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Orcas in trouble – captive and free

Three free whimsical orcas breach in unison
Three free whimsical orcas breach in unison
Used with permission. Copyright Laura Spalinger/FineArtAmerica

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" ~ Albert Einstein

From your plate to the horizon, our planet’s waters – and the creatures who make those waters their home – are in distress: they are compromised, exploited, invaded, raked, robbed, polluted, bombarded with noise and trespassed with no end in sight. The good news is that we are waking up to the grisly truth, and taking action. The bad news is that we all need to eat, and we continue to demand fossil fuels.

This is one of a number of exposes about our planet’s ocean, marine creatures and our impacts, referred to scientifically as “anthropogenic” or human-caused threats. I’ll examine issues by topic, species or outcome. The contents range from uncomfortable to inspiring to delightful, and always educational. My hope is to be a great spirit, and inspire Einstein’s “mediocre minds”.

Orcas, also known as Killer whales, Orcinus orca and the wolves of the sea - both captive and free-- are in trouble. These colossal dolphins with distinct black and white coloring and haunting calls, clicks, whistles and songs, these intelligent and highly social mammals have risen to the top of the newsfeeds in recent weeks.

"Orcas are the most sophisticated creature in the marine environment which covers seventy percent of the planet; they are everywhere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. We can learn a lot from them. They are to the ocean what we are to the land, and we need to respect them." ~ Jean-Michel Cousteau, Ocean Futures Society

At Sea World San Diego, resident orca Nakai suffered a gaping “dinner-plate” sized wound on his lower jaw following a September 20th performance. PETA has filed a complaint, accusing Sea World of violating the Animal Welfare Act by housing incompatible mammals in the same space. 11 year-old Nakai is the son of Tilikum, who killed a marine park trainer in 2010 and two other trainers previously. The death of Dawn Brancheau focused protracted, precedent-setting litigation, debates, documentaries, publications and blogs about the conditions, treatment and ethics of orcas housed in dolphinariums and sea parks. Four human deaths have been caused by orcas in captivity.

One wildly popular book by David Kirby about the subject, Death at Sea World, has gathered a tremendous following; Kirby is touring the US presenting his book with rave reviews.

Killer whales have shorter life expectancy than those in the wild. Three died in 2010 – Kalina, Sumar and Taina, all within span of four months, all captive at Sea World parks.

"Marine mammals in captivity are like humans in jail" ~ Jean-Michel Cousteau, Ocean Futures Society

In the southern hemisphere, a different threat: A Uruguayan orca has been found dead on the beach; the suspect is seismic exploration for oil and gas. South American conservationists and activists like Michelle Mori and the Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans with the support of Sea Shepherd Brazil are petitioning the government to consider creation of a marine sanctuary for protection of marine animals and the fragile environment.

From the Sea Shepherd Brazil website (translated to English using Google Translate): Orca life, a taste of what is yet to come?

“Last week, in the small town of La Pedrera, Uruguay, an orca killed got to the beach. It is not common orcas are found on beaches; examine local conservationists the case. Turns out this is the third orca brought to land in this area recently, and it seems there is a pattern. Similar to Peru, where hundreds of dolphins were recently brought to the beach, Uruguay is also preparing for the extraction of oil. The construction of a deep water port is planned for this area.

Mr. President, José Alberto Mujica Cordano ("Don Pepe") on behalf of the Uruguayan and Latin American civil society we ask is declared whale sanctuary in Uruguayan waters. Having a sanctuary is a privilege for any country and basically refers to using "sustainable" resources where cetaceans are the flag for the conservation of the entire marine ecosystem. A sanctuary provides new job opportunities through ecotourism whale watching. Please support this bill to be considered in Parliament ...” ~ Petition by global petition giant Avaaz (Voice) on behalf of Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans in Spanish here:

From Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans: Creating the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary in Uruguayan waters

Having a whale and dolphin sanctuary in Uruguayan waters, means integrating the conservation of whales for scientific research, education and sustainable through responsible tourism. The shrines are internationally recognized and its implementation in many countries has improved the quality of life of the people. A whale sanctuary is created to preserve a defined area with the presence of cetaceans whose importance for reproductive or migratory activity is vital for the survival of these endangered species. A sanctuary waters declares its territorial sea and exclusive economic zone as a protected area for whales, promoting integrated management of the marine ecosystem with a vision where all marine species are vital.

Halfway around the world again, orca Morgan continues to garner the attention of conservationists and activists. She was captured in 2010 when she was just two years old, emaciated and alone, and was cared for in a Dutch aquarium under the premise that she be rehabilitated and released back to the wild. Due to intense international pressure, Morgan’s case will go before a court of three judges in Amsterdam on November 1 to investigate a ruling made last year to allow her transfer to Loro Parque in Tenerife, and to consider the legality of keeping Morgan in captivity, which continues despite her successful rehabilitation.

Morgan is a suitable candidate for release. She was born in the wild where she spent the first years of her life. In fact, Morgan has spent more time in the wild than she has in captivity so far. Scientific experts have been able to match Morgan’s vocalizations with a group of orca in Norway believed to be Morgan’s pod. This is huge! Orca are incredibly intelligent, and evidence suggests that they have a great capacity for remembering, so this really increases Morgan’s chances of reuniting with her family pod. The group of experts supporting the case for Morgan’s freedom is phenomenal. Combined they have more than 100 years’ worth of experience working with orca. They really know what they are doing. My ultimate hope, is that they get the chance to do with Morgan what was meant to have been done from the very beginning – rehabilitate and release her back into the wild. ~Sam Lipman, Admininstrator of the social media group Orca Morgan's Court Date

The issue of returning orcas to the wild is hotly contested with robust emotions and attitudes on both sides. The story of one such orca is told in A Killer Whale Named Luna. This young male mystified, confounded and captured the attention - both positive and negative – of all who encountered him for four years in British Columbia after he was separated from his family.

On one side of the captivity coin towers Naomi Rose, PhD who authored a white paper in 2011 entitled Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity. Rose amasses a tremendous wealth of research and data defending the conclusion that orcas do not belong in captivity, and supports that conclusion amply.

“After more than 45 years of exhibiting orcas for human amusement, while at the same time studying them in the wild, we have learned enough about them in both settings to realize that orcas do not belong in captivity.” (Rose, N. A. 2011. Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity. Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C. 16 pp.)

The other end of the argument is maintained by captive and marine amusement facility advocates who extoll the benefits of captivity, citing the advances made in science due to interactions with captive orcas that would be improbable in the wild, and indicating the general population is more apt to want to save a species they can understand, witness and experience in a marine park. The success and popularity of oceanaria such as Sea World appears to underscore this conclusion.

The world’s whales are at risk. There are no obvious or easy solutions. In articles to follow, we’ll delve into other species and issues regarding our marine environment, and the imperiled creatures who call the ocean home.

“It’s like everything on the planet that we love, and damage. Maybe our whole relationship had to change…” Michael Parfit – A Killer Whale Named Luna

New York Times bestselling author David Kirby will be in West Hartford, Connecticut on October 9 to discuss his new book, Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. which explores the ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. His book is especially relevant as SeaWorld continues to defy court orders for trainers' safety, Nakai’s recent injury at Sea World San Diego, and the recent capture of an orca in Russia for captive display. 18 Russian beluga whales captured from the wild may also be imported to the US, with Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium expecting to receive one or more belugas. The event is an opportunity for local people who care about whales to come together to learn what they can do to help whales, dolphins and the marine environment from Cetacean Society International, the sponsoring organization that is centered in Hartford.

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