Dolphins, Sharks, and Coconut Trees – Research at “Gilligan’s Island”

As part of the Ocean Awareness Training (OAT) workshop that is periodically offered in Hawaii, the current session’s participants were able to visit the University of Hawaii’s Marine Research lab on Coconut Island.
It turns out that the island is rich with history, including the fact that the opening sequence to the TV series ‘Gilligan’s Island‘ was filmed there (see bottom of article), and that the island once held exotic animals when it was owned by the heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune back in the 1930s.
According to our guides, full-sized coconut trees were brought in for a lavish party and it is believed that the present coconut trees are descended from those original party trees. Dolphins and sharks have replaced the elephants that were once housed there.

(Photo by
(Photo by

Now operated by the university and populated by scientists (who stay in dorms during their research or commute by boat), the island shows little sign of having been party central for the rich and famous.
The island feels beautifully appropriate for marine research, and the areas we were taken to see held sharks (reef and hammerhead) in naturally flushing net pens and lagoons.  Three dolphins and a false killer whale are kept in sea pens (upper left corner of photo above) but we were not taken out to see them.
coconut island map
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.

Volunteers Larry and       led our group and gave us background information on the history of the island.
Community Education Program volunteers Larry and Jean gave us background information on the history of the island.

The OAT workshop participants were fascinated by the ocean life and cherished the rare opportunity to go to the island and get a small peek into the research there.
The plankton class was fascinating, and the capable and entertaining intern Leon shepherded us around the island while answering questions. Everyone wanted to know more about the dolphins, and Leon informed us that the animals are well cared for, highly trained, and that the latest research may help lead to ways to protect marine mammals from the destructive sounds in their environment. (More on this soon).
Staff intern gave us a short course on plankton.
Staff intern Leon Weaver gave us a short course on plankton.

We learned hands-on about ocean acidification by watching a pinch of coral sand dissolve into water, carbon dioxide, and calcium carbonate in the palms of our hands when acetic acid (vinegar) was applied.  We were shown how the more acidic environment occurring in the world’s oceans then inhibits the growth of coral and other marine species (the oceans become more acidic as carbon dioxide increases – an easy to understand explanation of this process can be found here).
It is up to each one of us to turn the situation around, the ocean is the heart and lungs of this planet and is perilously close to being unable to support life as we know it. The scientists at Coconut Island are quietly studying the problem, and it was both reassuring and alarming to learn what they are finding out – reassuring because there is a huge effort going on, alarming because so many people refuse to take it seriously.
If we shipwreck our planet, there is no ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to save us.

UPDATE:  It has been pointed out to me by my son Nick that there is indeed a ‘Gilligan’s Planet’ (!):

Deadline Looms for Captive Orca Whale; You Can Help Lolita, the Fisheries Service is Listening Until 6/28/13

“We just had the most amazing trip … L25, Ocean Sun, scared a fish out from under the boat and teamed up with L41, Mega, to take it down”.  SpringTide Whale Tours
On June 18th, the Victoria, B.C. SpringTide Whale Tours reported watching Ocean Sun (L 25) the mother of the captive orca Lolita, catch fish with her companion, Mega (L 41).  It must have been thrilling, yet whenever Ocean Sun is seen, thoughts inevitably turn to the circumstances of her daughter’s capture and subsequent confinement at Miami Seaquarium.
You can help in the effort to improve her life by making a comment as to why this whale should have the same endangered species status as the rest of her family.  Please comment to the National Marine Fisheries Service site by June 28th (information is below). It has taken a long time to get this far (I wrote about it back in February of 2010 Captive L Pod Orca is Caught in a Legal Quagmire), please don’t let the opportunity pass!

(Courtesy Orca Network)
(Courtesy of Orca Network)

(More background information from the National Fisheries Service on Lolita can be found HERE.)

Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.

Lolita's mother, Ocean Sun, has the distinctive open 'saddle' behind her dorsal fin. Photo by Dave Ellifrit,courtesy the Center for Whale Research
Lolita’s mother, Ocean Sun, has the distinctive open patch behind her dorsal fin. Photo by Dave Ellifrit,courtesy the Center for Whale Research

The petition addressed by this notice describes Lolita, a female killer whale captured from the Southern Resident population in 1970, who currently resides at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, Florida, as the only remaining member of the Southern Residents alive in captivity. The petitioners present biological information about Lolita’s genetic heritage and contend that Lolita is a member of the endangered Southern Resident DPS and should be included under the ESA listing. In addition, they provide a legal argument regarding the applicability of the ESA to captive members of endangered species. The petition also includes information about how each of the five section 4(a)(1) factors applies with respect to Lolita. Lastly, the petitioners contend that including Lolita in the ESA listing will contribute to conservation of the wild Southern Resident killer whale population.
Please make comments by June 28th at the Federal site!

Dolphin Injury to Ribs May Lead to Death in Captivity, But Heal in the Wild

Photo from Dolphin Therapy, Bali
Photo from Dolphin Therapy, Bali

Chances are, the dolphins we see jumping through hoops in amusement parks everywhere may have undetected injuries, causing them pain as they are forced to entertain us. They are plagued by dental and skeletal injuries in both wild and captive circumstances, but interestingly – although not surprisingly – the dolphins heal significantly better in the wild. Scientists speculate that this can be due to the fact that captive dolphins are forced to do tricks such as pulling trainers through the water or beaching themselves while performing with injured ribs:

...None of the latter specimens has been observed to be the victim of severe crashes between animals, nor had any of them a big accident during performances.
From the state of healing, the fractures must have occurred only a few weeks before death, and they possibly have caused or aggravated the lung diseases they are so often suffering from. It is important to point out that such fractures are generally not recognized general autopsy. Only in one delphinarium specimen, whose skeleton has not been conserved for the study collection, broken ribs were recognized because they protruded into the thoracic cavity.
All these findings give the impression that rib fractures are more common in delphinarium specimens than often is believed; they should receive attention during autopsies.
Another important fact is that in the wild specimens the broken ribs nicely heal. In the delphinarium specimens, however, healing does not seem to follow that easily.  One may suppose that the jumps during performances, the swimming in a limited space and occasional beaching during performances or during examination are not favorable for healing.
If, after an accident, rib fractures can be suspected, it seems to be recommendable not to take the animal out of the water for some weeks. Their body-weight, no longer sustained by the surrounding water, could push the rib into the lungs and cause pulmonary lesions.
The old wild specimen with the many broken ribs also shows broken but completely healed lateral apophyses of two lumbar vertebrae. Another wild specimen, caught the river in 1960, had several broken and healed neural spines in the lumbar region. SLIJPER (1931 and 1936) reports several cases of broken apophyses in other species. Although such fractures may be quite common, they heal easily and apparently do not cause much harm to the animal. (Aquatic Mammals Journal).

This study was done in the late 70’s, yet more than three decades later not much seems to have changed in the management of dolphins in captivity. The veterinarians at the amusement parks are either unaware of this information or choose to ignore it – but in either case, dolphins continue to be forced to perform for their supper every day, day in, day out  – and no doubt, often in pain, possibly leading to lung problems and death.
According to a 2012 national report on marine mammals, the one park I scrutinized (Sea Life Park, Oahu, Hawaii), has records going back to the 60’s which show that fully a third of the dolphins for which there are records died of causes linked to lung problems – most of those were pneumonia.
Were the lung problems related to rib fractures?  It is impossible to know because there is no mention that the veterinarians knew to check the ribcage during postmortem examinations, and amusement parks are no longer required to report the cause of death to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Marine Mammal Protection Act was significantly reduced in scope in 1999.

Wiki Commons photo
Wiki Commons photo

As to why dolphins suffer from so many injuries to their spines and ribs, it is likely the result of aggression and accidents and in the confines of captivity they may not be able to find an escape from each other.
Many species of dolphins have been observed to ram or head-butt other dolphins, and in a study of 50 pilot whales who had beached themselves, roughly half showed healed fractures in the jaw, some had been fractured more than once at different points in their lives.  Among males the rate was 71%.  As with the ribs among wild dolphins, these fractures healed nicely.  Taken together then, it would appear that dolphin dynamics can be very aggressive and serious but the cetaceans are well equipped with natural healing ability in the wild .
Dolphins also suffer fractures from net entanglement, so some of the fractures observed in wild dolphins may be related to having survived a run-in with fishing apparatus:
Gross Evidence of Human-Induced Mortality in Small Cetaceans

Many dolphins killed in fishing gear also exhibit ante-mortem broken bones and associated blood clots and macerated soft tissue. Typically these bones include mandibles, flippers, ribs or the vertebral processes.

In any case, the poor rate of healing and high rate of complications illustrate once again the failure of captive conditions to provide adequately for the needs of dolphins and whales.

Orca Whales Imitate Each Other and People – Scientists Correlate Imitation with Intelligence
Even though the young orca in the video above is likely  being cued and rewarded for imitating people, it shows the whales’ remarkable similarity to humans in that the orcas possess the ability to copy what they observe – and in this case, the behavior of another species (humans) behind a glass barrier where the whales are not even able to use their full senses.  Their phenomenal sound perception is useless to them in this task.
Scientists acknowledge that this ability most likely contributes to their development of different cultures in the wild throughout the world:

Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Comparative experimental studies of imitative learning have focused mainly on primates and birds. However, cetaceans are promising candidates to display imitative learning as they have evolved in socioecological settings that have selected for large brains, complex sociality, and coordinated predatory tactics. Here we tested imitative learning in killer whales, Orcinus orca. We used a ‘do-as-other-does’ paradigm in which 3 subjects witnessed a conspecific demonstrator’s performance that included 15 familiar and 4 novel behaviours. The three subjects (1) learned the copy command signal ‘Do that’ very quickly, that is, 20 trials on average; (2) copied 100 % of the demonstrator’s familiar and novel actions; (3) achieved full matches in the first attempt for 8–13 familiar behaviours (out of 15) and for the 2 novel behaviours (out of 2) in one subject; and (4) took no longer than 8 trials to accurately copy any familiar behaviour, and no longer than 16 trials to copy any novel behaviour. This study provides experimental evidence for body imitation, including production imitation, in killer whales that is comparable to that observed in dolphins tested under similar conditions. These findings suggest that imitative learning may underpin some of the group-specific traditions reported in killer whales in the field.

But what about in captivity? Do the orcas have an opportunity to learn by observing each other? Or does the constant shuffling of whales from place to place make it even harder for them to adjust to captive conditions.
At Seaworld, San Diego, the orcas have a hobby of hunting birds by baiting them with fish. At least three different whales do this – did they learn from each other?

If the orcas do learn this hunting technique from each other, what other behaviors do they learn, unperceived by people?
Dr. Ken Norris, a pioneer in the study of marine mammals, often speculated on how whales and dolphins might use their sonar to look into each others bodies and therefore be able to observe subtle physical cues that we can’t see. (Personal communication).
Ultimately, this ability to imitate is another reason why captivity fails these whales – a young whale who learns a language of behavior and sound in one park probably finds it worthless when moved to another, perpetuating the cycle of aggression.
And who knows what they teach each other about people…

What Seaworld Does Right

Hands down, Seaworld is the most well equipped and well-funded organization to rescue ill and injured marine life, a fact that even the most ardent animal activist will concede. While by now it is well understood that Seaworld cherry picks and keeps the rescued animals according to what is beneficial to the corporate needs and manipulates the system for private profit, it is also true that they rescue, rehabilitate and release thousands of animals. This weeks’ rescue of a bottlenose dolphin is a case in point.
Seaworld, partnering with the research entity Hubbs-Seaworld, maintains that they have responded to 47 calls on stranded dolphins recently, six last week alone. It is a good guess that 46 died before they got there or were euthanized on the spot. The appropriateness of who makes that decision is questionable, we can only trust that it is made by government officials – the process to get accurate accounts of these events is complicated and sometime futile.

Since Jan. 1, SeaWorld has responded to 47 stranded dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, about twice the usual rate. Thursday’s was the first live animal so far. Most have been emaciated, and federal wildlife officials are investigating the mysterious deaths.
“He didn’t look like he was in bad condition,” Mazza [Teresa Mazza, research assistant with Hubbs-SeaWord Research Institute in Melbourne Beach] said of Thursday’s stranded dolphin, which she said did not seem very emaciated.
“Right now, we haven’t found anything to link them together,” Mazza said of this year’s dolphin deaths in the lagoon. “We’ve had six animals in the last six days.” (Florida Today)

In this California rescue, you might think that Seaworld was going to snatch the baby dolphin, but they free it – no mention of whether the mother was nearby or not but hopefully they took that factor into account in their decision-making process and didn’t just do this as a PR opportunity, since a lone calf doesn’t stand much of a chance of survival.
With the deteriorating conditions of the oceans and the increasing damage to marine animals from contaminants and sound pollution, Seaworld could phase out its killer whale shows and replace them with animals being rehabilitated, they could really participate in research on some of the lesser known dolphins and whales, and still make money hand over fist. They could develop lagoons to help the larger species, and to rehabilitate any dolphin or whale scheduled for release. It is the way of the future.
Of course, they could keep taking animals from the wild as they did for their penguin display, and turning them into circus clowns (notice the killer whale necklace?). The question is, will Seaworld change with the times, or go out of business because of a dated and unpopular stance on whale and dolphin shows?

More Seaworld "education" at work...
More Seaworld “education” at work…

L Pod Orcas Lost Two Members, End of a Matriline Looms

Yesterday the Center for Whale Research reported that two adult female orcas are now dead.  While both were senior members of the Southern Resident orcas and no longer able to bear calves, their roles in the orca culture nonetheless were important. The most disturbing fact about the death of one of the females is that she leaves behind just one son with no other offspring to continue the family line.
Long term research by the Center for Whale research has shown both that post-reproductive females have a significant role in the care of calves – just as human grandparents do – and that the sons often die once their mothers are gone. One of the deceased whales, L2 lost three of her offspring through the years, and only her youngest son, L88 is still alive.  In the Southern Resident orca culture, for reasons that are not fully understood, this means that L88 is functionally an orphan even though he is about 20 years old – he is unlikely to survive unless adopted by another female.  If he is unable to produce a viable offspring, the family line will peter out.  There are now 37 members in L pod, the largest of the three pods. (Originally reported as 38).

This is a unique population of friendly, urban whales. (Center for Whale Research photo).
This is a unique population of friendly, urban whales. (Center for Whale Research photo).

From the Orca Network:

L2 has been missing since late last year, and L26 was last seen looking emaciated in March by Northwest Fisheries Science Center. L26 was not seen June 5 and 6 when most of L pod, including her matriline, were surveyed by CWR. Both post-reproductrive females, L26 was born approximately 1956, and L2 was born about 1960.

Decades of research on this population by the Center for Whale Research has been fundamental in gaining insight into the orcas’ culture, and this year they have initiated a membership program to help keep their boats on the water and their eyes on the whales.
Some background information on why it is crucial to keep this independent and non-profit organization going:
“In 1976, “Orca Survey” was launched as a census to determine the status of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Orca Survey is a long-term photo-identification study of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the San Juan Island area of the Pacific Northwest. It was initiated by Principal Investigator Ken Balcomb in 1976 (under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ascertain the size of the population of Killer whales in the Greater Puget Sound environs of Washington State.
For over three decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been conducting annual photo-identification studies of the Southern Resident Killer whale (SRKW) population that frequent the inland waters of Washington State and lower British Columbia .
This detailed understanding of population status and trends has supported management decisions in both Canada and the United States. Most recently, data derived from CWR’s long-term studies have been used to support listing decisions in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and in Canada under the Species At Risk Act, with SRKWs now listed as Endangered in both countries.”

The Center for Whale Research, Friday Harbor, Wa
The Center for Whale Research, Friday Harbor, Wa

Do Female Killer Whales Have a Worse Life in Captivity than Males?

Photo courtesy of Bettina Klootwijk.
Photo courtesy of Bettina Klootwijk.

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.

SeaWorld: End Captive Orca Breeding Program

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.

At Last, a Solution For Rising Ocean Levels! (Sunday Funnies)

“Sponges grow in the ocean. That just kills me. I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that didn’t happen.”  (Steven Wright).
Now why didn’t someone at the National Marine Fisheries Service figure this out?  We have taken too many sponges from the sea over the centuries with perilous consequences…

Quick!  Put them back!
Quick! Put them back!

They are beautiful!  (NOAA)
They are beautiful when alive! (Courtesy of NOAA)

Sponge biodiversity and morphotypes at the lip of our wall site in 60 ft of water. Included are the yellow tube sponge, Aplysina fistularis, the purple vase sponge, Niphates digitalis, the red encrusting sponge, Spiratrella coccinea, and the gray rope sponge, Callyspongia sp. Image courtesy of Cayman Island Twilight Zone 2007 Exploration, NOAA-OE.

sea sponge

Look at how much water they hold!

Tilikum, a Bored and Broken Killer Whale; His Tragic Tale Will Soon be Out in Paperback

Just in time for summer, Death At Seaworld will soon hit the shelves in paperback – light and portable, it will be even harder to put down than was the hardback version.  The book chronicles the death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau at the jaws of Tilikum, the enormous killer whale who grabbed and dismantled her, his third victim.
Author David Kirby crafts the story in such a way that the reader comes to understand how the whale’s mind and body have been psychologically and physically damaged by life in captivity, ultimately leading to his aberrant attacks on humans (which never occur in the wild).  You can’t help but wonder where the breaking point is for all the rest of the captive orcas, when another one will snap and end the life of another a human being.
Following Dawn’s death Tilikum’s days have been spent drifting aimlessly in the confines of his featureless tank, looking bored, broken, and unhealthy.  He occasionally participates  in shows to break the monotony.
You might want to pre-order your copy of Death at Seaworld at Amazon to get it when first released so you have time to read it before the film Blackfish is released a few weeks later…you’ll want to be prepared. See below to find out how get the author’s autograph.

#1 Readers Poll Choice for Summer Books –Wall Street Journal Online
“Kirby makes a passionate case for captivity as the reason orcas become killers (and) tells the story like a thriller. His argument is, for the most part, fair and persuasive… We probably can’t free the orcas in captivity today, but we could make the current group of captive killer whales the last.”
–Wall Street Journal

Belying their claim to be in the business of education, Seaworld bends facts to hide the damage captive conditions causes the animals in their care. In this video, the viewers are told that Tilikum’s dorsal fin flops over his back because of genetics but there is no research to support this, and it happens to a frightening number of unrelated captive whales.
And on the subject of research, even though Seaworld claims that keeping whales in tanks make it possible to do research that will ultimately help both the whales’ wild brethren and humanity (how?), it would be easier to get the formula for Coca Cola than it is to find what research has been done by them. Various scientists have reported that Seaworld rarely grants access to the whales, even for observational studies which would not interfere with the amusement park’s programs.

image002 dasw cover pb

From Fins and Fluke:

Please join our “Death at SeaWorld” paperback initiative to get this incredible book on the best-sellers list! If you preorder the book and send us proof-of-purchase we will send you a signed sticker by David Kirby to put in the front of your new book! Already own the hardback? No problem; consider ordering a paperback and donating to a library or high school to get the word out.