Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Death at SeaWorld

Is there a benefit to keeping orcas in captivity? From a very narrow point of view, there probably is, as thousands of people can see these magnificent creatures who probably would never get the chance to. But what they are seeing is not typical orca behaviour in the wild; there are seeing glorified circus animals doing tricks and stunts far removed from their normal behaviours. And though the risk to trainers is now abundantly obvious, what of the risk to the physical, and perhaps more important, the mental health of the whales? Can intelligent, social and vocal animals with huge natural ranges be housed in what are essentially giant bathtubs, either in isolation or with unfamilliar orcas from different lineages with whom they can't communicate, without going a little nuts?
As a child growing up here in Victoria, one of the most popular tourist attractions in city was Sealand of the Pacific. And perhaps the Sealand experience is a microcosm of the story of orcas in capitivity. Nowhere is that question of captivity more relevant than in the history of Sealand, and in the deaths of Miracle, and Keltie Byrne.
Miracle was a young juvenile orca found alone, shot, and starving on the east coast of Vancouver Island in 1977. She was captured and moved to Sealand, a six hour drive on the back of a flat bed truck. She survived the trip, but when she was released into a tank at Sealand, she sank to the bottom of the pool. Rescuers pulled her to the surface, and she began a long and difficult road to return to health, but she beats the odds. A Miracle. She eventually became a star attraction at Sealand, but in January, 1982, she somehow became entangled in the nets of her sea pen and drowned.
Keltie Byrne was a trainer at Sealand. In late 1991, she slipped and fell into a tank with Tilikum and two other orcas. Sealand, unlike SeaWorld, did not do any water training -- the trainers never went in the water with the whales -- so having a trainer in the water was a new situation for the whales. Tilikum took her under the water and held her there, blocking her escape from the tank. Eventually all three whales began playing with their visitor. It took hours to retrieve Keltie's body from the pool. She was the first trainer ever killed by a captice orca.
Sealand closed within a year. Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.
This is a heck of a lot of back story to get into for a book review, but David Kirby's Death at SeaWorld opens with Keltie's death, and Tilikum would go to even greater infamy, causing two more deaths at SeaWorld, including the title incident of the book.
These are astonishingly intelligent creatures, as evidenced by a chapter when the author relates the story of a scientist running visual and aural training on two recently captured orcas and it quickly became apparent that in actuality the orcas were running tests on the scientist. Equally astonishing is the utter ignorance with which orca trappers went about their work in the 1960s and 1970s. Working under the mistaken assumption that the local waters contained hundreds if not thousands of orcas, on one memorable day trappers netted almost all of the local resident orcas in one net. Some they let go, some they took away to transport to interested aquariums, some they killed, tying concrete blocks to their bodies so they would sink. They conceivably could have sold or killed all of them, not realizing that it indeed would have been all of them, all of the local residents. It wasn't until a few years later in the the mid-1970s that scientists actually counted the local orcas, and were surprised to discover how few of them there really are.
For anyone interested in the history of humanity's relationship with a fellow mammal, this should be required reading. The book tends to get bogged down with the legal ramifications of Tilikum's behaviour in its last third, but is utterly fascinating with its twin tales of modern orca research and the history of orcas in captivity.

Here's some bonus content. These are pictures my father took at a show at Victoria's Sealand of the Pacific in the fall of 1971. I'm not positive which whale is pictured. It's not Tilikum, and my guess is it's probably Haida.
1971 Sealand Oak Bay
1971 Sealand Oak Bay (3)
1971 Sealand Oak Bay (2)


  1. Man has stupidly done much harm both to the wilds and to each other over time. I don't think we are much better now then we were 20 - 50 - 100 years ago . Everything we do is rooted in greed and profit.
    I have mixed feelings about zoos and aquariums - they do provide a live gimps of animals that most of us would never seen in their natural environments - but at what price to them.

    1. I don't know if I want to be cynical enough to say that everything we do is rooted in greed and profit, but your point is taken. I'd prefer to say that much of what we do is rooted in greed, profit and ignorance, and sometimes when we learn of our mistakes we change for the better. Admittedly, this is a rare happening. For the most part, greed trumps all.
      I don't think there's any question that a properly run animal facility that is able to properly simulate the animals' natural range and territory can provide us useful information and data. But for some animals, we will never be able to replicate any useful approximation of their territory, and orcas are surely one of those animals.