December 12, 2010:
Young female Morgan, who was discovered all by herself in Dutch waters this June and brought to Dolfinarium Harderwijk for rehabilitation, will not be released back to the wild.

Here are the main points of a report issued by Dolfinarium Harderwijk:

  • Lockyer; Ugarte; McBain) All contributors are opposed to a release into the wild of Morgan. (Ford; Camphuysen; Leopold; Guinet;
  • Concerns over successful introduction and acceptance of Morgan into a pod in the wild were mentioned by most contributors (Ford, Camphuysen, Leopold, Guinet and McBain). 
  • Lack of hunting skills and capability to successfully forage were mentioned by four contributors (Ford, Ugarte, Guinet, McBain). 
  • Habituation to humans was seen as a potential problem by four authors (Ford, Camphuysen, Lockyer and McBain). 
  • Leopold mentioned the possibility that a catastrophic event with Morgan’s pod or a mental or physical health problem of Morgan may have caused her separation from the pod. 
  • Camphuysen touched upon the concern that Norway with its killer whales mainly located off-shore presents an extremely difficult environment for a release attempt. In conclusion, no data are present on the history or identity of Morgan’s pod. The killer whales of the region where she may originate from are currently not monitored in a structural and scientific manner. There is no knowledge on the cause of her being found alone. No disease has been found which may explain her separation. She was emaciated and defecated algae during the first week besides demonstrating a huge appetite, indicating she had been extremely hungry and unable to feed herself. Acceptation into a pod is of paramount importance for her welfare and survival chances. Only her natal pod is a potential candidate that provides an acceptable chance of introducing her successfully given what is known about the social structure of killer whales. 
  • Research on her DNA and vocal repertoire indicate she originated from the population of killer whales that hunt the Norwegian Spring Spawning herring. This population consists of 400 to 800 animals. Two issues now have to be considered: 
    1) The first is that Morgan’s natal pod has not been identified. Her specific vocal repertoire has no match in historic records. Identification is only possible by finding the pod that has the exact same vocal repertoire as Morgan and identifying this pod visually. Only in winter does this population of killer whales gather in still a fairly large and poor defined area offshore. However in winter it is, due to poor light conditions and rough weather, extremely difficult to impossible to visually identify animals that have been recorded by hydrophone. An added difficulty is multiple groups may be recorded together making even more difficult to match a recorded vocal repertoire to a specific pod (Patrick Miller personal communication).
    2) Second the location of release would most probably then have to be offshore as this is where most of the pods spend most of their time. Transporting and releasing her to a once found and followed pod would be hazardous to impossible (especially in rough winter weather conditions) and a contingency plan to help her if she is not accepted by the selected pod is hard to imagine, unless she was trained to follow boats which would make the risk of her interfering with other boats and humans after an attempted release very high and could lead to unacceptable and dangerous situations. 

Morgan therefore can not be released and a proper location and setting for keeping her under human care has to be arranged. 

Here’s a link to the full report!

Note: Considering Morgan’s age and the lack of knowledge about her local killer whale community, this decision is not surprising. There is no word yet on where exactly Morgan will end up. There is also an alternative plan for Morgan, made by the 45 scientists who formed the group called ‘FreeMorgan’ (experts in this group are for example Ingrid Visser, Paul Spong, Robin Baird and Ken Balcomb). This plan for rehabilitation and possible release has basically been ignored by the Dolphinarium, the Dutch government and most of the media.

December 5, 2010:
Bingo and Stella will move to Nagoya

28-year-old male Bingo and 24-year-old female Stella will be transferred from Kamogawa Sea World to Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium for breeding purposes, according to a news report in The Chunichi Shimbun. That would separate Stella from her three daughters Lovey, Lara and Ran 2. This will be a tough move, especially for 4-year-old Ran 2. The exact date of the transport is yet to be announced. At Nagoya, Bingo and Stella will be together with 28-year-old female Nami. It’ll be interesting to see whether the two adult females will get along.

October 15, 2010:
Kohana gave birth to male calf

Kohana, just 8 years old, gave birth to her first calf Wednesday evening at Loro Parque on Tenerife, Spain. Unfortunately Kohana seems to reject the little boy, who had been sired by Keto, and he has to be handfed. 
This doesn’t come as a big surprise. First mothers often struggle but in this case the situation is worsened by the fact that Kohana had been separated from her own mother, Takara, at very young age. Kohana never got the chance to learn from her family as young female orcas in the wild would. Adding to the problem is that there is no adult female at Loro Parque. It’s a bunch of kids who probably don’t have a clue of what has happened. Hopefully the little boy will make it through despite the odds stacking up against him.

Here’s a video of the birth.

On the very same day a newborn calf was encountered among the Southern Resident killer whale community. How utterly different the future of those two babies look…

October 10, 2010:
Killer whale born at SeaWorld Orlando, calf is seventh for Katina

By Susan Jacobson, Orlando Sentinel

Katina, a 34-year-old female, gave birth to her seventh calf Saturday night at 7:28 p.m..

SeaWorld’s Nick Gollattscheck said the birth went smoothly and the mother passed the placenta this morning – a good sign according to park vets. The baby is nursing regularly for about 10-18 seconds each time. The great-grandmother went into labor at 6:47 p.m. and delivered the calf 45 minutes later. It swam to the surface moments later for its first breath, the park said. SeaWorld’s newest addition, 7-foot-long and 350-pound, is in good physical shape and showing signs of strength hours after its birth. Mother and calf are bonding, and veterinarians and caretakers are making sure the baby starts to nurse, park spokesman Nick Gollattscheck said. The sex of the calf won’t be known for a while.

The news was welcome for the Orlando theme park, where the firstborn of Katina’s calves, Kalina, 25, died suddenly on Monday. Results of a necropsy could take up to six weeks. In June, Taima, a 20-year-old female, died at the park giving birth to a stillborn calf. The new calf’s father is Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male who in February drowned a SeaWorld trainer in front of park patrons. The death made national news. According to an online profile, Katina is the most successful whale mother in captivity and the oldest orca at SeaWorld Orlando. The newest calf is the 16th born at SeaWorld Orlando and the 27th at all three SeaWorld parks in the U.S.

Note: Here’s a video. Katina has three more calves surviving, Unna, Ikaika and Nalani. Unfortunately Unna and Ikaika are no longer with their mother, being sent to other parks. Another three calves of Katina have already passed away: Katerina in 1999, Taku in 2007, and of course Kalina last week.

Update October, 18: it’s a boy!

October 5, 2010:
SeaWorld’s killer whale Kalina dies unexpectedly

By Mary Anna Gentleman, Orlando Sentinel

SeaWorld officials report that Kalina, a 25-year-old killer whale at the Orlando theme park, died Monday, Oct. 4, after a sudden illness. A necropsy will be performed, but the cause of her unexpected death likely will not be known for as long as six weeks. According to park veterinarians, Kalina showed no signs of illness as recently as Friday and had good appetite on Sunday, Oct. 3. She began showing signs of discomfort Monday afternoon and died suddenly in the early evening. Kalina was SeaWorld’s first successful birth in the park’s breeding program; she was born Sept. 26, 1985, to Katina. In 2004, Kalina gave birth to her fourth calf.


Note: Kalina lives on through four calves, Keet, Keto, Tuar and Skyla. She also had a stillbirth in 1997. Kalina became the first captive born mother in 1993 with her calf Keet. She was just 6 years old when impregnated by Kotar. Kalina was separated from all of her own offspring before they were 3 years old, some of them before they were even 2 years old. These separations are completely against an orca’s nature who in the wild remains with its mother for life. Kalina’s last offspring was moved away from her in 2006. Her best companion Taima died earlier this year.

September 7, 2010:
Killer whale dies at SeaWorld in San Diego; orca shows canceled


By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Sumar, a 12-year-old killer whale, died mysteriously Tuesday at SeaWorld in San Diego, forcing cancellation of the orca shows at Shamu Stadium, officials at the park said.

The male orca began acting lethargic on Monday and was given antibiotics by park veterinarians. But his condition worsened and he died at about 1:45 p.m. A necropsy is planned.

The show will resume Wednesday.

Sumar, approximately 15 feet long and 5,300 pounds, had been at the San Diego park since 1999. He was born at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, Fla., on May 14, 1998, and spent some months at the SeaWorld park in Ohio before being transferred to San Diego.

While still a calf, Sumar’s mother, Taima, attacked him during a show at the Orlando park. The two were separated permanently, and other female orcas acted as Sumar’s surrogate mother.

In San Diego, Sumar was a star of the orca shows and was considered a possible candidate for breeding. Six orcas remain at the park.

Note: Here’s a video by NBC covering the story.

Update: Sea World has published details about Sumar’s death. 
“Fans, the necropsy on Sumar was recently finalized. His death was determined to be as a result of a twisted intestinal tract (intestinal volvulus). This affliction has been seen in various terrestrial animals (horses, cattle, dogs, etc.). It has also been documented occasionally in cetaceans, including animals in the wild and in zoological facilities. The cause of his death was in no way related to the fact that he lived in a zoological environment. There is no predisposing condition. Prior to his death, Sumar was healthy and thriving. We all continue to miss Sumar very much. Thanks again for everyone’s support.” (Facebook)

September 7, 2010:
According to reliable sources a female killer whale that was captured around July 20 in the Russian waters of Chkalova Island (Okhotsk Sea) has apparently escaped from her net enclosure during a storm in mid August. That would be great news indeed but I’m still awaiting confirmation.

August 8, 2010:
Saving Luna, the heartbreaking film about lost Southern Resident killer whale Luna (L98), has found some very prominent support. Actors Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds have joined as executive producers and a new version of The Whale Movie is in the making. It’ll contain additional footage and will be narrated by Reynolds. Hopefully this will lead to a wider audience, this beautiful movie about this extraordinary whale certainly deserves it. I had the honour to watch Saving Luna on San Juan Island’s big screen and, believe me, at the end the whole auditorium was visibly shaken. It’s a story that you’ll never forget.

August 8, 2010:
Dolfinarium Harderwijk reports that Morgan is getting better and that a restricted number of park visitors are allowed to see her. She still has to gain another 100kg before any decisions about release or transfer to another park can be made.

July 30, 2010:
A killer whale was captured around July 20 in the Russian waters of Chkalova Island (Okhotsk Sea). It was captured by the team that annually catches beluga whales in this area to sell them to commercial oceanariums. The killer whale capture was not planned in advance: the captors were preparing for beluga whale capturing when they saw a pod of killer whales and decided to try their luck. To the knowledge of the Russian Research team, they had no official permit to capture a killer whale, neither the facilities to keep it. One killer whale was captured; it is unknown what has happened with the rest of the pod, how many of them were injured or died. Currently the whale is kept in a temporary net enclosure which is too small for such a big animal, and the catchers are trying to get a permit that would be dated back to July to make this capture look legal. (Source: Russian Orcas Project)

Please help protest this move and demand from the Russian government to let this orca go back to her wild family! Here are a couple addresses:

  • Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Office of The Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, The Russian Government House 2, Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment, Moscow 103274, Russia. Tel.: +7 (495) 925 3581. Fax: +7 (495) 205 8153.
  • Minister Yury Trutnev, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of the Russian Federation, 4/6 Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, Moscow 123995, Russia. Tel.: +7 (495) 254 4800. Fax: +7 (495) 254 6610, 254-4310.

It might also be helpful to write to the Russian Federation’s Embassy in your respective country.

Here’s a sample letter by Merel:

Embassy of Russia 

Subject: the capture of a killer whale in Russian waters

Date, place

Dear Sir / Madam,

I write this letter because I want to express my disapproval about the recent capture of a killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Russian waters.

Scientists of the website have reported the capture of a killer whale on the 20th of July 2010 in the waters of Chkalov Island in the Okhotsk Sea. The killer whale does not have a globally protected status, mostly because there is not enough information about the species. Despite this, orca populations are often protected in the national law and legislation. Orcas also have a great value in the ecosystem.

Orcas are very social animals with very tight family bonds. These bonds last for an entire life. The capture of an orca from such a family group is therefore not only stressful and dangerous for the captured animal, but is a traumatic event for the other group members too. Furthermore, the circumstances in which the animal is held right now are not safe and can cause extra injuries to the orca.

This is why I ask for the release of this killer whale, as the animal is still held in the waters where it came from. Now there is still a chance for it to be reunited with its family.

I thank you for your time,

Yours sincerely,

Your name 
Your address or email address

June 24, 2010:
Yesterday employees of the Dolfinarium Harderwijk captured a young orca. In the afternoon the animal was spotted near Ameland by a ship of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Foodquality. The dolfinarium wants to rehabilitate the animal, now named Morgan, and release it back into the wild. The individual is a young female killer whale of about 3.5 meters in length. Eyewitnesses say the animal was extremely emaciated and weakened. How the animal came into the Wadden Sea is unknown, but apparently it lost its family. It is extremely rare that a killer whale is found in the Wadden Sea. The last sighting was in 1947. In 1963 a last dead beached whale was found on the beach of Noordwijk. Dolfinarium Harderwijk used to display orcas in the past, most recently Gudrun before she was send to the US.

Here are some videos: RTV NoordNOS NieuwsDolfinarium. The whole event reminds one of poor Pascuala in Mexico, 2007. Hopefully little Morgan will make it through!

Update July 1, 2010: the tank that Morgan is in measures 25 by 10 meters and is 4 meters deep. Dolfinarium Harderwijk declared that Morgan will have to stay at the Dolfinarium for at least 3 to 6 months before any further decisions can be made. They came to this conclusion after multiple medical exams. Morgan needs to gain about 180 kilogram before she reaches her ‘normal’ weight. The dolfinarium is now talking with SOS Dolfijn and other experts all over the world about the health of Morgan.

June 19, 2010:
After months of speculation 27-year-old female Nami has been moved from Taiji Whaling Museum to Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium (pdf with pics of the move). Taiji had been displaying killer whales since 1978. Port of Nagoya was already in the business from October 2003 until their lone orca Ku died in September 2008. Apparently the Nagoya Aquarium wants to start a captive breeding program and is in negotiations with Kamogawa Sea World to artificially inseminate Nami with semen from the Kamogawa males.

I sincerely hope that Taiji will now find the inner strength to discontinue its ugly history of catching or killing orcas and other cetaceans from the wild. Maybe the worldwide success of the movie The Cove gets them to think about how they want their community to live in the 21st Century…

June 7, 2010:
SeaWorld orca dies while giving birth


By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel

A killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando died Sunday from complications that arose while she was giving birth, officials said. The park said Taima, born at SeaWorld Orlando in July 1989, died late in the afternoon, approximately 20 hours after going into labor Saturday evening. The calf was stillborn.

“Everyone is very saddened by the loss … Everyone is reeling,” said Dr. Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Taima “was a member of the family.” Taima was one of eight killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando. She had successfully given birth to three calves in the past. Dold said Taima’s fetus was in an unusual position in the birth canal during the delivery process. The orca also experienced a condition in which the placenta was delivered before the fetus itself.

After Taima was unable to deliver her calf, park veterinarians attempted to assist. But SeaWorld said the complications ultimately proved too severe. Dold said SeaWorld has not had a mother killer whale die while giving birth in more than 25 years. The company, which operates SeaWorld marine parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, says it has recorded 26 successful killer-whale births since its first in 1985. Losses of the fetus are more common, although Dold said the rate of killer-whale stillbirths is significantly lower in SeaWorld’s parks than it is in the wild. The park considers it a successful birth when the calf has reached one year of age. “There are lots of these kinds of complications that can occur … We know they happen in the wild, we know they happen in collections,” Dold said. “We know they happen everywhere.” SeaWorld says it will not know the definitive cause of Taima’s death until a full post-mortem investigation is completed, a process that is expected to take up to six weeks. A second orca at SeaWorld Orlando is also pregnant. The 34-year-old orca Katina is due to have her seventh calf in late October. Both Taima and Katina were impregnated by Tilikum, the six-ton orca who drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau earlier this year.

Notes: Taima leaves behind her three-year-old daughter Malia at SeaWorld Orlando, her twelve-year-old son Sumar at SeaWorld San Diego and her nine-year-old son Tekoa at Loro Parque, Tenerife in Spain,

What annoys me is that SeaWorld keeps on lying to the public although the facts are out there for everybody to check:

“Dr. Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment … said SeaWorld has not had a mother killer whale die while giving birth in more than 25 years.”

  • Samoa died during labor of a near full-term fetus in March 1992. Already forgotten? Two more females died during their pregnancies in 1991 and 2001.

“The company, which operates SeaWorld marine parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, says it has recorded 26 successful killer-whale births since its first in 1985. Losses of the fetus are more common, although Dold said the rate of killer-whale stillbirths is significantly lower in SeaWorld’s parks than it is in the wild.” 

  • To my knowledge there is no scientific data of stillbirths in the wild to compare with. But almost a third out of the 37 known SeaWorld pregnancies didn’t result in a live calf (7 stillbirths, 5 miscarriages). Two calves died after a couple days, two more didn’t reach their third birthday. Hardly a record to brag about…

On CNN, Dold said “the birthing success rate is about 50 percent in the wild and 85 percent in a zoological situation.” 

  • The birthing success rate for killer whales in captivity is actually 74 percent, at SeaWorld it is just 68 percent. The “50 percent in the wild” that Dold cites is the estimated survival rate of a wild killer calf in its first year. If I’d count that, the captivity numbers get even worse.

My condolences to the trainers but I wish SeaWorld’s officials would stop misleading the public.

Another note (cudos to Jim): 

Taima’s own mother, Gudrun, also died from complications from a stillborn calf. She did not die in labor and lived for several days after, but the stillbirth was the factor that lead to her demise. Bizarre coincidence.

One more note regarding neonate mortality in the wild: 

The oft-quoted stat of up to half of all wild-born calves die in the first year is a bit of an exaggeration. The only real peer-reviewed demographic paper comes from Olesiuk, Bigg and Ellis (Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada V9R 5K6) (1990): Life history and population dynamics of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State, which says that neonate mortality is approximately 43%. This stat itself may be skewed. The data is from 1973-1987, which happen to be just years after PCBs were banned and subsequently dumped into Puget Sound in great quantities, disrupting fetal development to this day, but especially during those years. The authors explain that the 43% number is almost entirely speculation based on the rate at which females should be having calves vs. the number of calves observed. But between the PCBs and the fact that birthrates for orcas are more variable and unpredictable than for most mammals, that stat becomes almost meaningless. Yet it is used by the parks relentlessly. Only one or two births have ever been witnessed, so the rate of stillbirths is entirely unknown. 

Here is a 2005 study on the Northern Resident orca community, with a note about the 1990 study: We made no attempt to estimate mortality within the first 6 months of life. Since most births occurred outside our field season, calves were generally first encountered when they were about 6 months of age. Although this makes it impossible to estimate neonate mortality from the summer survey data, we suspect mortality at birth and in the first few months of life is high. Olesiuk et al. (1990) inferred it could be as high as 37-50%, although in retrospect that is probably on the high side.

March 16, 2010: 
Takara’s calf of this January has been named Sakari which is an Inuit word for “sweet”.

March 4, 2010: 
Orca Network and the Center for Whale Research issued a very well stated press release on the tragic events at SeaWorld Orlando:

“What’s best for Tilikum now, and what have we learned?

The terrible tragic death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Florida has suddenly generated a nationwide public examination of our feelings about captive orca shows. We’ve now seen the harm they can do even to compassionate humans, and the mental distress captivity can cause in the orcas. Google shows at least 6,892 articles on the trainer’s death. No other single news event has brought out such a groundswell of emotions doubting the ethical wisdom of using captive orcas for entertainment.

Now that we’ve had a few days to digest the multitude of facts and opinions, what have we learned about orcas, and what’s next for Tilikum? What happens to the orcas, so exquisitely evolved to move great distances in vast surroundings as lifelong members of complex social worlds, when they are removed from their natural settings and families, or born in concrete bowls, and confined for life in minuscule, featureless cells?

Sea World had special operating procedures for Tilikum. Because of his involvement in two previous deaths and his unpredictable temperament, no trainers were allowed to get in the water with him. As an unrelated male among matriarchal females he was bullied and shunned by the other orcas and was usually kept separate from them. Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s curator of animal behavior, said the park’s female killer whales typically want Tilikum around them only when they are sexually active. Brancheau was one of the few trainers allowed to even get near him, and by all indications had been giving him quality time and attention for at least a decade. Her sessions with him must have been very important and emotionally charged for him.

On February 24th Brancheau had been interacting affectionately and intensively with Tilikum for possibly a half hour, making sustained, enthusiastic eye contact and giving signals for all sorts of behaviors that he performed obligingly. She was stretched out on a 4-inch deep ledge on the edge of the pool, as close as she could possibly get, when he grabbed her, possibly by her ponytail, and pulled her into the pool. “Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance to Brancheau due to the whale’s aggressive nature,” says a report released Thursday by the Orange County Florida Sheriff’s Department. “She was recovered from the whale by SeaWorld staff members after the animal was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large scale/platform.” Brancheau’s cause of death was “most likely” multiple traumatic injuries and drowning, the report says, citing autopsy results.

Many have assumed that Tilikum attacked Brancheau, acting out of pent up frustration from decades of confinement, domination and isolation. Others have suggested he was playing with her like a toy, or was holding on to her body as a trophy. To be honest, I’m still not sure whether drowning Dawn Brancheau was a hostile act or Tilikum ’s desperate attempt to grab and keep a companion. There is a striking similarity in the three deaths he has taken part in: in each case he kept hold of the deceased and refused to allow the body to be taken away.

If we’ve learned anything about orcas after almost four decades of field research, now worldwide, and the entire history of captivity, it is that orcas need companionship. They bond with their families for life, through good times and bad, and share their food with family members even when starving. In captivity they tend to form ad hoc bonds and swim in unison, always attuned to one another, always communicating. Human companions seem to be the next best to the real thing, and when offered quality time by caring humans they often build trusting relationships, as many a veteran orca trainer will confirm. It’s plausible to say that after years of extreme isolation Tilikum has become neurotic, obsessive and mentally disturbed. He never learned how to relate normally and safely with orcas or humans, at least since he was plucked from his mother’s side as a youngster and thrown into a life of domination and rejection by strangers, both orca and human. Brancheau showed great compassion and empathy for Tilikum, but she may have underestimated just how messed up he was.

At this point there may be no good options for Tilikum. Sea World will probably not allow staff to get anywhere near him from now on, although he’ll still need dental and other medical procedures so that may be problematic. Certainly nobody will be allowed to get as close to him as Brancheau was. Sea World is now under new ownership, Blackstone Investments, whose theme park subsidiary is Merlin Entertainments, which has a public policy in opposition to captivity for cetaceans. This incident may force the new owners to decide about the future of Sea World. If they choose to keep Tilikum, they’ll have to isolate him more than he has been ever since his capture in 1982, which could tip him further over the edge and make him more hostile or suicidal. If that happens SW will suffer a massive PR hemorrhage and could lose their primary stud as well. The park’s days will then be numbered in a climate of very bad will, and the new owners will be responsible.

Retiring Tilikum to a bay pen in Iceland (hopefully also conducting field research there to locate his family) would build good will for doing their best for him. But such a courageous decision would also be the beginning of the end for Sea World as we know it. Not only is he their breeding male –even with his 13 progeny orcas in captivity are dying faster than they’re being born – but successfully retiring a captive orca would set the precedent that has long been feared by Sea World. Keiko proved that even after long-term captivity an orca can regain his strength, catch his own dinner and thrive in the ocean, but since his death the whole project has been declared a failure in the media.

We humans with our relatively tiny brains and short evolutionary history are in no position to judge the actions of orcas, much less make plans for them, but at this point a management decision will have to be made about Tilikum’s future. It’s an open question whether it’s too late for him to ever return home. Not only is he emotionally unpredictable but his teeth are mere nubs after years of gnawing on gates and being filed down to prevent infections, which could make it hard for him to catch live fish. His sad predicament and the hard choices now facing Sea World present the company with perhaps their greatest challenge ever.”

(Source: Orca Network)

February 27, 2010: 
SeaWorld appears to blame the trainer for being not careful enough. True as that might be I’d like to remark that neither the whales nor the trainers are the problem here. The problem is the unnatural situation captive cetaceans are in.

Filmmaker and author Chris Palmer pretty much expresses my own thoughts, only much more eloquently than I ever could:

“I’ve spent more than 25 years making wildlife films, many of them about powerful and dangerous predators such as killer whales. It is easy to see that in their own environments, little prevents such creatures from yielding to their natural impulses, as they should. Wednesday’s tragic accident at SeaWorld Orlando shows that we need to reconsider keeping wild animals in captivity for our entertainment and take a hard look at our own understanding of the natural world. The stakes have been raised for those who argue that the pros of performing animals in captivity (protection and conservation of wild animals, public education) outweigh the cons (forcing animals into confinement, risking critical or fatal human injuries). Orcas and other large predators should not be held in captivity unless those doing so can make an overpoweringly persuasive case for it — mainly that the animal’s release into the wild, perhaps after an injury, will mean certain, immediate death. One reason behind my conviction: The lesson too many take away from marine park shows is wild animals are like pets. Some can be trained to obey a human’s command on occasion, but no matter how much they may learn to tolerate human interaction, these animals are far from tame. Why do people forget this seemingly obvious truth?

As a filmmaker, I have watched as the media, particularly the creators and broadcasters of wildlife films, have misled audiences with a distorted picture of the way nature works. Whether with the 2003 tiger attack on Roy Horn of the illusionist act Siegfried and Roy or with Timothy Treadwell, who in the same year was attacked and eaten by grizzlies he was living among in Alaska, instinct is too powerful to allow us to predict anything about predator animals. Marine parks with performing orcas may train them to do impressive tricks, prompting them with fish treats to indulge their natural abilities for breaching and twirling. But as the late Jacques Cousteau once observed: “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.” I would suggest that our desire to watch anyway is part of our thwarted desire to interact with our natural world — an impulse that we have suppressed. We are more comfortable watching from behind the safety of a clear barricade or on TV from the comfort of our couch. Here, we see animals as people-friendly, cuddly or as menacingly violent. We anthropomorphize them as having feelings and reactions similar our own. This makes the death of 40-year-old whale trainer Dawn Brancheau surprising to us. That it doesn’t happen more often is the surprise.

There is one other aspect of our modern distance from nature that I believe we should acknowledge — it is of a piece with this discussion. I would suggest the dark flip side of audiences flocking to benign animal shows at theme parks is the impulse to watch increasingly violent wildlife films and TV shows. Viewers thrill to films that show wild animals mating or hunting prey, complete with gnashing fangs, ripping flesh and spilling blood. It is, after all, an adrenaline rush. And what audiences want, entertainment organizations aim to provide by going to increasingly dangerous extremes. The aggressive tactics used to draw animals to film sites and capture unnatural scenes, such as man-made feeding frenzies, produce what some call “wildlife pornography” — films in which animals are exploited for viewers’ pleasure and funders’ return on investment. This is no more the way to appreciate and learn about wild animals’ true behavior in nature than is watching orcas elegantly breach within the walls of a tank. The best, most compassionate way for us protect, learn about and appreciate the beauty of wild animals is to watch them from a distance, but never, ever touch.

We need to leave them alone — in the wild — and stop interfering in their lives.”

(Source: CNN)

February 25, 2010: 
Senior trainer Dawn Brancheau has died at SeaWorld Orlando after being attacked by a killer whale

A veteran animal trainer whose dream was to work at SeaWorld Orlando was killed Wednesday when one of the show’s killer whales dragged her underwater and she drowned. SeaWorld said that 12,000-pound Tilikum pulled Dawn Brancheau, 40, into the orca’s tank about 2p.m. Witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that the animal suddenly grabbed Brancheau by the upper arm, tossed her around in his mouth and pulled her beneath the water as dozens of tourists looked on in horror. Brazilian tourist João Lúcio da Costa Sobrinho, 28, and his girlfriend, Talita Oliveira, 20, watched the attack from an underwater-viewing area where they had gone to take photos. Suddenly, they saw a woman in the killer whale’s jaws, her face bloody. The more than 20-foot-long orca circled round and round, turning her over and over, they said. “It was terrible,” Sobrinho said. “It’s very difficult to see the image.”

Witnesses who watched the attack while eating at the “Dine with Shamu” show – a poolside buffet where trainers demonstrate their connection with the animals – told the Sentinel a female trainer was petting a killer whale when it grabbed her and plunged into the water. It reappeared on the other side of the tank and leapt up holding the woman, they said. Within minutes, an alarm sounded, and security workers escorted the spectators out. Some people were screaming, and children were crying, Sobrinho and Oliveira said. The scene was more orderly at “Dine with Shamu.” Several spectators said the animals had been agitated during a 12:30p.m. show, playing or fighting with one another and refusing to obey commands to splash the crowd, a staple of the program.

“It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon,” SeaWorld President Dan Brown said in a statement to the media. “We’ve initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred.” Brancheau had worked at the park since February 1994. Ever since she visited SeaWorld with her family about 30years ago, Brancheau’s goal had been to train killer whales, said her mother, Marion Loverde of Indiana. “Everyone knew that was her dream,” Loverde said. Brancheau’s supervisor, Chuck Tompkins, said Brancheau knew the risks of the job. ‘”She loved what she did, and she loved being with the animal. And she understood the risk,” said Tompkins, corporate curator in charge of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Resorts. “Dawn knew how to be able to connect with animals and with people.”

Tilikum, the largest killer whale at any SeaWorld park, has been involved in two previous deaths. He was one of three killer whales blamed for the 1991 drowning of a trainer while he performed at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. In 1999, the dead body of a naked man was found lying across Tilikum’s back at SeaWorld Orlando. Tompkins said Tilikum would not be put down because of the attacks. His name, according to various sources, means “welcome,” “greetings” or “friend” in Chinook jargon. SeaWorld Orlando and San Diego will be open today, but there will be no “Believe” or “Dine with Shamu” shows, both of which feature killer whales.

The San Diego park cancelled its Wednesday afternoon Shamu show because of the accident. “We’re terribly saddened by the loss of the member of our SeaWorld family – it doesn’t matter what park,” San Diego park spokesman David Koontz said. When Orange County firefighters arrived at the park less than five minutes after receiving a 911 call, Brancheau was already dead, a spokesman said. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration dispatched an investigator from Tampa.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime critic of SeaWorld’s practices, again called on the park “to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub,” it said in a statement. “It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.” Many other animal-rights activists have long criticized SeaWorld and other marine parks for keeping orcas and other wildlife in captivity. Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale, said keeping the animals captive makes them dangerous. “Captivity is abusive to these animals. And the abuse mounts up. And when these animals snap – just for a minute – they’re so big and can be so dangerous that it’s like a shotgun,” Rector said. “It does an incredible amount of damage in just a moment.”

At SeaWorld on Wednesday afternoon, guests were turned away from the walkways that lead to Shamu Stadium and were told the 5:30 p.m. show was cancelled. Outside the park entrance, people were talking about the accident. Several said the killer whales had not behaved normally during the 12:30 p.m. show. Brad Sultan of Tampa said one of three orcas that was supposed to create a triangle with its trainers didn’t do it. Another orca that was supposed to swim around the tank and splash made it only about a quarter of the way, he said. The show, Sultan said, “abruptly ended.”

Source: Orlando Sentinel

Update regarding autopsy report: CNN

The sad news comes only two months after another trainer was killed at Loro Parque in Spain. Condolences to the trainer’s family and friends.

January 8, 2010: 
SeaWorld San Antonio’s 18-year-old female orca Takara gave birth yesterday morning at 7:13 AM after a short period of labor. The gender of the calf has not been stated yet. This is Takara’s third calf after Trua in 2005 and Kohana in 2002, both of whom were separated from her at young age. Trua remained at SeaWorld Orlando when Takara was moved to Texas in February 2009. Kohana went to Loro Parque, Spain, in February 2006. In the wild killer whales remain with their mother for life.

Here’s some film.

Update: January 29, 2010: SeaWorld thinks it’s a girl.