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.
Folks in orca forums have been suspecting this for a while, but as Blackfish continues to roll out, I thought I would confirm that Takara is indeed pregnant.
Following the failure of her last pregnancy, she was AI’d again last summer, presumably again with sperm from Kshamenk. Takara is the dominant orca at SeaWorld Texas, and she tends to be on more of a hair trigger through the early hormonal surges of pregnancy. So for a while the Texas orca group had to be managed carefully to minimize the likelihood that Takara would rough up other whales. Interestingly, part of the strategy was to keep the whole group of orcas together in one pool whenever possible, on the theory that Takara’s mobility would be limited and that for Takara a confined space limits her inclination toward aggression during the early stages of pregnancy. Separating her was believed to make her more anxious to affirm her dominance when she got a chance.
Apparently, Kasatka, Takara’s mother, also has similar issues with hormones and aggression during early pregnancy. But while conscious of Kastaka’s propensity for increased aggression during the early stages of pregnancy, the California park did what it could to manage the aggression without reducing Kasatka’s space.
Not sure what is happening with Kayla, who last year was also on the AI list…
Over the weekend I opened my e-mail to find this reaction to Judge Welsch’s OSHA ruling from a current SeaWorld trainer with many years of experience. It has always been clear that some (though not all) trainers have to deal with a number of contradictory feelings about working with orcas in captivity. But I thought this revealed the bitter honesty of at least one person’s mindset, and I wonder how many other trainers think like this:
I read the 47 page ruling and thought his sharp criticism of the culture and upper management was awesome. And to be honest with you, it made me sick to my stomach. I have known these abuses for years but to see it in affirmed in black and white was sickening. I’m a little ashamed that I allowed this company to take advantage of and abuse me (and the whales) for years because of my own selfishness to want these experiences. It reminded me of how an abused person behaves and justifies the actions of their abusers. Even the fact that SeaWorld testified that they had no knowledge that it was dangerous for us to work with the whales. I love that the judge pointed out how ridiculous it was for them to say that. But all of us trainers sat back and allowed them to say such disgusting things because we wanted to swim, we wanted to keep our jobs, etc.
His ruling finally called bullshit on this cult-like atmosphere we live in and ultimately support as killer whale trainers for SeaWorld. Even the spin machine that has begun is mind blowing. Jim Atchison’s email to all employees is unbelievable. Trainers at the killer whale stadium who had not seen the news yet and only had information from his email actually believed we had won! Some trainers found a lot to be concerned about in the ruling, but aren’t getting many answers from upper management. A Curator even said that this doesn’t mean anything and that they would continue on as they have been and continue to progress as they see fit. And some trainers didn’t even want to know any details because they love the job so much they didn’t want to hear bad news. Some are senior people and supervisors, which just shows how incredibly brainwashed many still are.
I’ve long felt that trainers at SeaWorld have to be able to achieve a certain degree of cognitive dissonance to be able to say on the one hand that they love the
killer whales, and on the other hand be witness to the early deaths, the tooth drilling, the sunburnt skin, the social instability and aggression. and all the other chronic effects of captivity. And I have always suspected that many were able to achieve this cognitive dissonance because what killer whale training is really about for them is the sheer exhilaration of experiencing, bonding with, and swimming with, one of the planet’s most extraordinary animals. In other words, it was about the trainers’ fantasies and trainers’ desires–no matter how much spin and PR would try to convince you otherwise–not the needs and well-being of the killer whales in their care.
If Welsch’s ruling stands, perhaps it will be harder to maintain this cognitive dissonance, because the ultimate experience of working with a killer whale–waterwork–could be gone. So maybe the reality will start to trump the fantasy for more trainers. Already I am hearing lots of noise about trainers moving out of various Shamu stadiums, to stadiums such as Whale and Dolphin where there continues to be waterwork. Though I don’t know the motivation or reasons for any trainer movement, I have had some people tell me that work at Shamu Stadium without waterwork can be kind of a grind. So maybe more trainers will seek work away from Shamu Stadium, or even start thinking about moving on from SeaWorld altogether.
One more note: Last Friday I was on the Sam Simon show, which is always an interesting discussion because Simon (follow him on Twitter here) is passionate about the topic of orcas. Former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre, over at Voice Of the Orcas, posted the audio.
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)…
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:
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.
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.
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):
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:
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.
Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.
“Every safety protocol that we have failed,” SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion. “That’s why we don’t have our friend anymore, and that’s why we are taking a step back.”
Dawn Brancheau’s death was a tragedy for her family and for SeaWorld, which had never lost a trainer before. Letters of sympathy poured in, many with pictures of Brancheau and the grinning kids she’d spent time with after shows. The incident was a shock to Americans accustomed to thinking of Shamu as a lovable national icon, with an extensive line of plush dolls and a relentlessly cheerful Twitter account. The news media went into full frenzy, chasing Brancheau’s family and flying helicopters over Shamu Stadium. Congress piled on with a call for hearings on marine mammals at entertainment parks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation. It was the most intense national killer whale mania since 1996, when Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was rescued from a shabby marine park in Mexico City in an attempt to return him to the sea. Killer whales have never been known to attack a human in the wild, and everyone wanted to know one thing: Why did Dawn Brancheau die?
The story tries to answer that question. Hope it succeeds, at least in part.
There are a number of elements to the tragedy that I did not have space to fully explore. In the coming weeks, I’ll get into some of them right here, with the help of some of my expert sources. So please stay tuned…
In the course of reporting the story I developed enormous respect for the intelligence and complexity of orcas. Here’s a beautiful video that captures some of their majesty: