The Story Of Moby Doll

If you want to know how the whole raking-in-the-bucks-by-putting-killer-whales-on-public-display thing really got rolling, you need to know the sad and enraging story of Moby Doll.

Recently, there was a gathering to reflect on the (almost) 50-year anniversary of Moby Doll’s capture, and all that followed:

Orcas, or killer whales, were traditionally feared, revered, and respected by the indigenous people of the coast. That sentiment morphed with the growth of commercial salmon fisheries into one of dislike and aggression, as the so-called “blackfish” were seen as dangerous competitors for fish. No one thought it was safe to come near them and it was not uncommon to shoot them. Little was known about their natural history, and they were still scientifically unstudied by the 1960s.

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium, which had been in operation for eight years, planned to harvest a killer whale for dissection, study, and use as a model for a realistic statue at the entrance to their facility. A team from the aquarium headed to Saturna, the southernmost of the Gulf Islands, and set up a harpoon on the rocks of East Point, now part of the National Park Reserve.

In due course, a pod of orcas arrived, and the five-metre-long Moby Doll was harpooned. Unexpectedly, it failed to die, as two other members of the pod swam to support it at the ocean’s surface. The aquarium team realized that they could bring the relatively calm animal back alive, and towed it 65 kilometres back to Vancouver.

They called it Moby Doll, mistaking the young male for a female, and exhibited him in a pen in the harbour, where he created a sensation. The public and media flocked to visit.

This was the first ever captive orca and as described by the Saturna symposium organizers, it “triggered a goldrush” on young orcas. Dozens were subsequently captured and put on display in aquariums around the world. The intelligent animals were often taught tricks, and would perform in shows.

Moby Doll survived just 88 days in captivity, but that was long enough to demonstrate the profit potential of live killer whale displays. More here, from the Whale Of A Business site over at PBS.

Another Take On Morgan The PR Star

A few weeks back, I posted a video of Morgan that was created by Loro Parque, along with some quick analysis.

Here’s the video again:

One element of the video that caught people’s attention was the apparent use of a whistle to bridge Morgan, which bears on the question of Morgan’s alleged deafness.

Bridgette Pirtle, a former trainer at SeaWorld Texas, got in touch with her view of the video, and graciously allowed me to share it here:

[UPDATED] A few observations…  LoroParque chose some interesting footage to use to show how “well” Morgan is doing. Particularly towards the end, that video appears to give stronger evidence for how she is not acclimating well. The white water looks like displacement not play. Those wide eyes in the closing frames are consistent with behaviors seen in whales anticipating more acts of dominance directed towards her, not of one settling into the hierarchy. Her eyes are of a whale tight and uncomfortable in her social environment.  I understand Morgan has a unique history along with some physical disabilities that further distance her from a “regular” orca, but those behaviors are far from that of the ” happy-go-lucky” captive norm.  That’s a little more like throwing a Mizzou fan in the middle of KU country. That Tiger is blending in anonymously, hoping to make it through without any altercation.  All the while, that Tiger is always watching his tail.  The behaviors observed in this video are more consistent with those of learned helplessness rather than proof of her successful acclimation within the social environment of LoroParque.

In regards to earlier comments made suggesting a possibility of the trainers continuing to use auditory stimuli amidst claims of Morgan’s loss of hearing, I feel that this isn’t sufficient evidence to support any speculations of the conflicting claims of poor hearing yet continuing to use the bridge whistle.  The session with Jose and Morgan at the slideout isn’t a good indicator of the possibility of a whistle being used as a bridge.  Audio is edited and a trainer placing a bridge in his or her mouth doesn’t always mean guarenteed bridge.  I was always “chewing on my whistle.”  In fact, there is a video on YouTube with me and Halyn doing a hand target learn session for campers where I also go into explaining my habit to the group.  I feel the more noteworthy points to take home from this video are that actions viewed are not quite lining up with the words being heard. Although the audio is edited over, I can tell you from the years I worked with him, Jose definitely was just as bad as me at “chewing on the whistle.” Most likely that would get chopped up to a trainer’s superstitious bad habit. There had been a video on YouTube with Rafa using his bridge while working Morgan that would better prove they don’t even really believe their own spin on Morgan’s deafness. It actually may have been one of the first installments of LP’s promo porn regarding Morgan. 🙂

Regardless of whether or not there’s a presence of auditory cues or that there is any substance to Morgan’s situation being compared to that of the whale euthanized by a shotgun blast, I feel the footage incorporated into this LoroParque PSA isn’t necessarily in line with the idealistic image they hope to achieve.  Killer whale social structures are extremely dynamic and complex.  Morgan’s unique variables contribute even more variables and complexities into this already delicate balance.  I would think even an untrained eye would be able to identify the social happenings observed here as being anything but an all-in-all acceptance within her new pod.

This is like Kremlinology, from the bad old days. But it’s nice to have some real experts providing the analysis.

Wild Kingdom: Orcas Attack A Pod Of Sperm Whales

Orcas are fascinating. But they are consummate killers, and if you are a species they will eat they are fearsome.

This video was shot off the coast of Sri Lanka, by Brett Heinrichs (just more evidence that orcas are everywhere):

How do sperm whales defend themselves against smaller, faster orcas? Do they rely on bulk (in which case the calves are a target), or can they do damage to the orcas?

Here’s an account, compiled from Heinrichs comments on the YouTube page:

April 19, 2013, Five to Six Orcas (Killer Whales) attack a pod of six Sperm whales of the coast of Sri Lanka. At the end of the video, we jump in the water and captured the first underwater footage of Orcas attacking Sperm whales.

It was truly amazing. I have been swimming with a lot of great creatures in the ocean (blue whales, tiger sharks, whale sharks, manta rays…), but this tops it all.

Alternatively, the Orcas may have been attacking the 3 sides of the pod we were not on, driving the sperm whales into us. At times we were 3 to 5 feet from the Sperm whales. Visibility was good, but not great. While initially we feared aggression from the Orcas, at no time did the Orcas show aggression towards us.

I can tell you that we were very hesitant to get in the water with no precedent for how the Orcas might behave in this attack scenario. Upon entry into the water, they came to us and checked us out then ignored us and resumed their attack. The generally avoided us. The Sperm whales appeared to pick up on this and came closer to us for safety.

I believe the Orcas killed the youngest calf. We saw 6 Sperm whales upon arrival and 5 eventually left the scene. At one point we saw the youngest calf separated from the pod and being hammered by Orcas. The underwater video and images are a first ever and being distributed through other media channels. Not sure how long that process will take.

Have to give the guy credit for getting in the water without knowing how he would be received. The underwater footage will be very interesting to see.

Captive Orcas And Mosquitos

Mosquito landing pad?

Former SeaWorld trainers Jeffrey Ventre (now a doctor) and John Jett (now a university professor) have published a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the Journal Of Marine Mammals And Their Ecology, on the vulnerability of captive orcas to mosquito-borne viruses (PDF). Here’s the abstract:

Although unreported in wild orca populations, mosquito-transmitted diseases have killed at least two captive orcas
(Orcinus orca) in U.S. theme parks. St. Louis Encephalitis Virus (SLEV) was implicated in the 1990 death of the male orca Kanduke,
held at SeaWorld of Florida. In the second case, West Nile Virus (WNV) killed male orca Taku at SeaWorld of Texas in 2007.
Captive environments increase vulnerability to mosquitotransmitted diseases in a variety of ways. Unlike their wild counterparts who are rarely stationary, captive orcas typically spend hours each day (mostly at night) floating motionless (logging) during which time biting mosquitoes access their exposed dorsal surfaces. Mosquitoes are attracted to exhaled carbon dioxide, heat and dark surfaces, all of which are present during logging behavior. Further, captive orcas are often housed in geographic locations receiving high ultraviolet radiation, which acts as an immunosuppressant. Unfortunately, many of these facilities offer the animals little shade protection. Additionally, many captive orcas have broken, ground and bored teeth through which bacteria may enter the bloodstream, thus further compromising their ability to fight various pathogens. Given the often compromised health of captive orcas, and given that mosquito-transmitted viral outbreaks are likely to occur in the future, mosquito-transmitted diseases such as SLEV and WNV remain persistent health risks for captive orcas held in the U.S.
[JMATE. 2012;5(2):9-16].

At the time Kanduke died there was uncertainty over the cause. But here is the necropsy which indicated that something unusual had happened, and helped Ventre and Jett find the answer..

This is an important insight into how captivity affects the lives of killer whales, and what is particularly interesting is how a confluence of captivity-related issues–logging, temperatures, lack of shade, teeth-drilling, etc–combine to create a vector of vulnerability that wild orcas likely do not experience. Which is one more reason that mortality in captivity is greater than mortality in the wild. Very well-done, informative, fact-based, work.

The Death Of Sumar: Raw Footage

I hesitate to post this, which was shot over SeaWorld San Diego when Sumar died in September 2010, because I don’t want it to seem gratuitous. But I am going ahead, because death for orcas at marine parks, usually premature death, is part of the orca experience in captivity that marine parks would prefer the public knew little about (much less see).

But marine parks can’t control everything that gets presented to the public, or the air space over their pools. So when there are opportunities to tell a fuller story than gets told from a marine park stage, or in a cheery brochure or TV commercial, the fuller story should be told.

SeaWorld Taking Steps To Resume Waterwork

Been getting word that at least one SeaWorld Shamu stadium has called a meeting for Monday to discuss beginning waterwork desensitization in the medical pool. That’s the first step to resuming waterwork with SeaWorld’s killer whales, which was stopped in the aftermath of Dawn Brancheau’s and stayed on hold through SeaWorld’s appeal of OSHA’s citation of SeaWorld Florida for exposing trainers to injury from orcas.

I don’t know if all of SeaWorld’s parks are planning to begin waterwork desense training, or whether the training will lead to the resumption of waterwork outside of shows (which Judge Ken Welsch’s OSHA ruling allows) or even in shows that either take place outside of Florida (which was the only park OSHA cited) or in shows everywhere based on a claim that fast-rising floors and other safety measures mitigate the dangers OSHA cited.

But I do know that SeaWorld management, including Brad Andrews and Jim Atchison, have for a while been telling trainers–many of whom have been discouraged by the lack of waterwork and considering moving on from Shamu Stadium–that, despite OSHA, waterwork will be back. And also that plans to install fast-rising pool floors will continue.

SeaWorld management has also been telling trainers that Judge Welsch erred in his ruling, so it seems likely that SeaWorld will appeal his ruling further (it has 60 days to file). In the meantime, SeaWorld is within days of having to demonstrate to OSHA the steps it will take to mitigate the dangers to trainers OSHA identified.

So lots of pieces are in movement, and only SeaWorld knows where it hopes to take them. But a plan to begin waterwork desense shows that waterwork in some form is still very much part of SeaWorld’s plan.

Stay tuned.

Talking Orcas With Sam Simon

UPDATE: My call-in time has changed to 6:10 pm EST.

Tomorrow evening (Friday), at 6:10 pm EST, I’ll join Sam Simon to talk about orcas on his radio show on RadioIo. Simon is an interesting guy, who was “lucky” (his word) to be involved in getting The Simpsons up and running. He was also involved in a lot of other shows and you can read about him here.

On the side of all this, and in addition to a radio show, Simon has a foundation, and does a lot of work protecting and rescuing dogs. SteveO, of Jackass fame, will also be on the show, to talk about circuses.

If you want to listen in, the show will start at 6 pm EST, and I am calling in at 7 pm. Just go to this link, and click the red “Listen” button next to the “Bubba One” channel.

Should be an interesting and unpredictable evening, so hope you can join in.

Seeing Is Important

No matter what your views on marine parks, it is important that you know as much about the lives of the animals there as possible. Otherwise, you can’t really hold whatever views you have honestly. A few days ago, a picture came across my desk, and Elizabeth Batt has written up the backstory over at Digital Journal.

I hesitated to publish the picture because it is dramatic and open to mis-interpretation. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that not publishing it also is a dis-service, and also dishonest. And that you can never know or understand more by NOT seeing something.

So below is the picture that got Elizabeth going on her article. It shows a team at an Asian marine park trying to save a dolphin’s life by amputating an infected dorsal. One one level it is hard to object to what they are doing, as brutal as the procedure might be for an animal that can’t handle general anesthetic. But the picture also shows the sort of lives and experience marine mammals at marine parks live, in contrast to the lives they live in their natural environment.

If this dolphin came from the Taiji drives, as seems likely from Elizabeth’s reporting, you can say that it is “lucky” to be alive, and you would be right in the sense that getting sold to a marine park is possibly better than being slaughtered in a cove (though who really knows which of those two fates a dolphin would choose it if could choose between those two fates). But that doesn’t take away from the truth of what the picture shows about the alien (to a marine mammal) world of marine mammal captivity (plus, it is the sale of dolphins to marine parks that underlies much of the economic incentive for the Taiji drives, so there is a bigger picture).

Finally, yes, the ocean can be a tough place, and dolphins no doubt get injured and die at sea. But this situation is a result of human choices and human culture. So I am publishing the picture so it can be seen by human eyes.

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