Miami 6 February 2022 – PETA has just learned from confidential sources of egregious developments and animal failings at the Miami Seaquarium. Beloved Lolita the orca—whose small, shallow, barren concrete tank has been closed to the public for months—is reportedly suffering from pneumonia and is in danger of not receiving adequate care. The current attending veterinarian, Shelby Loos, reportedly possessed no orca experience when she was hired in 2019. She left in 2020 but was rehired last year after the Seaquarium fired its longtime head veterinarian after she expressed concern about the extent of animal suffering at the park.
“Lolita has suffered for five decades in this despicable animal prison, and if she has pneumonia, that greatly increases the risk of dying she faces in this inadequate facility,” says PETA Foundation Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Animal Law Jared Goodman. “PETA is calling on the Seaquarium to shut down before any more sentient beings suffer and die in its tiny tanks.”
The whistleblowers also shared with PETA horrific photographs of Abaco, a 19-year-old dolphin who drowned after his rostrum became entangled in a net separating two pools and, as his necropsy revealed, had also incurred injuries from being attacked by incompatible dolphins. Abaco was one of six animals who died at the Seaquarium in 2019 and 2020, all from trauma-related causes—including to the head and neck with hemorrhaging.
In September, PETA obtained a damning 17-page federal inspection report revealing a slew of animal welfare violations at the Seaquarium, including that it had failed to provide Lolita and several other animals with sufficient shade, leaving them in direct sunlight, which can cause painful damage to their eyes. This is the first time the USDA cited the facility for insufficient shade, even though PETA has been raising the issue for years. Lolita has been held alone there for more than 40 years. She displays repetitive and abnormal behavior, which, according to marine mammal experts, indicates severe psychological trauma. The Seaquarium is currently under further investigation by the USDA.
From Peta’s media release
It looks as though Alexandra, the youngest killer whale to be released, has joined three of the other freed orcas in the Shantar Islands area of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Of the 10 killer whales who were returned to the sea where they had been captured, only Alexandra needed initial support following her release.
She had become separated from the other two orcas in her group (Vitas and Nut) and wound up hanging around fishing boats where she was fed. Then she headed over a hundred miles to the north, where she continued to pluck the occasional fish from nets and appeared to hunt successfully on her own.
But what great news; Alexandra has returned south and joined up with Tikhon, Zoya, and Gadget who were released a few weeks after her. If she stays with them, her chances of survival are as high as the others.
It’s inspiring to follow these intelligent animals as they adjust to life back in the wild – studies of wild orca populations have shown that their cultures and dialects vary and at this point, we don’t know how those factors play into which whales remain together. Gender, age, personality, food abundance, locating family members, and changing ocean conditions may also contribute to the ultimate success of each whale.
Genetic tests showed that these are mammal-eating type orcas…yet they had been fed fish while they were in captivity. Will they expand their dietary preferences now? Or go back to eating the seals and sea lions of the region exclusively? The winter conditions in that region are challenging, and it is most likely that they will select the more calorie rich mammals, but a lot depends on what they can find.
One of the first released orcas, Vasilyevna, has found a place in a group of wild whales, where she was observed hunting seals and food sharing with others. She was released with Lyokha, but his satellite tag stopped working and there are no reports on his location.
There are no updates as yet on Forest and Kharya, the last to be released.
How often we wake up to good news these days is anyone’s guess, but when that news involves a project that required people to put aside political beliefs, to work with groups who opposed each other in fundamental attitudes about cherished wildlife, to find funding…this success is stunning. At least one of the freed killer whales in Russia has been accepted into a wild group.
It means that captive orcas can be released back into the wild and successfully find their families (or at least into a group that will accept them).
And hopefully, it means that there is as much public support to see these kinds of reparations to nature as there is to see the babies taken to captivity for our amusement.
A huge amount of work has gone on behind the scenes by people who may never be known; so congratulations to you too. And to those who gave financially, and to the public worldwide for caring.
The trials of adjustment aren’t over for the whales (more on that later) but whatever the final outcome, this tremendous effort has shown the world that it can be done.
From The All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO):
LOCATION OF KILLER WHALES AND BELUGA WHALES ON AUGUST 29
According to data from satellite tags installed on animals released into the Sea of Okhotsk on August 27, 2 killer whales Kharya and Forest moved 50 km from the place of release and are moving towards Sakhalin.
The trajectory of their movement is very similar to the one along which the youngest female killer whale Alexander from the second release.
Killer whale Alexandra reached the Shantar Islands, where now there are other animals released from the Srednyaya Bay. It is 40 km from the three killer whales of Zoe, Tikhon and Gadget, which hunt in the region of Udskaya Bay.
As part of a joint monitoring and exchange of information between VNIRO and the Coalition “For the freedom of killer whales and whales”, Grigory Tsidulko, a member of the Council for Marine Mammals, said that during the study of bowhead whales in the Shantar Sea, he and other members of the Council: Svetlana Artemyeva and By Stanislav Zakharov, on August 20 a tagged killer whale was discovered, one of the ones released in the summer of 2019. The killer whale was [encountered] in the bay of Constantine.
At the time of the meeting, she was in a group with other seven killer whales and participated in the hunt. In front of observers, a family of killer whales caught two seals, which were divided between the group members and eaten.
Analysis of images taken during [observation] of killer whales [taken] allow us to define the tagged killer whale as “Vasilievna” – this is a female released into the Sea of Okhotsk in the first installment on June 27.
Belugas are located 25 km from Cape Perovsky and move in the opposite direction from killer whales towards Alexandra Bay.
VNIRO Press Service
According to the Russian Federal Research Institute Of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO), little Alexandra is thriving. She’s hunting on her own in a biologically rich part of the Sea of Okhotsk, although she occasionally snacks on the buffet offered by fishing nets.
The youngest female Alexandra, released on July 16, has come a long way across the Sea of Okhotsk and is now in the North Okhotsk Sea subzone, about 600 km north of the Shantar Islands.
During her free life, she has eaten fish in fixed nets near Chkalov island, hunted near the Northern shores of Sakhalin, then spent more than a week in the open sea north of Sakhalin, prowling on the migration routes of Pacific salmon.
Then she, at high speed, overcoming more than 100 km per day, which indicates its good physical shape, crossed the Sea of Okhotsk from east to west, and now has come to the fishing areas in the North Okhotsk Sea Subzone.
Because she is hunting in areas of high fish abundance, the scientists believe she may have been misidentified as a mammal-eating type:
In general, the nature of Alexandra’s movements after her release indicates that she consistently checks the main areas of summer fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk. This behavior of Alexandra casts doubt on her belonging to the so-called “carnivorous” ecotype, previously determined on the basis of DNA marker analysis.
Please note, however, that she may be hunting for what she is accustomed to having been fed in captivity. Also, while seals and sea lions are present in the region they are difficult to catch so the possibility that she is genetically a mammal-eating type can’t be ruled out. What we may be witnessing here is an adaptation by an intelligent and sentient species.
According to the latest data from satellite tags, three orcas – Zoya, Tikhon, and Gayka, released on August 6, are moving towards the Shantar Islands. Being close to the place of release for about a week, the animals actively moved, adapting to the natural habitat conditions, ate fish, which now go to spawn in large shoals in this area. Now the killer whales have left the Sakhalin Gulf and are approaching the Academy Bay.
Two large females from the first and second release groups are located at a distance of 30 km from each other in the Shantar Sea. These are the traditional habitats of wild killer whales. Their families were discovered by VNIRO scientists, who monitored these places from August 8 to 12.
At this time the locations and condition of the other two freed killer whales has not been released. They may have lost their tags or the tags may have failed so it is premature to assume that they have died. For background information, please read “3 more young orcas are on their way to freedom from captivity in Russia, bringing the total freed to 8“.
Sea of Okhotsk Photo Credit: https://vbpr.no/
The Southern Resident Killer Whale population has dropped to 73 as of July 1, 2019
“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019. These whales are from the extremely endangered Southern Resident killer whale population, that historically frequent the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable Chinook salmon prey, this population of whales now rarely visit the core waters of its designated Critical Habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait, and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The missing whales are J17, K25, and L84.
J 17 Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research
J17 is a 42-two-year-old J pod matriarch and mother of Tahlequah (J35), who carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days last year. We reported that J17 was not in good body condition last winter, perhaps from stress. She is survived by two daughters and a son, J35, J53, and J44, respectively.
Also missing is 28-year-old, K25, an adult male in the prime of his life who was not in good body condition last winter. He is survived by two sisters and a brother, K20, K27, and K34, respectively.
And, lastly, 29-year-old male, L84, has been missing all summer in encounters conducted by our Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans colleagues along the west coast of Vancouver Island. L pod has not come into the Salish Sea yet this summer. L84 was the last of a matriline of eleven whales, ten of whom died previously.”
Update 13 Aug 2019: Freed orca Alexandra is thriving, as are 5 of the other young killer whales
Update 7 Aug 2019 – video has been released (please see below).
After five days in containers aboard trucks and a barge in weather that ranged from blazing heat to a downpour, Tikhon, Zoya, and Gadget were released into the Sea of Okhostsk. According to Greenpeace, once the three young killer whales were released they swam together for a couple of hours then headed out to sea.
Like the other released captive whales, satellite tags were bolted through their dorsal fins in order to keep track of them.
DNA samples were taken, which will help identify them – hopefully the tags are designed to fall off after a certain time period, and a good guess is that if any of the whales don’t make the adjustment to life in the wild and their body is found (big ifs) the authorities will know which orca it is. And who knows, the whales may one day have offspring of their own who can be traced through genetic samples.
In case the hunters are allowed to capture orcas for the captivity trade in the future the genetic tests may even protect these from recapture. Because of the time they spent in captivity they are accustomed to people and so it is likely that they will be easily approached – or may even approach boats and docks as did Alexandra. It would be a travesty if they were recaptured in the future.
There should be an update soon on Alexandra and the other released whales (there are eight total). The Russian Federal Research Institute Of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) plans to visually monitor all eight of the freed orcas in the coming days.
And hopefully, in the near future the last two killer whales and 80 plus belugas will soon be freed.
- Rain brought relief from the heat as the three orcas were prepared for the last leg of their trip to freedom.
- Once again, the water was changed in each container, and the whales were massaged where it was needed to counter the effects of the cramped space in their containers. In the wild, orcas rarely rest motionless and travel as much as a hundred miles in a day, and this is the fifth day that they have been in those small tanks.
- When needed, they have had their skin covered with protective ointments and have been provided with shade during the hot portions of the trip.
- Two tons of ice were used in cooling their water.
- The final part of the trip will be by trucks again.
- Tomorrow (6 Aug 19) they will be released into the Sea of Okhostk.
- Once these three are released, plans are in place to locate and visually assess all 8 of the freed killer whales.
“The cold reception [received] by Greenpeace in the Khabarovsk heat is nothing compared to the stress experienced by killer whales. As one of our team members said later in the evening: “In the creak of doors…I now hear screams of killer whales.” Greenpeace Russia
It was a long, hot, loud trip, in which the orcas vocalized “almost constantly” – and it’s not over yet.
As they were driven from Stredanaya Bay on their journey to freedom in the Sea of Okhotsk, the sweltering heat raised the water temperature inside their containers to 68 degrees (20 C) before the three young orcas finally got some relief; fresh salt water and ice brought the water temperatures down to 54 degrees (12 C) to prepare for the next leg of their trip from captivity.
From the afernoon to midnight they waited, until finally they were loaded on a barge for what will be a two day trip down the Amur River to Innokentyevka. From there they will again be loaded onto trucks.
Photo Credit: Greenpeace Russia
These details have been made available by Greenpeace volunteers who are monitoring the care and health of the whales, even though their presence is only grudgingly tolerated and their access is strictly limited by the companies that hunted the killer whales originally.
“It turns out that secrecy around the operation and the prevention of independent observers are needed so that no one can steal and repeat the technology of loading and transporting killer whales,” wrote one observer. “Traders are sure that current events are temporary difficulties, and after them they will continue their business. They are convinced that the catch ban will not be accepted.”
In other words, the hunters plan to continue the nefarious captures of orca calves to sell to amusement parks in China.
We’ll see about that…
Please send donations to Greenpeace, they are the people who actually have boots on the ground and who are working hard to help these whales survive their arduous journey. Here is the USA Greenpeace donation page, from there you can navigate to their organizations around the world.
Homeward bound – their journey may be arduous, but just imagine their joy as the young killer whales swim far and deep to once again hunt their prey in the bays and fjords of the Sea of Okhotsk.
This is the third group to go, and each time improvements are made in transporting and freeing the whales. This time
Greenpeace Russia has been granted limited access to observe and record the process, although they are forced to observe from a distance of 300 meters (328 yards).
Officials from the Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) has apparently allowed a single media representative to observe as well.
The whales were initially captured by companies that used loopholes to obtain permits to capture a dozen orcas and around 90 beluga whales which they planned to sell to amusement parks in China. However the permits did not grant the captures for the purpose of display, and now the whales are in various stages of being returned to the wild.
According to representatives of VNIRO, the three orcas – two males and one female – were housed together and range in age from around six to 10 years old. It is hoped that they are a well-bonded group who will stay together, unlike the situation that left a young orca, Alexandra, alone and unable to hunt on her own.
Once again the orcas will face a challenging 5 to 6-day road and barge trip in modified tanks, and this time through heat in the 90’s. Greenpeace reports that adequate measures have been taken to prevent the whales from overheating:
“On the day of issue, the temperature on the Nakhodka-Vladivostok road reached +35 [95 F], on the coast it was +30 [86 F]. VNIRO is stocked with ice and good insulating bath materials. On the barge, in which orcas swim on the Amur there will be three tons of ice.
We very much hope that orcas will survive this adversity and safely dive into the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, forgetting the past year like a bad dream, ”said Oganes Targulyan, leading expert of the project on the release of killer whales and beluga.
There are two remaining orcas and over 80 beluga whales at the holding facility, although 7 belugas have been released. VNIRO and Greenpeace Russia collaborated in putting together this video of the belugas’ return to the sea (in June):