Dolphins’ Astounding Ability to Heal – Why SeaWorld is Confident About the Injured Orca “Nakai”

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September 20th, 2012 Nakai, an 11 year old male orca, was injured in a fracas with two other male orcas during a private after hours show for corporate guests at SeaWorld San Diego and was left with this gaping wound (the missing piece was later found at the bottom of the pool). (See Tim Zimmermann’s Blog )

The result of forced separation.

While this injury looks painful and would certainly hospitalize a human, cetaceans have an astounding ability to heal that science is just beginning to understand.
Michael Zasloff, M.D., Ph.D., a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) scientist, interviewed dolphin handlers from around the world and discovered dolphins’ “remarkable” and “mysterious” ability to heal, a skill that he says was previously poorly documented.

“How does the dolphin not bleed to death after a shark bite? How is it that dolphins appear not to suffer significant pain? What prevents infection of a significant injury? And how can a deep, gaping wound heal in such a way that the animal’s body contour is restored?” Zasloff asked as part of his research. “Comparable injuries in humans would be fatal.”
As part of his research he proposed that the same diving mechanism (diving reflex) that diverts blood from the periphery of the body during a dolphin’s deep plunge down in water depths also could be triggered after an injury. He also looked into the dolphin’s apparent indifference to pain threshold, the prevention of infection and dolphin wounds’ ability to heal in a way that restores its body contour. As a conclusion, he said that the dolphin’s healing ability is less like human healing and more like regeneration.(The Jerusalem Post).

The photos below show the healing process as a dolphin recovers from a severe shark bite. In an interview for National Public Radio last year, Zasloff explained that “Dolphin blubber makes compounds like organohalogens that act as natural antibiotics and keep the tissue from getting infected. The next mystery is the recovery of contour [of the body]. When the animal restores its wound, it regenerates the complex structure of blubber. It doesn’t create a scar; it produces a sort of patch that ultimately is woven back into the surrounding tissue…And what is equally amazing is that handlers who know these animals will tell you that they observe absolutely no indications in the animal’s behavior that it’s in pain”.

Dolphin healed from shark bite in 40 days.

Nari’s injury and recovery. She was first observed injured on February 13, 2009. The injury when it first presented was about 35 inches (90 cm) across. The lower right picture is from day 40 after injury. CREDIT: Trevor Hassard, Tangalooma Resort.
It is a little troubling that Nakai’s wound looks darker and more granulated in the more recent photo than it looked in the initial photos.  The darkening may be due to lighting, the methods SeaWorld is using to treat the injury, or it may be a sign that the whale’s natural healing ability has in some way been compromised – either by the laser treatments initially used on the wound, or by the stresses of captivity.
We can only hope that Nakai is experiencing little pain as he faces recovery, and that SeaWorld finally learns that these whales can’t be successfully kept in captivity where they are unable to establish peaceful social structures or safely engage in rivalry and boisterous play.

Nakai's wound (Courtesy of Orca Trust)

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