The Morgan Verdict

For those who are interested, here is the Dutch court’s decision allowing the orca Morgan to be transported to Loro Parque:

Morgan Heading To Loro Parque

Morgan, the killer whale “rescued” in the Wadden Sea, and nursed back to health at the Dolfinarium at Harderwijk, won’t be going back to the ocean, a Dutch judge has ruled. Instead, she’ll be sent to Loro Parque, where she will join the five orcas owned by SeaWorld.

It will be a challenging transition. Loro Parque is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed in 2009, by Keto (my story on that tragedy is here). And it is a marine park with a very unstable social grouping, with the most visible manifestation being the severe scarring on the male, Tekoa.

Loro Parque also has a young calf, Adan, who is just over a year old. And to add to the potential complexity of adding Morgan to the Loro Parque mix, there is a lot of speculation among people who follow orcas and the marine parks closely that Kohana, the mother of Adan, is pregnant again. There has been no confirmation or comment either way from Loro Parque about this. But this is what Kohana looks like these days.

I am no expert, but here are some recent videos of Kohana a friend sent me, with the following comment:

She’s starting to get chunky enough that you should be able to pick her out as being the fat one even if you can’t ID her well otherwise. She looks way too big now for it to just be some change in her weight or something.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I just got solid confirmation that Kohana is in fact pregnant. So, with the addition of Morgan, Loro Parque is headed toward seven orcas, unless they move one or more out over the next year.

The Trials Of Tekoa

While “Blood In The Water” focused most on the killer whale Keto, it also detailed a serious incident in which Tekoa, a young male, went after a trainer called Claudia Volhardt, and put her in the hospital.

During my reporting, I was told that Tekoa has a tough time at Loro Parque, and is frequently harassed by the other killer whales there. Now I want to dig a bit deeper into Tekoa’s experience at Loro Parque, because recently some pictures of him have surfaced which show very serious scars and rake marks, underscoring the difficult social order among the killer whales at Loro Parque, and Tekoa’s plight.

When SeaWorld first sent four killer whales to Loro Parque, some SeaWorld trainers, as well as other experts, worried that the group did not include a mature, dominant female to establish a clear and stable social order (the two females were Kohana, 3 at the time, and Skyla, 2).  And those concerns seem valid, given that the Loro Parque’s killer whales, according to many people I spoke with, were often more interested in chasing after each other than performing in shows. And, of course, there were two serious attacks at Loro Parque, one resulting in the death of a trainer. But now we can also see visual evidence of how the unstable situation is affecting Tekoa.

Here is a close-up of Tekoa taken in April 2011 (click the image for full-size, to see full detail):

(Credit: MonchoParis)

This is a second photo MonchoParis sent me, after I asked if I could use his photos (click for full size):

I also have more recent pictures of Tekoa, taken in September and sent to me, which I’ve put into a slideshow:

A number of experts have told me that these rake marks are about as bad as any they have ever seen on a marine park killer whale, and people are taking notice. Even fervent fans of marine parks have been visiting Loro Parque and, after seeing Tekoa’s condition, have been posting critical reports about Loro Parque and the troubled social dynamic among the killer whales online. They have posted accounts of seeing Skyla and Kohana, in particular, abuse Tekoa for hours without any intervention from the Loro Parque training staff. Many express the belief that Tekoa should be moved back to a SeaWorld park.

This echoed something I had been told while reporting “Blood In The Water.” One source told me that in 2009, Brian Rokeach, then SeaWorld’s supervising trainer on site at Loro Parque, had become concerned enough about Tekoa that he urged SeaWorld management to consider bringing Tekoa back to the United States. I asked Loro Parque about it, and they responded: “We do not have any information about the request of Brian Rokeach to return Tekoa to a SeaWorld facility. If it happened SeaWorld Zoological Department should know.” SeaWorld has denied that any of their employees have ever recommended moving any of the Loro Parque Killer whales. So I left it out of the article.

Since then, however, I have heard more about Tekoa’s experience at Loro Parque. And regardless of whether there was ever any formal discussion of moving him, it seems clear that there were issues that might justify concern about his well-being. What I have been told is that in late summer 2009 Tekoa injured his belly by trying to slide over a safety bar placed between the pools to prevent the orcas from freely going up and over the slideover from one pool to another.

Here is a picture, taken in August 2008, of what the safety bar looked like before 2009 (provided by a friend, who follows marine parks very closely, and is an expert at finding photos! More photos here and here):

You can see that the safety bar discouraging the killer whales from going between the pools via the slideover is smooth. You can also see some chains (they are easier to see in the other photos I linked to above), which are in place, I am told, to discourage the orcas from bellying up to the bars and testing them.

At some point in 2009 the safety bars for the slideover were modified, and hexagonal nuts were welded on to them, to deter the orcas from sliding over them. This slideshow shows in close-up detail what the modifications look like:

So I went back to my source with this picture and was told that these hexagonal nuts were what injured Tekoa. The source said that the Loro Parque orcas spent a lot of time spy-hopping and leaning on the safety bars, and that the spikes were added to the bars to discourage the orcas from sliding from one pool into the other (the bars at SeaWorld California have also been retrofitted; apparently Orkid was one orca known to slide over the bars before the retrofit). Part of the backstory, I was told, is that the Loro Parque trainers used to remove the safety bars as part of playtime with the orcas, so they could slide back and forth between the pools. The injury to Tekoa, I was told, occurred when the safety bars were replaced one day, but the chains used to help keep the orcas way from the bars, were forgotten. And Tekoa tried to go over the bar, which now had the nuts on them. Another source told me that he was trying to escape aggression when he went over the bar.

These sorts of accounts are always complex, and difficult to completely nail down. But here is what the source says: “Definite facts are that those projections were first put on in late summer/early fall 2009, the trainers forgot to replace the chains, and Tekoa injured himself trying to slideover.”

Without knowing exactly when Tekoa was injured it is hard to know for sure whether photos of him show the injury to his belly. But this photo of Tekoa, taken in late July, appears to show at least some sort of scarring on his underside (click image for full size):

I don’t know whether SeaWorld ever seriously considered moving Tekoa or not, though I do know trainers back at SeaWorld were aware of his injuries and his troubled life there. But I am digging into this to illustrate how complex the interactions between marine park killer whales are, and how there are sometimes situations which are very difficult for an individual whale (like a kid at school who, for many subtle reasons, ends up being the kid the bullies always pick on).

That was part of Tilikum’s story, in fact. And it is worth considering how being the killer whale that gets picked on in a social group might affect that killer whale’s mentality. Some trainers did not believe Tekoa would ever be a reliable waterwork killer whale because of his tendency to get picked on in any social grouping he was placed in. There was always a concern, when getting in the water with him, that some fight or social issue with the other killer whales might have been missed, and Tekoa might take his frustrations out on a trainer.

So experience in whatever group a killer whale happens to be in is a serious issue. Most people go to a marine park show and see killer whales who all look the same to the casual eye. It is not easy for most members of the audience to pick up on all the details, interactions, and body language which help reveal what sort of experience a particular whale is having in the marine park environment. But in Tekoa’s case, the signs of his troubles are all over his body.

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A Close-Up Look At Loro Parque

Orcas at Loro Parque.
Image via Wikipedia

In my recent story, “Blood In The Water,” I told the story of the tragic death of Alexis Martinez at a marine park in the Canary Islands, drowned by a killer whale called Keto on December 24, 2009. One of the key sources for that story was a woman named Suzanne Allee, who supervised the audio-visual department of Orca Ocean, the killer whale complex at Loro Parque, from early 2006 into the summer of 2009.

After Suzanne heard about the death of Martinez, whom she knew quite well, she was moved to write up a report on what she had witnessed at Loro Parque, believing that Loro Parque was not a safe environment for the four killer whales there (on loan from SeaWorld), or for the trainers who continue to work there. I highlighted the key elements of Suzanne’s testimony in my article, but her report has much more detail than I could include. With her permission, I am posting the full report here, as it is of great interest and importance to anyone who would like to know more about Loro Parque, and the events that led up to the death of Alexis Martinez.

Loro Parque’s response to Suzanne’s report and her interviews with me was included in Blood In The Water. In upcoming posts I will dig deeper into some of the issues Suzanne raises, and what my reporting and dialogue with SeaWorld and Loro Parque uncovered beyond what I wrote in Blood In The Water. I also want to get into greater detail about the condition and experience of Tekoa, another killer whale at Loro Parque.

But as a start, here is Suzanne’s full report (some names have been redacted for privacy reasons):

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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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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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