Do Orcas At Marine Parks Injure One Another?

Tilikum as
Image via Wikipedia

One of the allegations in Killer In The Pool that SeaWorld pushed back hard on, was the assertion that Tilikum was abused by other killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, and that aggression between killer whales in SeaWorld’s pools sometimes leads to serious injuries. Responding to the allegation, VP Of Communications Fred Jacobs said: “Injuries as part of the expression of social dominance are rare and almost never serious.”

Jacobs doesn’t say that serious injuries NEVER occur. Which is smart, because there is a pretty well known 1987 incident at SeaWorld Orlando in which a whale named Kotar bit a whale he did not get along with, named Kanduke, in the penis.  The bloody result closed SeaWorld shows down for a period, and Kotar was eventually shipped off  to SeaWorld San Antonio. He died there in 1995, when a pool gate he was playing with closed on his head and fractured his skull.

At the same time, Jacobs carefully worded response could easily give the impression that this is not a very serious phenomenon. And it would probably shock many in the public to see what some of the injuries actually look like. The second most notorious incident between two SeaWorld killer whales occurred in 1989, between two orcas called Kandu and Corky. Here is one description of what happened:

Kandu was a good performer, but she was also a moody orca. Waterworks were done with her but she showed aggressions to her trainers more than once. In 1984 she got pregnant with her first offspring. Unfortunately she gave birth to a dead calf on January 31, 1986.

Almost one year after, SeaWorld got 2 new orcas; Kandu immediately got along with the male Orky II and soon became pregnant with her second calf. On September 23, 1988, she gave birth to a female named Orkid. Kandu was a good and protective mother, so she wasn’t enthused when Corky, one of the other females showed interest in the new calf.

On August 21, 1989, Kandu was swimming laps in the back pool, while Orkid and Corky performed during a show. Kandu suddenly rushed into the show pool and rammed into Corky with her mouth being open. Corky was fine after the attack, but Kandu broke her jaw and started bleeding soon after. She immediately swam back to the back pool, where she died from severe blood loss.  Orkid was by her side.

This incident is tragic because it led to the death of a killer whale. But someone recently sent me a photo of what the scene looked like after Kandu returned to the back pool, and it is pretty shocking. It tells a story about what can happen in the pools that is totally at odds with the impression that SeaWorld often conveys: that there is some social jostling, but it is “almost never serious.” This looks pretty serious:

Kandu, bleeding to death

I find this picture immensely powerful, because it conveys a mostly hidden reality. And while it is probably the most extreme event in SeaWorld’s history (that we know of), there are many injuries and incidents which never get seen or reported.

For example, this year at SeaWorld I have been told two killer whales named Kalina and Kayla have not been getting along. From what I have been told, it was these two killer whales, in fact, that shut down the Believe Show on February 24, just before Dawn Brancheau was killed. It is not necessarily surprising that SeaWorld has to cope with conflict between its killer whales, given that they are brought together in a pretty random way (aggression between members of a family pod in the wild is almost nonexistent). But, again, you get a critical level of understanding when you get an actual first-hand report, and some pictures.

Here is an account (with pics) of what happened between Kalina and Kayla at the Believe Show at SeaWorld Orlando in June this summer:

The show commenced as it usually does with the opening show. Then, Kalina came out for the first major breach, the start of the show.

Kalina breaching.

Moments later, Kayla raced into the pool. I could instantly sense this was not part of the show, as Kalina suddenly seemed very skittish. Moments later, Kayla collided with Kalina in the centre of the pool, causing a scuffle that went on for several seconds, water thrashing about and squeals from the orcas.
Straight after, Kayla left and raced into the back pool, leaving Kalina to swim laps about the pool on her own, disobeying and refusing to listen to trainers orders, as one of the trainers came out to talk to the crowd, the show halting at this point.

The trainers attempted to place Kalina into the back pool, the same as the others (at this point it housed Katina, Kayla, Trua, Nalani and Malia), which Kalina flatly refused, opting to swim laps about the pool instead. The show continued, ignoring Kalina who ignored all instructions and just swam laps.
Anytime Kayla entered the pool, Kalina would approach the gate to the opposite back pool and cower there, as if trying to get away. The gate was never opened, despite Kalina flatly refusing to co-operate throughout the show, despite several times approaching trainers.

Kalina, waiting at the gate.

In the finale of the show, Kalina finally decided to start obeying orders. This was fine, but what disturbed me at the end, was that Kalina was again, sent to the same back pool as Kayla.

My sense is that this sort of fracas is not that unusual. But it’s hard to know, because they only become public when they occur during shows and are documented. Anyhow, here is the result. When Kayla initially rammed Kalina, she put a gash right above her eye (luckily she did not take out the eye):

Kalina got the worst of it.

So how did SeaWorld address the incident, and the lack off cooperation from the whales that resulted? Happily, my source filmed that, so we can listen to the trainer trying to explain it to the audience.

“There are just days that they just want to play with one another and be extremely social,” he says. I think that qualifies as stretching the definition of “play” and “extremely social.” Anyhow, watch for yourself, and observe one of the talents required to be a SeaWorld trainer:

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Talking Tilikum (And Killer Whales) On NPR This Wednesday

Just a heads up that NPR’s On Point will do a show this Wednesday on Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau, and killer whales. I’ll talk about Killer In The Pool from 11am-noon EST; check listing for local broadcast times). Ken Balcomb (Executive Director of the Center For Whale Research), and Thad Lacinak (a former VP of Animal Training at SeaWorld) will also appear on the show.

It should be a fascinating hour, and I hope you will tune in (and help spread the word). On Point will take calls toward the end of the show, so feel free to call in and be part of the conversation (details here).

Here’s what we’ll be talking about:

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Diary Of A Killer Whale: You Will Not Be Seeing Dawn Brancheau Die

Media organizations have given up on their legal efforts to force videos and photos of Dawn Brancheau’s death into the public domain. Here is a report from the Orlando Sentinel, one of the media outlets seeking access to the material:

The Orlando Sentinel and other media outlets have abandoned an effort to ensure public access to video recordings and photographs documenting the killing of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer by one of the park’s killer whales.

The move is a victory for SeaWorld and the family of the late Dawn Brancheau. The two parties have been battling in court to block any release of the images capturing the Feb. 24 tragedy, in which a 6-ton killer whale named Tilikum pulled Brancheau into his tank by her hair and drowned her in a violent episode in front of some park guests.

The court dispute revolved primarily around images recorded by SeaWorld surveillance cameras — including one capturing an underwater view into Tilikum’s tank and another mounted atop the park’s 400-foot-tall Sky Tower — which SeaWorld turned over to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office as part of that agency’s investigation into Brancheau’s death.

A lawyer for the Sentinel’s parent company said Thursday that representatives for SeaWorld and the Brancheau family were unwilling to accept a settlement offer in which news organizations would have agreed not to publish any of the images or air the video in exchange for the right to have their reporters inspect the materials.

The only reason to ever make any of this sort of material publicly available is if it helps answer questions about what happened, and can help prevent a similar tragedy. Anything else is just prurience, and voyeurism of the sickest kind. I have watched a person die on video. In that case the video was the only way to understand why he died. It was still an intensely harrowing, and painful experience (which is why I haven’t supplied the link to the video).

I am not sure what photos are involved, but if they depict scenes from the aftermath, when efforts to resuscitate Dawn were being made, and when she was cut out of her wetsuit, then I don’t think they come close to meeting this standard.

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: You Will Not Be Seeing Dawn Brancheau Die”

Department of Revealing Moments: False Killer Whale Jumps Out Of Tank

This YouTube video has been getting a lot of views, because it does what all good video does: it makes you sit up, take notice, and think.

We can’t know what that false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) is thinking, but it’s definitely not: “I like it in here, I think I’ll stay.”

During my reporting for The Killer In The Pool I heard stories of killer whales that had jumped out of the pool, particularly a SeaWorld orca called Kotar, who was moved from Orlando to San Antonio after he bit the penis of another male (what would Freud say?). Kotar eventually died after a pool gate he was playing with closed on him and crushed his head.

Does anyone know the facts about Kotar, or of other videos or stories about dolphins and killer whales jumping out of their pools?

The video story of the incident above continues (interesting to note the reaction of the other animals). You can bet the audience left that park wondering about many things.

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Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance

One of the other clues to Tilikum’s potential state of mind (Part 1 here) just before he killed Dawn Brancheau is his performance in the “Dine With Shamu” show that she completed with him before he grabbed her.

Trainers working with killer whales are trained to look for clues in their behavior, anything that might indicate that there is something wrong, or potential danger. These are called “precursors,” and no experts I spoke with about Tilikum’s interaction with Dawn in the “Dine With Shamu” show believed that there were any precursors or red flags that should have warned her that she might be in danger. That said, some behavioral experts I spoke with also told me that the “Dine With Shamu” show did not go that well from a performance point of view. Specifically, they said Tilikum appeared uninterested and somewhat disengaged, and did not perform well.

The primary resource when it comes to seeing Tilikum and Dawn’s work together in that show comes from a video made by a family attending the Dine With Shamu show on February 24. Here is the video, made by the Connell family, from New Hampshire. It’s a little difficult to watch, knowing what comes moments after it concludes, but it is a key to helping understand what happened that day.

[Update: WESH-TV, which is a local Orlando station has disabled the embedding for this video. Interestingly, they have not disabled embedding on the other videos on their YouTube channel. SeaWorld conspiracy theorists, you can run with this one! For those who just want to watch the video, click on the link which appears along with the “embedding disabled” message]

To the untrained eye, this looks like Tilikum putting on a pretty good show. And when Dawn engaged with Tilikum after the show, lying down next to him on the slide-out and talking to him and stroking him in what is known as a “relationship session,” it indicated that she thought he had done okay, too, as relationship sessions are partly used as a reward for good behavior (though she also had to keep him engaged while the Dine With Shamu guests headed down to the underwater viewing area).

Following the tragedy, SeaWorld employees described the “Dine With Shamu” show as “perfect,” with nothing out of the ordinary occurring. Here is trainer/spotter Jan Topoleski’s description of the show to Orange County Sheriffs Office investigators:

However, one behavioral specialist I spoke with took the time to break down the video of Dawn working with Tili and found a less than smooth performance.

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Is Tilikum A Transient Or Resident Orca?

This from a comment by Dee Johnston on my post about Tilikum’s state of mind:

Resident (fish-eating) killer whales. The curv...
Image via Wikipedia

With regard to the Education of Seaworld: I found on a message board that someone had contacted Seaworld and asked “Is Tillikum transient or resident?” and Seaworld replied:“Thank you for contacting the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Family of Parks. We appreciate your questions as they are invaluable in helping us provide you with world class service.

Tillicum lives at our Orlando facility full time.

Thank you again for your interest!

Best Regards,

Karen
SeaWorld and Aquatica
Guest Correspondence
guestcorrespondence@worldsofdiscovery.com

That is definitely a different definition of “resident.”

In my research I also pursued this question. And the best answer I could come up with is that the orca population off eastern Iceland, where Tilikum came from, shows resident characteristics. Another key point is that the Icelandic orcas were caught either by following the herring fleets, or by dumping herring into the water ahead of a pod. So Tilikum almost certainly came from a fish-eating population, which reinforces the notion that he is more likely resident than transient.

One other very interesting question raised for me by orca biologists is whether transient killer whales that are taken into captivity–used to eating and hunting large mammals–are more likely to be involved in trainer incidents. There probably are not that many transients kept at marine parks since most of the killer whales taken into captivity were taken from the Pacific Northwest and Iceland, from resident populations. But it is an interesting idea.

Anyone have insights into this transient versus resident question?

From source: Two mammal-eating
Image via Wikipedia
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Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?

Now that “Killer In The Pool” is on news stands and online, thanks to Outside, I want to take some time to start digging a little deeper into some of the questions surrounding the tragedy of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau. I met and interviewed some incredible trainers and scientists, and there is so much more that I would have loved to fit into the Outside piece. Getting into those issues, and posting additional news about orcas and killer whale entertainment will become one of the missions of this website, and I hope you will become part of the conversation.

The first question it makes sense to address, to the extent that it is even possible, is Tilikum’s state of mind on the day he killed Dawn Brancheau. Killer In The Pool has some relevant details about Tilkum’s life at SeaWorld: the abuse he receives from some of the female killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, his physical health, his relative isolation (which has only increased since Taima, one of his most frequent companions, recently died in childbirth).

But the question of what triggered Tilikum to pull Dawn Brancheau into the pool, on that day as opposed to any other day over the years of close interaction with Dawn and many other trainers, is a key question which bears close analysis. It could have been a spur of the moment response to specific stimuli present while Dawn lay close to him on the slide-out. But it is also important to try and understand whether there might have been anything going on with Tilikum that day that might have made him MORE LIKELY to grab her, and then thrash her violently once she was in the pool with him.

So: was anything in particular going on with Tilikum and the other seven killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando that day? Anything that might have impacted his behavior and state of mind, beyond his general experience at SeaWorld and the specific way in which Dawn interacted with him?

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?”