This series will look at statements circulating publicly about the parks, some by those for the parks and some by those against. Some, like the fact that Shamu’s mother was killed by a harpoon, are true. Others are complete fabrications. And some, like today’s, either add unrelated information or omit facts, on purpose or by accident.
Did you know that “62 Orcas Have Died at SeaWorld – Not a Single One From Old Age?”
That’s the title of a piece appearing on The Dodo and written by Jacob Krushel. It uses data from the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), the nonprofit behind the film “The Cove,” to come to its conclusion.
The first problem is the inclusion of Komogawa Sea World in Japan (unlike how it’s written by Krushel, note the space I placed between Sea and World, as that’s the actual spelling of the park). Activist groups, such as Sea Shepherd, often attempt to link the American chain with this Japanese park in an effort to tie SeaWorld (US) with the Japanese drive fisheries, from which Komogawa has a history of obtaining animals.
Though SeaWorld has had a longstanding business of exchanging animals with this Japanese park, it does not have a financial interest in Komogawa nor in the orcas that reside there. But did SeaWorld capture and sell orcas to Komogawa?
Two of Komogawa’s early orcas came from the same notorious orca capture as Lolita at Penn Cove in August 1970. A 1977 chart of live capture statistics for killer whales on the US and Canadian Pacific Coast, compiled by SeaWorld’s Edward Asper and Lanny Cornell, shows that 80 orcas were caught at this event. Four died in the netting (the three juveniles who were later weighed down with stones and chains, along with an adult), and sixty-nine were released, resulting in seven captures.
Based on data from Erich Hoyt, those seven orcas were named Tokitae (Lolita), Lil Nooka, Winston (Ramu), Clovis, Ramu 4, Jumbo, and Chappy. They went, respectively, to the Miami Seaquarium, Sea-Arama in Galveston, Texas, SeaWorld San Diego, Marineland Antibes in France, and Marineland in Australia. Jumbo and Chappy were both sent to Komogawa Sea World, where they both died within four years.
This famous capture was conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry under the company name of Namu, Inc. It was not until later that Goldsberry would work as a direct contractor for SeaWorld and the marine park company would apply for permits to capture in Washington State waters. SeaWorld was not involved in any way with the capture and sale of Jumbo and Chappy, so they can be eliminated from The Dodo’s list.
Komogawa Sea World eventually began acquiring orcas through the Icelandic live capture fishery. It is well established that SeaWorld, under the guidance and expertise of Don Goldsberry, played an instrumental role in this fishery’s formation. But according to “The Icelandic live-capture fishery for killer whales, 1976-1988,” a 1988 paper by Johann Sigurjonsson and Stephen Leatherwood:
“With the exception of permits issued to a French national for 2 animals in 1975 and 2 in 1976, all permit holders have been Icelandic. The Sædyrasafnid or its director, Mr. Jon Kr. Gunnarsson, received permits for 56 animals and, and the more recently established company Fauna of Hafnarfjordur, permits for 16 animals.”
There are a number of activists who believe SeaWorld was secretly running the entire Icelandic operation, but using the Sædyrasafnid Aquarium as a front. Likewise, a 2001 report by WDCS, titled “Captive Orcas: ‘Dying to Entertain You’” states that FAUNA “was nothing more than a ‘cover’ enabling Sea World to covertly continue capture operations.” The problem with such statements is that there is no documentation or testimony to back them up. Without such, the facts must be taken at face value with SeaWorld having no direct role in the sale of Icelandic orcas to Komogawa Sea World.
It’s important to also take into consideration that there was a well documented transaction where SeaWorld acquired false killer whales, which may have been connected to drive fisheries, from Komogawa in order to exchange them for an orca in Holland, who was then shipped to the states. But this did not involve Komogawa’s orcas at all, so as SeaWorld had no investment in the Japanese park’s killer whales, the twelve deaths at Komogawa listed by The Dodo should not be included.
Sometimes, what’s hidden is what makes the difference. The Dodo article lists quite a few stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant deaths among its mortality numbers. In all, there are 50 deaths, including neonatal, juvenile, and mature, listed at SeaWorld’s existing three parks since 1971.
How does this hold up to the Southern Resident population? As of November 1, 2013, the Orca Network listed 80 individuals – 25 in J pod, 19 in K pod, and 36 in L pod.
58 orcas are listed as missing or dead since 1998. But when looking over the list, not one stillborn or miscarriage is listed. Why this omission? In the book “Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whales,’ Hal Whitehead and Janet Mann write in the chapter on “Female Reproductive Strategies of Cetaceans:”
“In almost all studies of living cetaceans in the wild, female reproduction has been measured by the presence of a living calf – miscarriage and neonatal mortality are not recorded.”
Does this apply to wild orcas as well? In a June 7, 2010 press release by the Humane Society of the United States, Dr. Naomi Rose responded to statements made by SeaWorld regarding stillbirth rates in the wild.
According to Rose: “The successful birth rate in the wild is unknown — scientists cannot distinguish a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of a calf before reaching 6 months of age when observing wild orca populations. From one well-studied orca population, it is estimated that the calf survival rate to six months is 60 percent, but this is merely an estimate and refers to six-month calf survival, not successful birth, which includes all live births where the calf survives for some period of time, usually about a month. . . The stillbirth rate in the wild is also unknown. Births are rarely observed in the wild, let alone stillbirths.”
There is a way to estimate the rate of stillbirths and miscarriages that take place in the wild. One method appears in “Life History and Population Dynamics of Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Coastal Waters of British Columbia and Washington State,” written by Olesiuk, Bigg, and Ellis and published in 1990 by the International Whaling Commission.
The paper defines neonate mortality as occurring between birth and 0.5 years of age, including stillbirths. Researchers based their estimate on a combination of neonate bodies recovered, typically washed on shore or beached, and survival rates of newborn calves. Based on the number of stillbirths recovered, the researchers determined that 20% of neonate deaths are stillbirths and that the neonate mortality rate should be around 43%. This corresponds with a separate study which determined a 42% neonate mortality for the Northern Resident community.
The problem with utilizing these rates to approximate stillbirth and neonatal mortality numbers in the Northern and Southern resident populations is that they’re based on a very small portion of the overall population. If a census of a larger number of individuals where conducted, there is the possibility that these rates could increase or decrease significantly.
No such estimate has been made for other populations, such as the North Atlantic orcas that were caught off Iceland. Researchers will often cite a neonatal mortality rate between 37% and 50%, which are the approximations Olesiuk, Bigg, and Ellis came up with their two methods. The average rate between the two is the 43% mentioned above.
Naomi Rose has estimated the neonatal mortality rate, including stillborns, to be 50.2% in captivity. This number should be reflective of all facilities that have held orcas since the early 1960’s, not just SeaWorld. For example, there were seven cases of neonatal death involving Corky prior to 1987. Those should factor in to the overall 50.2% for the industry, but not be included in SeaWorld’s overall neonatal mortality count as Corky was not a SeaWorld owned orca at the time.
In order to properly compare The Dodo’s list of SeaWorld deaths with wild populations, it is necessary to add stillbirths, miscarriages, and other neonatal mortalities at that 43% rate to wild orca death counts worldwide.
But as that’s practically impossible based on incomplete survey data with most wild populations (Naomi Rose, during the California Assembly hearing on AB-2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, gave an estimate of between 50,000 and 100,000 orcas in the wild), we can go the other way and remove all stillbirths, miscarriages, and deaths under six months of age from The Dodo list, resulting in 33 deaths since 1971.
Did you know 33 Orcas Have Died at SeaWorld – Not a Single One From Old Age? Although it looks like that’s getting close to changing. Corky’s in her late 40’s and Tilikum is in his 30’s. And they’re just two getting up there in years.
And did you know that the sinking with stones of those three juvenile orcas at Penn Cove in 1970 is connected to a stuffed gorilla? That’s for next time.