmaker Michael Parfit writes:
“Stories last. When argument is stilled, what remains is the true narrative of lives themselves: the way someone commits kindness out of instinct and knowledge; the ways an individual shows respect across the walls between cultures, nations, even species; the way you honor the needs of other lives even when those needs cannot be understood.
The things we do in our own narrative of living and the stories we tell radiate their thematic foundations unspoken, like the worldview in a movie, and effortlessly accomplish that which is so hard to do with fury or partisan eloquence.”
People are moved and motivated to help young wild animals find their families, but when it comes to whales and dolphins, the money and power of corporations like SeaWorld can steamroller right over our ability to do what is right for the animals.  It can be costly to release young whales back to their families, but not any more so than transporting them and keeping them in captivity.
Remember too that it is a reciprocal relationship, and dolphins (orcas are large dolphins) have been known to save us from drowning and from sharks that we may never even know were there.
Contact the Orca Coalition to learn more about Morgan, and find out how you can help return the young orca Morgan to her family.

Sablefish Is The New Salmon; Whales Appreciate The Trend

Sablefish, heart healthy and buttery in texture, rivals salmon as a top choice for diet-conscious diners. It is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, and because as adults it lives in the deep ocean it has an edge over salmon in that it is very low in toxins, such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs. Also known as the more proletariat sounding name of black cod, this fish with the trendy name can live for 90 years or more in depths in excess of 9000 feet, and is found from Northern Mexico to Alaska. Clever humans have found ways to reach down to the abyss and snag these 4 foot long fish – from trawls and pots to longlines stretching down a mile or more, and the fishery appears to be well-managed. Because salmon is endangered by overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, sablefish might turn out to be the panacea needed to give salmon a break.
Of course any relief for salmon is relief for the Southern Resident orca population which relies heavily on this food source, but they are not the only whale species that may find our increasing demand for sablefish to be a boon – in Alaska, a population of sperm whales enjoys a buffet as they pluck the fish off of the deep longlines, or like a revolving sushi track, the fish are thoughtfully pulled up to where the whales can snag them as they go by.
Needless to say, this makes the fishermen unhappy, so with a federal grant they worked with scientists to come up with yet another clever plan: they plan to attach acrylic beads down the length of the lines, hoping that they can trick the whales’ echolocation and disguise the fish. Presumably the beads are designed to mimic the echo of a fish bladder. Good plan, as long as the beads don’t wind up drifting with ocean debris somewhere. How likely is it to succeed?
Considering that 40 -60 foot long sperm whales are able to locate a 2 – 4 foot fish, 600 feet or more deep, in pitch black water…then carefully remove the fish from the hook (at times leaving just the lips behind) I’m guessing that the whales will know the difference between an acrylic bead and a fish. How they react will be more a question of how hard they want to work, and how long it takes them to sort out the new lines. Sperm whales have no teeth in their upper jaw, and the lower jaw is under slung below their massive heads. Their sonar (echolocation) is among the most sophisticated known in cetaceans, as illustrated in this animated video, which shows how the whales send a click then interpret the echo:

Here is video showing a whale taking a fish off a longline…wait for it…:

Who knows, long term, what our demand for sablefish will do the population of this long lived species. One can only hope that we have learned by now to be very cautious in their management, and that we accept that our lines are an intrusion into the ocean world where the sperm whales live and feed.
Fish Watch
AP article on beads

Paddleboarders And Whales – Don’t Try This At Home

Humpback breaches near paddle boarder in Colombia (Photo by Dan Merkel)

Emmy award winning surf photographer Dan Merkel has captured some awe inspiring images during his 30 year career, and was apparently intent on photographing paddle boarders in the surf down in Colombia when they came across a couple of active humpback whales. (Mail Online).  The surf does not look spectacular, and the lighting must have been disappointing, but the whales more than made up for it.
Increasingly, as paddle boarding has become more popular, people are venturing farther offshore and occasionally are graced with a visit from these benign animals. It is illegal to approach most species too closely – yet if they approach you, chances are you are both lucky, and safe.  Paddle too close to the whales however, or interrupt their rest or other activities and you may get hurt by startled or preoccupied animals.  That said, the more we are able to enjoy the experience of the animals that share the ocean, the more likely we are to protect them, and how amazing it is to witness.  How interested they seem to be in us too:
A Minke whale accompanied paddler Jodie Nelson on her 40 mile, 9 hour trip between Dana Point, Ca and Catalina Island

In March 2010, a Minke whale accompanied paddle boarder Jodie Nelson for two of the nine hours she was on the water, raising money to benefit cancer research. “The Minke whale that joined me for almost two hours on my 39.8 mile journey from Avalon to Dana Point was swimming below me in the clear water. I could see the whales eyes looking at me, its tail would be at times right under and in front of my [board]. I just had to trust the whale and keep paddling.” (See earlier post).
In regions of the world where people cherish the experience of seeing whales and dolphins in the wild, these cetaceans are becoming more relaxed and natural around us – remarkably so because many species live for 100 years or more and have experienced the worst humanity has done to them.
Mark Olson with blue whale off Rodondo Beach (Surftech Paddle Sports)

Axel Ohm paddles by a southern right whale (Exclusive Pix)

“Life is not mea­sured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.”

SeaWorld Accused of Stealing Park Designs, Faces More Lawsuits

SeaWorld’s self-defeating tendency to do the wrong thing then lie about it seems to pop up everywhere, and it is difficult to find positive things to say about their parks these days, though I am rooting for them to change.

Revere designed a roller coaster and other attractions, and was never paid by SeaWorld (Creative Commons photo)

Currently embroiled with the U.S. government over their responsibility in trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death last year, SeaWorld faces a simultaneous lawsuit from Revere Entertainment Studios who claim that SeaWorld contracted with them for park designs, implemented the designs with slight modifications, then refused to pay the studios.
SeaWorld’s comment?
“SeaWorld and the other defendants argued that Revere signed a non-confidentiality agreement and that Busch Entertainment “made no commitment to keep products, ideas or materials secret or in confidence.”  In an emailed statement, Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld, called the allegations “baseless and meritless.” (Read more: http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/article_ef4b8729-c172-54f9-8c76-0e0fc89523d3.html#ixzz1Yoxb09Zf )
So the billion dollar corporation, rather than pay up for the designs, took advantage of a trusting designer…because they thought they could get away with it.  Because SeaWorld is used to operating like schoolyard bullies and pushing around the powerless.  Because they have never figured out that a simple apology and willingness to pay their debt would do more for their bottom line than winning a lawsuit.
Other gems?  Spokesperson Jacobs has said, with respect to the brutal dolphin captures in Taiji  “We think we’re being unfairly criticized for something we’re opposed to, haven’t been involved with in 20 years, and when we were involved with it, it was for very good reasons.(More here)
Their take on the fines issued to them in relation to Brancheau’s death:  “These allegations are completely baseless, unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care,” said SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides. “The safety of our guests and employees and the welfare of our animals are core values for SeaWorld and areas in which we do not compromise.” (Huffington Post).  This, after three people lost their lives.
SeaWorld does do important rescue and rehabilitation work, but at this point that fact is overshadowed by their apparent inability to admit mistakes and make corrections, and is diminished by their attempts to suppress information and cover-up failure.

SeaWorld’s Case Against The Government Not Going Swimmingly…Updated 9/23/11

SeaWorld appears to be in a tank of hot water over discrepancies in their version of the circumstances associated with trainer Dawn Brancheau’s violent death in the jaws of a killer whale last year. Testimony from observers conflicts with SeaWorld’s accounting of the incident, and video apparently supports the witnesses. 
(Update 9/21/11  Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has admitted to keeping incomplete records on aggressive acts by orcas.  ” SeaWorld has repeatedly failed to document incidents of aggression displayed by killer whales to animal trainers, lawyers for the federal government charged Wednesday…But using separate internal documents — animal profiles that include the behavioral history for each of SeaWorld’s roughly two dozen killer whales — OSHA pointed out a number of events that were never included in the incident-report log, including an incident where a whale lunged into a trainer. OSHA cited five incidents mentioned in a single whale profile that were not included in the incident-report log”. From the Orlando Sentinel.)
(Update 9/23/11  SeaWorld attorneys asked a killer whale expert if  he could say for certain that a well-fed whale would kill.  (Anyone with a cat can answer that question) .  The hearings are taking longer than expected, and will resume on November 15th).  Please go to The Orca Project for the full story and analysis over the coming days.

For instance, according to the Huffington Post, the myth that Dawn was pulled into the water by her ponytail is being debunked, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no safe way for trainers to be in the water with killer whales:

Attorneys for OSHA introduced about 16 minutes of video taken by a witness at the time Brancheau died, but it stopped about a minute before the whale named Tilikum pulled her underwater and drowned her. The video showed Brancheau (bran-CHOH’) on the edge of the pool feeding and directing the whale during a special dining show at the theme park. Later in the show, she’s shown interacting with the whale in the water.
What wasn’t shown Tuesday was footage of Tilikum grabbing her and violently dragging her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries. OSHA’s attorneys declined comment after the hearing on why they didn’t show the footage.

Fredy Herrera, a security officer who was inside Shamu Stadium and witnessed Brancheau’s death, disputed that she was pulled underneath the water by her ponytail – which is part of the account long held by SeaWorld and other witnesses. He said it looked like she was pulled by her arm from his vantage point across the pool.
Because it would be easier for a whale to reach someone’s arm than hair, Herrera’s account bolsters OSHA’s contention that trainers were exposed to dangerous conditions. Going forward, it would also be more difficult to design safety measures to keep whales from grabbing an arm because trainers use their hands to feed and direct the animals.
“The angle that I was across the pool, that’s what I saw,” he said. “I may have a doubt, but that’s what I saw. I saw her arm by the whale going down and that’s why I assumed that is what happened.”

An author and a former trainer were interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN yesterday, and have insightful points of view on the controversy:

(The Orca Project website is an excellent source for background information on this complex subject).

Minorities May Find More Opportunities At SeaWorld Following The OSHA Hearings

No matter what the outcome for SeaWorld following their challenge of the government’s rulings on SeaWorld’s ability to keep their personnel safe around killer whales, one thing is certain;  SeaWorld is going to have to reinvent itself or face the prospect of going out of business.
Not just because they are showing themselves to be remarkably indifferent to the dangers their trainers face on a daily basis, or that they are showing themselves to be far south of trustworthy – but because the era when big business can do as they please, cover up, wine & dine around regulations is gone.  SeaWorld was built on an attitude of arrogance and exclusion, and as they have grown through the decades they had become accustomed to dodging regulations if not outright influencing government decisions – from deciding what the standards of care are for whales, to choosing which rescued marine mammals should be allowed to live, SeaWorld has left its imprint.
SeaWorld created a marine circus with sparkling pools to entice families to spend their money on SeaWorld’s enterprise, hiding the mistreatment of the animals and giving the illusion that being a trainer is the most glamorous job imaginable.
Unless you are a minority.
For whatever reason, you just don’t see black trainers doing water work with killer whales.  As a matter of fact, you seldom see anything but pale faces from SeaWorld when cameras are trained on them.  Their recently hired Orlando Park president,Terry W. Prather,  identifies himself as African American, but that appears to be the exception.
When I was looking through the witness reports on Dawn Brancheau’s death,  I noticed that witness after witness is listed as white.  Of the 41 witnesses that were employed at SeaWorld, 3 were black.  It looks like two of those were employed in the restaurant, though it is hard to be sure, and none were listed as trainers. None identified themselves as Asian or Native American.
That is less than 7%.  The black population of Orlando is 27% (http://orlando.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm). Because SeaWorld has proven itself to be excruciatingly indifferent and obtuse about their statistics, I didn’t even bother trying to contact them this time, but the pictures, and the evidence don’t lie.
It is time to diversify or to face dwindling attendance by people who don’t see themselves represented fairly, and if SeaWorld can’t recruit minorities willing to go in the water with dangerous animals, then it is just another clue that whole segments of our population don’t relate to those circus acts. Instead, SeaWorld could hire people of all races and physical ability to reconstruct liveable habitat for the animals and to figure out a way to make money from keeping the whales in sea pens instead of tanks.
It is time for SeaWorld to find a new direction and abandon its antiquated perceptions carried over from the fifties.
The final irony here is transparent in this video about how SeaWorld’s new show is supposed to embrace the world, yet it looks pretty much more of the same-old same-old.

SeaWorld’s Battle With The Government – Check ‘The Orca Project’ for Background Information and Updates

Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum

If you have not yet discovered The Orca Project, now is a great time to visit their website:   “Since its inception in 2010, The Orca Project has collaborated with some of the world’s top marine mammal experts, caring professionals and individuals from diverse backgrounds to cover the debate on orca captivity, the death of Dawn Brancheau and the history and current conditions of Tilikum’s confinement.”
Beginning Monday, 9/19/11, SeaWorld is going to court to fight the $75,000 fine leveled on them for “willful” safety violations associated with the trainer’s death last year, and The Orca Project has organized a page that provides links to all the background information on the death (including the autopsy report), and will update the proceedings this week frequently.

From The Orca Project:

We also encourage former and present trainers, marine mammal park employees (in the U.S. and abroad), scientists, authors, individuals and the media to contact us at info@theorcaproject.com to continue this important work. Confidentiality is assured if you wish to remain anonymous.

Please check this post often during the week. We will be providing updates from the court hearing in Florida and including them at the bottom of this post as the week’s events unfold. Also be sure to follow us on FaceBook and Twitter (@TheOrcaProject) for all the latest news and reports.

SeaWorld Shows Signs of Evolving Away From Its Circus Theme

SeaWorld Rehabilitation Facility

There are some positive signs emerging from SeaWorld that it is moving in new directions, trying to keep pace with a changing world. The public is increasingly turning away from circus shows, and with the hot water surrounding SeaWorld at the moment over the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last year, SeaWorld may have to give up having trainers in the water permanently. (OSHA hearings)
Recent good news came when SeaWorld’s Orlando park chose to put both of the rescued pilot whales together – a move guaranteed to help both adjust to their lives in captivity, and the kindest choice for the animals. In previous years SeaWorld would no doubt have placed the animals in different parks to increase the attendance at each.
Now it appears as though SeaWorld is prepared to re-invent itself, albeit slowly.  They want to tap into the children’s market with movies and other ‘consumer products’, and according to this article at least, will be relying heavily on material from the past.

SeaWorld, the brand wrapped around 10 marine-themed amusement parks across the US, has taken its first steps into the kids entertainment biz with its newly formed SeaWorld Pictures division.
…Helmstedter says the company is also exploring TV and animated content, which will be produced within their own divisions. At press time, he couldn’t give details on the yet-to-be-named divisions or their development slates, but says there are several projects in the pipeline in-house and with partners that will be announced in coming months. Beyond that, he says the company is very focused on the kids space and will be on the hunt for new live-action and animated projects at MIPCOM next month and Kidscreen Summit 2012.
Additionally, Helmstedter says SeaWorld has plans to expand its currently modest consumer products program and further leverage its library of music and the more than 30,000 hours of film footage amassed since the first park opened in 1964. It depicts rescues, conservation activities and SeaWorld’s menagerie of animals.

SeaWorld has a golden opportunity with this new direction to change from a corporation built in a time when circuses regularly exploited and mistreated wild animals, to a company that embraces modern attitudes of conservation and kindness.

Of course, they may attempt to indoctrinate another generation of children into the myth of Shamu, but that would be huge mistake.  Today’s parents are savvy and want to expose their children to experiences that reflect the values of their own generation.
Pilot Whale

We’ll still be watching…

New Dolphin Species Identified in Australia; ‘Large Sea Fish of the Porpoise Kind’

Courtesy Asia News

A newly identified dolphin species has been given the aboriginal name of ‘burrunan dolphin’, which means “large sea fish of the porpoise kind’ in several aboriginal languages.  Its scientific name is ‘Tursiops australis’.
This dolphin is not a new species in an evolutionary sense, it has been living and playing in a few limited spots along Australia’s southern coast all along – but until recently was assumed to be the familiar bottlenose dolphin (Trusiops truncatus) or the Indian bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops adunctus).
A group of scientific sleuths, by careful analysis of the morphology and tissue composition of the dolphins, recently discovered that this small population (believed to number around 150) is different enough from the other species that it deserves species recognition, and possibly genus as well – which may mean it is sufficiently different that it won’t be considered a bottlenose dolphin at all.
Because there are so few known animals, the scientists are hoping that these dolphins can be given protected status right away, while they study the ecological role this small band of dolphins plays in the ocean web.  The current assumption is that the burrunan dolphin has a different foraging pattern from the other species, thus avoiding competition with other local dolphins.

A Whale a World Away in Distress – Sleepless in Tiny Tank, and the Clock is Ticking

Whales and dolphins never sleep, at least not the way we do.  They have brief quiet periods of semi-alert consciousness, but there are no quiet hours of reprieve from boredom, stress, or grief.  And most baby dolphins (including orcas), can’t stop swimming, at all, until they build enough blubber to provide buoyancy and warmth*.
In the wild, their families support the calves, take turns watching over them and protecting them.
Alone in captivity, however, they circle endlessly.  Day and night. Rain or shine. When the parks close, the visitors go home, and just the nightwatchmen patrol the grounds, the whales have nothing to do.  Hour after hour.
And worst of all, sometimes they have no companions whatsoever.

To learn more about Morgan’s plight, please go to: