Archives for April 2010

Orcinus orca: Little Known Info

killer whale or orca is orcinus orca

Above: Another vintage killer whale photo.

The Orcinus orca series here at Ark Animals was sparked after I listened to the comments and public misperceptions concerning the Sea World killer whale attack on the marine mammal trainer, Dawn Brancheau.

I’ve been sharing some of the things known by professionals but that are little known by the public.

In this post I’ll be covering a bit about the history of captive orcas, the laws that govern the captive care of these marine mammals and touch on the threats to wild orcas.

Orcinus orca is often depicted in the artwork, masks and costuming of the Pacific Northwest but it has only been since the 1960s that the orca began to be recognized by the general public—and lots of people still don’t realize that they are the largest of the Delpinidae group (dolphin family).

Early orca captures were brutal–a fact I’ve known since I started my career. Controversy surrounds captive orcas and things have changed from people not really knowing or caring about the beast to the widespread concern over the species–both in captivity and in the wild.

The treatment of marine mammals around the world varies greatly due to culture and economic differences.

Recently, dolphin slaughters have come to light in movies such as, The Cove and have served to raise awareness and concern in the United States.

This type of treatment, less sophisticated capture methods and whaling efforts have existed for many, many years, and it is only the awareness that has changed.

Captive collection of orcas began in the late 1930s but it wasn’t until the 1960s that they were being collected for exhibition.

By1999 there were 48 animals on display worldwide.  The total listing of both deceased and living orcas today is around 79 or so. (I’ve found discrepancies in the database–in fact Tilikum wasn’t even listed!)

Since marine mammals began being exhibited in marine parks, the governing laws regarding the capture and keeping of orcas (and other species) have been established and enforced.

Laws governing the captive care and management include and involve the:

In addition, the governing agencies and publications relating to marine mammals include:

Because of the difficulties now involved in the capture and display of orcas, acquisition of existing stock and captive breeding programs are essential for the parks housing them.

Sea World has purchased captive orcas from other aquariums/oceanariums and many of the animals once exhibited elsewhere now reside at different SeaWorld Parks that are owned by Busch Entertainment Corporation (BEC), a division of The Blackstone Group.

Wild Orca Information
Wild orcas face a lot of challenges and the Convention on Migratory Species had a well researched summary about Orcinus orca and included a broad scope of information from capture and impact on wild killer whales.

The following are excerpts from Boris Culik (2010) Odontocetes. The toothed whales: “Orcinus orca”. UNEP/CMS Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

History of Direct Catch of Killer Whales

  • Norwegian whalers in the eastern North Atlantic took an average of 56 whales per year from 1938 to 1981.
  • Japanese whalers took an average of 43 whales per year along their coastal waters from 1946 to 1981.
  • Soviet whalers, primarily in the Antarctic, took an average of 26 animals annually from 1935 to 1979, but took 916 animals in the 1979/80 Antarctic season (which got a lot of attention).
  • After 1976, Iceland was involved in live-captures of killer whales for export. During the period 1976-1988, 59 whales were collected, of which 8 were released, 3 died and 48 (an average 3.7 per year) were exported.
  • In 1991, the Icelandic government announced that after expiry of existing permits for live capture, no new ones would be issued.
  • Killer whales are still taken in small numbers in coastal fisheries off Japan, Greenland, Indonesia and the Caribbean Islands.

Dangers to Wild Orcas
Today impacts on the wild populations of orcas are severe.

Pollution is a growing problem and high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT) have been reported in orcas.

According to Culik’s research, the southern resident and transient killer whales of British Columbia are among the most contaminated cetaceans in the world and killer whales in northern Norway are among the most polluted arctic animals.

Noise pollution and habitat degradation are also is thought to have a negative impact on wild orcas. Specifically, the endangered southern resident killer whales are suffering from noise pollution in their environment.

Habitat disturbance includes whale-watching industries and marine vessels. Propeller scars have been seen on killer whales and are suspected of causing mortality.

Also, environmental hazards such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska hurt the whale population. Two groups of whales (resident AB pod and transient AT1 group) suffered huge losses in the year following the spill.

Heavily exploited species of fish have impact on the ecosystem and it is suspected that killer whale predation changes (such as preying upon sea-otters in Alaska) are because of the significant declines in fish populations due to overfishing and habitat degradation. (Read about the Snake River salmon and orca decline.)

Now there are a lot of other issues I want to get into but that is it for now.

Anything you would like to add? If so, leave your comment below.

Killer Whale Tilikum: Beauty & the Beast

Above: Vintage orca photo of something not done much these days.

Orcinus orca is a beautiful and majestic animal but the species also hunts and kills with skill and innovation.

Basically, beauty and beast combine into one powerful predator known as the killer whale or orca.

Tilikum made headlines all over the world when he killed orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.

What disturbed me about this incident was that all of the mainsteam media commentaries got out of hand and most of those comments, with the exception of one, were made by people who had not seen the footage of the killer whale incident.

It used to be that you could rely on the news anchors to have some sort of journalist ethics but today those seem to be sadly missing in mainstream media and have been replaced with personal opinions and commentaries spouted carelessly in a variety of mediums.

Hopefully we won’t see the footage of the orca attack and I guess I should not be surprised that the media would seek legal avenues to get their hands on it.

But aren’t there are more important things going on in the world above and beyond the morbid fascination of one person’s death by a captive predator?

Anyway I was shaking my head over comments such as:

  • Tilikum was only playing.
  • Sea World’s killer whale mistook the orca trainer’s pony tail for a novel object (toy).
  • It was the trainer’s fault that she was attacked.
  • Wild killer whales have never attacked a human.

Okay, so consider why I think all of those statements are cr**:

Tilikum was only playing: Most professionals worth their salt would question this statement. First, you have to ask why we have not seen play behavior like this before? Also, the reference the expert made was actually about footage of a killer whale “toying” with seals it was hunting.

Sea World’s killer whale mistook the orca trainer’s pony tail for a novel object (toy): Because this trainer had worked with Tilikum for some time, with the same hair length, I question this statement. Yes, some species will grab what they can—hair decorations, jewelry, etc., but to believe this animal did not recognize or distinguish this element of his trainer’s appearance is not something that rings true. Plus, I have to ask—did he really grab her pony tail?

It was the marine mammal trainer’s fault that she was attacked: First, to make that statement on national television when no investigation had been done was irresponsible. But in my experience, in many cases, captive animal incidences are related to human error or equipment failure. For instance, a human goes into an environment of a predator that is not trained to accept that and gets killed. So, I don’t categorize this incident as trainer error in that respect–but unless we see the video all we can do is speculate and wait for the investigation to conclude. The killer whale trainer was on the slide out (a shallow platform where animals can slide out in a few inches of water) and just what positioning and proximity to the animal was protocol or not remains to be revealed.

Wild killer whales have never attacked a human so this is abnormal behavior: This is something that a lot of people want to believe but it isn’t true. In fact, how many wild orca incidents do we not know about? I have to also say that the public and OSHA only see the captive incidents that are reported or result in injury.

Medical Examiner’s Report

Now, I’d like to share a few statements from the medical examiner’s report to remove any illusions you might have about it.

I’ve read and have a copy of the final autopsy that states the killer whale trainer died as the result of drowning and traumatic injuries.

The autopsy report reveals that her spinal cord was fractured and that her body was covered in cuts and bruises.

Avulsion is the polite medical term for a ripping or tearing of the skin or body part (like from bites) and the report identifies areas with that type of injury and also blunt force trauma injuries.

The summary?

Multiple fractures to her back, ribs, legs, arms and face. The left arm was torn off along with part of her scalp.

Granted, a 12,300 pound mammal packs a lot of power, and perhaps you’ve seen other footage of other orca trainers that have been knocked around by killer whales, but I’ve seen orcas go after their trainers lots of times–and my point is that most are not dead.

In fact, why we don’t see more of these types of incidents is probably due to the fact that animal trainers are humans (who are land animals) and spend very little time in the same environment as the captive killer whales.

Remember that he grabbed her.

In an article published at USA Today, Mike Wald, a spokesman for OSHA’s Southeast Region talked with reporters.

USA today perused records and believes that state and federal records shows similar patterns of orca behavior in earlier incidents on other trainers—it sure would be nice to see the citations.

In my past research, I’ve also seen lower level incidents prior to escalated ones–but not always.

Toy or Predator?
One of the big frustrations in the animal profession stem from the gross misunderstanding as to who and what animals (of all types) are really like.

In fact, the Daniel P Duke family (he was killed in 1999–see below) actually sued Sea World, alleging the dangerous orca was portrayed as a huggable stuffed toy. (The lawsuit was quickly dropped.)

People want to believe that wild creatures are benevolent to humans and so tend to anthropomorphize (attribute human traits and motivations to them) instead of understanding the real animal and their animal nature.

Motion pictures and theme parks don’t help and perpetuate some of those illusions.

The fact of the matter remains–killer whales are adept predators. (I know you must be sick of hearing this from me but seriously, humans need to get that into their skulls.)

Killer whales kill things to eat, experiment with hunting strategies, and use their brains to help them to adapt better ways to dispatch their prey.

Tilikum the Killer Whale
Tilikum was captured in Iceland in November of 1983 and delivered to, the now defunct, Sealand of Pacific in Victoria, British-Columbia.

Today he resides at Sea World of Florida and is the largest killer whale in captivity (22 feet and 12, 300 pounds).

He can be recognized by his dorsal fin which has folded over and also from two thin, small black markings on both his eye patches.

This orca is also know by his associaton with two other fatal incidents.

In case you are not familiar with this animal’s history, here are the three main incidents we know about:

February 21, 1991: A part-time marine mammal trainer fell into the orca tank at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. At that time trainers were not allowed in the water with the whales. The three whales grabbed, thrashed, and submerged 20-year-old female trainer Keltie Byrene until she was dead. All three killer whales involved in the incident were purchased by Sea World and Tilikum was moved to Sea World in Orlando, Florida in 1992.

July 6 1999: The body of a 27-year-old South Carolina man was recovered from the back of Tilikum. Daniel P. Dukes managed elude security and remained in the park after operating hours and was found dead in the morning when staff arrived. Authorities were not sure if he jumped, fell, or was pulled into the whale breeding tank since there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras.

February 24, 2010: Tilikum grabbed 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau and pulled her beneath the water as dozens of tourists attending the Dine with Shamu event watched. Witnesses report that she was pulled in by her arm, by the waist, and by the pony tail.

Here are a few animal attack incidents from 200o until present from USA Today.

I have more to discuss but that will have to do it for now. Below you can find the emergency call recordings from the 2010 orca incident.

911 Call Sea World Incident

I’ll have more comments in the next installment…leave any of yours below.