Morgan In Captivity

I was going through computer files the other day, and I came across an archive of stuff I have on Morgan at Loro Parque. I have always felt a sadness for Morgan, picked up off the Dutch coast in 2010 and now at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. (I wrote about Loro Parque in 2011, because that is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld killer whale just a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in Florida).

You can read all about Morgan, and how she came to be at Loro Parque, here. The story has a lot of twists and turns, but the bottom line is that Morgan is a recently wild killer while who now finds herself owned by SeaWorld, and with her valuable wild DNA likely to become part of SeaWorld’s captive breeding mill.

Anyhow, I started clicking on some of the videos of Morgan (they are from 2013) and for some reason this video perfectly captured for me the banality and tedium of a once wild life that is now experienced in a confined pool, and devoted to entertaining holiday crowds. Teaching Morgan how to wave her tail just seems so pathetic and lame. And her energy level and affect seems to indicate she feels the same way. Good times.

The Power Of Art: Who Is Shamu?

One of the themes of Blackfish is that orcas are highly intelligent, self-aware, social beings. In short, they are individuals.

However, SeaWorld’s marketing and presentation of killer whales–through its promotion of every whale as a single whale, Shamu–works to erase the idea that each killer whale in SeaWorld’s “collection” is a distinctive, unique, killer whale, with its own individual experience and history, and its own identity.

That doesn’t sit well with Lee Harrison and James Wolf, and they have created this powerful and moving graphic to drive home the fact that there is no Shamu, that instead there are multiple killer whales with multiple fates.

Here is how Harrison (you can see more of his work here) explains the project:

“This idea came to me when I recalled some of the orcas that have died and have been forgotten based on SeaWorld’s ‘sweeping it under the rug’ ways.

I wanted to create awareness by drawing attention to some of the more shocking and upsetting stories we know of in a simple way to get people more interested to discover more.

The simple and pleasing visuals seem to draw people in, while the stories shock them and they tend to ask more.”

And here is what he and Wolf (who in encyclopedic when it comes to SeaWorld’s killer whales and their histories) produced (click image for a version you can enlarge):



For more a more detailed presentation of this art, and the life histories of the killer whales featured, go to OrcaAware.

Orca Morgan’s Hearing

One of the contentious underlying debates regarding Morgan and whether she should be released to a sea pen, or the wild, rather than spend a life at Loro Parque, is whether she is deaf, or has impaired hearing.

Obviously, impaired hearing would be an issue for an orca in the wild, and so this question is critical to whether Morgan would be a good candidate for release. Loro  Parque has repeatedly said she has hearing issues, and now they have released two videos, one discussing auditory tests, and the other the visual bridge they have developed for Morgan’s training.

UPDATE: And here is the audiogram being administered…

Here’s the translation of what the Loro Parque blog is saying about the tests:

International scientists confirm that the orca Morgan, rescued in Holland in 2010 and moved to the park in 2011 at the request of a Dutch judge, suffers a hearing loss that could be very severe and even absolute. This is the conclusion reached by the experts having made multiple hearing tests that took place last week at the facilities of Orca Ocean.

The research team, composed of experts from the Netherlands Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem study ( IMARES ), the National Endowment for marine mammals and also U.S. Office of Naval Research for the U.S. Navy (U.S. Navy ), studied the hearing of several copies of orca we have in the park. As a result found that they all could record brain responses to sound stimuli, except Morgan.This study confirms the suspicions of our team of trainers and veterinarians, who had warned that the animal did not seem to respond to sound signals.

This type of test, which consists in detecting brain waves in response to the issuance of a sound, is routinely used to determine the hearing of dolphins and small cetaceans. However, its application to the study of orcas sound pioneered the world, since there is only one precedent duplicate fourteen years ago.

With the confirmation of this deaf coaches continue to make visual adaptations of the system they use to communicate with Morgan. With the advice of specialists in animal behavior from the Free University of Berlin, will develop new lines of work that will allow any inconvenience Morgan further.

I hope that the report that is generated from this effort is released publicly.

Dead Orcas In Korea?

Trying to get the story behind a brutal photoset, which appears to show a number of killer whales captured and killed in Korea Nov. 24.

Anyone know any the details regarding what is shown in these pics?

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Anita for finding this article, which (via a very messy Google translate) seems to say that three orcas (one male and two females) were bycatch and died in a fishing net. It also seems (and the Google translation was very hard to understand, so can’t be sure) that the Korean fisheries authorities found the orcas being sold via an illegal auction and are investigating.

UPDATE 2: Commenter Wikie shows with news articles that these pics come from a 2008 event. It IS NOT recent (even though the original FLICKR pics are dated Nov. 24 of this year.

Thanks for all the info. A great example of the power of crowd-sourcing.

Killer Whale: An Apex Predator Earns Its Apexness

There’s nothing more mesmerizing or suspenseful than watching a killer whale display the full range of its cunning, intelligence, and power to make a hefty meal of a fatally lackadaisical elephant seal. From the BBC, the apex broadcaster when it comes to nature.  (Thanks to Jeff for sharing)…

The Tragedy Of Loro Parque

Dawn Brancheau was the first SeaWorld trainer killed by a killer whale. But she wasn’t the first trainer killed by a SeaWorld killer whale.

Exactly two months before she died, on February 24, 2010, a SeaWorld killer whale on loan to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands killed trainer Alexis Martinez. I explored Dawn Brancheau’s death in an Outside story called The Killer In The Pool. And now, in a story at Outside Online, I dig deep into the death of Martinez, using extensive interviews with his fiance and family, and information from confidential documents, to explore the tragedy.

Alexis Martinez and Keto, the SeaWorld whale that would eventually kill him.

I came away understanding much better the inherent dangers of being in the water with killer whales at marine parks, how hard it is to expect that trainers will always make the correct decision given the myriad subjective decisions they must make when they are working with highly intelligent, and highly variable, marine mammals, and how dire the consequences are once a killer whale decides it has had enough.

I also came away thinking that the death of Alexis Martinez is directly relevant to the current dispute between SeaWorld and OSHA regarding the safety of killer whale entertainment.

I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback on the story, and to following up on some of the issues raised in the story here on my blog.

Here’s the intro:

AT 11:25 A.M. ON DECEMBER 24, 2009, Estefanía Luis Rodriguez’s cell phone rang. Rodriguez, 25, is an earnest, friendly young woman who works as a pharmacy technician near the coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz, on the north coast of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. She glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was her fiancé, Alexis Martínez, a killer whale trainer at a nearby zoological park called Loro Parque, one of the largest tourist attractions in the islands. Loro Parque displays everything from birds and dolphins to sea lions and, as of 2006, four orcas it had been loaned by SeaWorld.

Rodriguez and Martínez, 29, had been together seven years, after meeting at a friend’s party, and had moved into an apartment together three months earlier. She adored Martínez, who was handsome, generous, funny, and, in his spare time, played guitar in a band, Inerte. He’d been working nonstop with the killer whales at Loro Parque’s Orca Ocean to prepare for a special Christmas show. 

When Rodriguez answered, however, it wasn’t Martínez on the phone. The caller was Orca Ocean supervisor Miguel Diaz, using Martínez’s phone. He told Rodriguez that Martínez had been involved in an incident with a killer whale but that he would be fine, that he was being taken to the University Hospital in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, about 20 miles away. Rodriguez immediately called Martínez’s family and then joined his mother, Mercedes, to rush to the hospital. 

In the car, Rodriguez was deeply apprehensive. For months, Martínez had been telling her that all was not well at Orca Ocean, that there was a lot of aggression between the killer whales and that they sometimes refused to obey commands, disrupting training and the shows. After starting in Loro Parque’s penguin and dolphin displays, Martínez had begun as a killer whale trainer in 2006. As he gained experience, according to Rodriguez, he began to fret about safety, and he twice contemplated leaving the job. Preparing for the Christmas show only added to the stress. “I’m so tired,” Rodriguez recalls Martínez telling her. “That’s OK, everyone is tired from work,” she’d responded. He shook his head. “My job is especially risky, and I really need to be well rested and ready. With everything that is going on, something could happen at any time.”

You can read the whole story, and watch some exclusive behind-the-scenes video from Loro Parque, here.

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Are Wild Orca Captures About To Begin Again?


The orca, the largest dolphin and pack predato...
Image via Wikipedia

Capturing killer whales from the wild has always been enormously controversial: first in the Pacific Northwest, where the first captures took place, and then in Iceland, where the marine park industry went after the Pacific Northwest capture industry was shut down (Iceland eventually shut it down, too). Marine parks, acutely aware of the bad publicity that came from taking killer whales from their wild pods, developed the techniques to breed killer whales in captivity, and since the mid-1980s the majority of killer whales in marine parks have been captive bred.

But it would be wrong to assume that killer whale captures in the wild are a matter for history. Killer whales are enormously valuable to marine parks around the world, and breeding them in captivity is not a simple matter. Recently, according to the Orca Home website, Russia extended a permit for the live capture of killer whales in Russian waters, and Japan might, too:

February 6, 2011:
Capture plans in Russia and Japan

Russia has extended the permit for allowing up to 10 killer whales to be captured from the wild, reports the Russian Orca Project.
And there rumours that Taiji has applied for permits to capture 5 orcas, one to replace Nami who was sold from Taiji to Nagoya and died on 14 January this year, one for Taiji and the others are probably destined for new projects in China.

It’s been a long time since the world has seen wild captures, and new captures would be highly controversial. Hardy Jones of, has long tracked the situation in Japan, and produced this video about a 1997 capture:

A lot less is known about Russian orcas, but a friend steered me toward this video that documents the the lives of killer whales that live off the Kamchatka Peninsula:

Part 1

Part 2 (which includes video of a 2003 capture operation that goes sadly wrong, starting at about 1:30)

I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening in Japan and Russia. No matter what you think of marine parks, I find it hard to believe even marine park enthusiasts can or would support this inarguably cruel and brutal process of procuring killer whales for family entertainment.

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Do Orcas At Marine Parks Injure One Another? More Photos…

Loro Parque's Killer Whales

Last September I looked at the question of killer whales injuring other killer whales at marine parks (aggression within wild pods is very rare). Recently, I came across these pictures of some killer whales from the Loro Parque marine park in the Canary Islands. In 2006 SeaWorld loaned four killer whales to Loro Parque: Keto (a 10-year old male) and Tekoa (a five-year old male) were shipped from SeaWorld Texas; and Kohana (a 3-year old female) and Skyla (a 2-year old female) were shipped from SeaWorld Florida.

Part of the theory for why marine park orcas injure one another is that the groupings they find themselves in at marine parks are artificial. The groupings have more to do with the park’s needs than they do with family, or orca type ((i.e. killer whales with Icelandic roots might be placed with killer whales that have Pacific roots). And the groupings change as killer whales are moved around from one park to another for breeding, or any number of other reasons (including the need to sometimes separate warring killer whales).

In contrast, killer whale groupings in the wild are much more homogeneous, family-based, and stable. They speak the same language. The social order is set along matriarchal lines and killer whales settle into their place over decades. So it is not surprising that there is evidence (see the previous post for some of it) that killer whales in marine parks are much more prone to beating on each other as the social dynamic in marine parks is much more fluid, and the killer whales are less tightly bonded by language and genetics.

This, of course, is not an aspect of marine park life that marine parks or their supporters are eager to acknowledge or address. So it is always useful to see pictures that help convey what is happening in the pools.

When the four SeaWorld killer whales arrived at Loro Parque in 2006, and were put together in the pools, a new social grouping was created. That demanded a new social order, which in turn meant some beatdowns as the killer whales tried to sort themselves out. These pictures show just part of the result:

These two show Kohana’s dorsal fin and tail fluke, after she was bitten by Keto:

And these two pictures show young Skyla’s raggedy dorsal fin after Kohana went after her:

If you have any photos that document this phenomenon of orca on orca aggression in marine park pools, please send them to me and I will post them as well. It is just one of the many factors that affects the life and psychology of killer whales in captivity (for a detailed report on all the factors that contribute to killer whale stress at marine parks, go here).

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Two Former Orca Trainers Document The Deadly Stresses Of Captivity

Since the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau almost one year ago, the world has been learning a lot about more about the reality of life in marine parks for killer whales.

Now two former trainers have just released a powerful report that captures the full range of stresses suffered by orcas in captivity, stresses that likely contributed to the death of Dawn Brancheau (as well as a trainer named Alexis Martinez as a marine park in the Canary Island two months earlier).

(Note: Images are from the report)

The former trainers, Jeff Ventre and John Jett (now a doctor and a professor, respectively), worked as trainers at SeaWorld Orlando (including with Tilikum) for a combined total of 12 years, and both knew Dawn Brancheau. The stresses they catalog include: aggression between whales, medical issues, captive breeding practices, and the total disconnect between marine park life and the natural world and social structures killer whales are used to in the wild.


In particular, Jett and Ventre break new ground by explaining how life at marine parks leads killer whales to damage their teeth:

Social strife and boredom accompanying orca captivity also contribute to broken teeth. Steel gates are the primary method of separating orcas prior to training sessions, shows, or when aggressive tensions exist between animals (e.g. Kayla and Kalina). It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF. As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.

This behavior, and the resulting broken teeth and exposed pulp, prompts SeaWorld to drill out broken or worn-down teeth to prevent abscess and infection. The resulting bore holes require trainers to irrigate the teeth multiple times each day (the authors note that SeaWorld trainers tell visitors this is evidence of the superior dental care the whales receive), and might be a vector for some of the mysterious infections which often seem to be the cause of death in marine park killer whales.


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