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When Orcas Strike Back

How Orky and Kasatka Almost Sank Sea World

by JASON HRIBAL

Sometimes a singular incident can trigger a wave of enormous and lasting proportions. In late 1987, one such wave washed over Sea World, San Diego and sent the entertainment park’s owner, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, tumbling in the wake. The media was investigating park operations. Protesters picketed the front gates. Lawsuits drained the corporate coffers. Even the normally tame OSHA in on the act and issued a report censuring the park. In the end, Sea World had to sacrifice its own staff to survive. The park president, chief trainer, zoological director, and public relations chief were all fired. It was a little less than two years later when the wave finally receded and claimed its last victim. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich quit the aquarium business and sold its parks.

The incident, which began this whole process, happened during a weekend performance on November 21st. A trainer was riding on the back on a killer whale, when another leapt into air and landed squarely upon the individual. The man, who had been training orcas for two years, was crushed. His ribs, pelvis, and femur were all broken into pieces. He would survive, but only barely. “It was a timing problem,” a spokesperson stated afterwards. “It was absolutely not an aggressive act on the part of the whale.” Orky, the whale referred to, made a mistake. Yet others were not so sure.

As the pressure mounted on Sea World, new facts started to emerge. It was soon reported that three trainers had been injured in the past three months. According to the park, these were minor scraps. No big deal. Later, though, more numbers came out. There had been fourteen separate injuries in past the five months.  Some were not overly serious, such as bites to the hands. But others were. Trainers had been rammed while in the water. In fact, among the fourteen injuries at the San Diego park, at least three had involved neck and back trauma. In June, an orca named Kandu jumped on top of a person during a rehearsal. In March, Orky actually grabbed a hold of a trainer during a performance and pulled the person down to bottom of the thirty-two foot deep tank. He then rushed to the surface and spat the trainer out. At which time, another whale slammed into the individual. With the person floundering about, Orky grasped onto the man once again and pulled him under. The attack lasted two and half minutes, and the trainer was taken to the hospital with broken ribs, a ruptured kidney, and a lacerated liver.

Subsequent lawsuits would release the next round of revelations about Sea World. We would, for example, find out that orcas have “dangerous propensities.” As one trainer spoke candidly about the attacks: “it’s not [a question of] if but a when.” We would discover that Orky himself was partially blind and had additional, severe health problems. Yet Sea World forced him to perform anyway. So damning was the evidence given in the trial for the November 21st incident that Harcourt and Brace lawyers cleared the courtroom beforehand and had the majority of the records sealed from public view at the conclusion. But the trouble did not stop there, as OSHA was ready to issue its findings. The report, which was made public, concluded that Sea World’s orcas were under a tremendous amount of stress and that this factor could have been a central cause in the attacks. This was not an unsubstantiated hypothesis.

Sea World orcas work as many as eight shows a day, 365 days a year. In the ocean, these whales can swim up to ninety miles a day. In captivity, the tanks are measured in feet. In the ocean, orcas have a highly evolved and cohesive matriarchal culture. Generations of family members, combining both females and males, spend their entire lives together—with each family, or pod, having its own unique form of dialect. In captivity, little to none of this exists. Their culture is effectively destroyed. Indeed, lawyers for Harcourt and Brace wasted little time in dealing with OSHA. The federal office withdrew its findings almost as quickly as it sent them out and made a public mea culpa. Nonetheless the damage had already been done.

Sea World was forced to admit that it had a problem. “A series of accidents [had occurred] that are more serious than we’ve had in a short period before,” a high-ranking administrator stated for the record. The theme park would, he went on to promise, thoroughly review each of the incidents, so that “new safety measures” could be devised and implemented. In the meanwhile, the orca shows would continue, but no trainers would be allowed in the water. “I don’t know,” the individual continued, “how long it will be” before they are permitted back in. Behind the scenes, Sea World was grappling with a different issue. Namely, what it was going to do with Orky—for all of this trouble began in the spring when he first arrived to San Diego.

Orky and Corky had been the star attractions at Marineland since the early 1970s. Located in the Palos Verdes section of Los Angeles, the ocean-aquarium was California’s first theme park. Orky and Corky themselves came to Marineland in 1968 after being captured off the coast of British Columbia. They were just a year or two old. This is, in fact, the best time to take orcas. For when they reach adolescence, controlling them becomes far more difficult. Orcas begin to resist. In the case of Orky, he became, in the words of one trainer, “gruff,” “stubborn,” and plain “exasperating.” The most notable incident involving the whale took place on May 2, 1978.

Orky was in the middle of rehearsing a new routine, when he suddenly stopped and flipped the trainer off his back. He then pushed the woman to the bottom of the twenty-three foot deep tank and held her there for almost four minutes. It was the head curator and an assistant who pulled the unconscious body out of the water. They were able to revive the woman with CPR. While in the hospital, the trainer was asked why the whale did what he did. “I guess,” she joked, “he just overestimated how long I could hold my breath.” More seriously, she added, it was the first time “in months and months” that anyone had ridden the whale. Maybe he did not like it. As for her return, she was going to “play it by ear.”

Ironically in the northern part of California, two similar scenes transpired around the same time—both involving a whale named Kianu. On one occasion, she purposely lowered her immense body down upon a Marine World diver. “All but his little arm disappeared,” one co-worker remembered. The diver was eventually released with no apparent physical damage done. Even so, the man immediately “gathered his gear and left the park.”  He was never seen again. In a second incidence, a trainer was trying to ride on Kianu. “She threw him off,” a senior official described, “and chased him out.” No one was certain what would have happened if she had caught the individual. Indeed, Marine World employees confessed that they lived with a certain amount of fear. Some of them had been bit. Some had been bumped or rammed. Some had been “yanked from stages and detained underwater.” Trainers had the scars on their legs and arms to prove it. Working with orcas was always dangerous, and parks have had to figure out ways to deal with this fact.

The most common method of control is through the reward or withholding of fish. At Sealand of the Pacific, an aquarium once based in British Columbia, the trainers often withheld 25 to 35% of their orcas’ daily food allowance to acquire discipline. Marineland tried to do this with Orky, but it was not successful. After one particularly poor performance, for instance, his trainer decided to “dock his pay” and not give him any fish. Orky would have none of this. He “shrieked angrily and jerked his head at lightning-quick speed.” The whale then gave the man the “red eye.” Translated, it means anger; and when it happens, trainers run for their lives. In this specific case, the person tossed a large quality of fish towards Orky and then promptly left the scene. This orca had way of manipulating those around him. “Several times,” a senior employee explained, “I’ve seen Orky take advantage of a single trainer on a specific point over a period of several days.” He would take a brief swim between routines. This delay would, as the days progressed, grow longer and longer. Eventually, there was barely any show to speak of. To get Orky to return to performing at full effort, Marineland had to greatly increase his payment of fish.

All of Sea World’s parks, in fact, have alternative plans built-in to their performances to deal with this type of resistance. “You have to make allowances for the animal,” one administrator acknowledged, “because they can recognize the show ending.” “They will just stop and refuse to perform.” To prevent this, he continued, “a lot of variability and flexibility is built into our shows.” If trainers are losing control of a situation, they will switch whales. If this does not help, they will distract the audience by giving a lecture about orcas and the oceans, or they will start a video on the Jumbotron. Recent mothers are especially notorious in their refusal to work. To combat this, the calves themselves are brought into the show. Yet, for parks like Marineland or Sea World, attacks on trainers represent a higher level of struggle.

For its part, Marineland decided that Orky’s punishment for his May of 1978 assault would be isolation. “No one is going near Orky for three days,” a spokesperson bristled. “Yes, you could say that Orky is in solitary confinement.” As for Sea World, after the series of 1987 attacks, it decided to scrap its entire training program. Called “the Sea World Method,” the program emphasized less predictably. The payment of fish was regularly replaced with toys, games, and tactile stimulation. The point was to keep the orcas guessing and thereby turn them into better, more reliable performers. But in the battle over the control of production, the orcas ultimately won out. The Sea World Method was replaced with a version that relied much more upon the direct reward of fish. The switch seemed to have immediate results, and the park’s trainers were allowed back in the water in May of 1988—just in time for Sea World’s 25th anniversary. Improving matters, the primary troublemaker, Orky, would die four months later. An autopsy revealed that the 30 year old had the organs of an orca double his age. Orky had been literally worked to death. Nevertheless, Harcourt and Brace was done with the whale business. The company finalized its sale in September of the following year. Anheuser-Busch was now the owner of Sea World.

Over the next several years, the situation between the Sea World performers and their trainers remained relatively calm. This would, however, begin to change when another orca, Kasatka, matured into adulthood. Kasatka was originally born in 1976 off the coast of Iceland. Her subsequent capture and sale represented something of a change for Sea World. As previously, the park took the majority of its whales from the Puget Sound area. Yet in 1976, it was banned from further doing so. The key event for that prohibition happened in March of the same year. Ralph Munro was sailing one day when he witnessed hunters using explosives to drive a pod of orcas into shallow water. “It was probably the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen,” the future Secretary of the State of Washington outraged. “Those animals were simply panic-stricken.” Sea World’s long-time collector, Ted Griffin, admits “whales die in the hunt.” “If I have dead whales,” he went on, “I’m going to conceal it from the public, which is what I did.” His favored technique is to slit open their bellies, fill the whales’ with rocks, and sink them to the bottom. As for Munro, he not only would file a lawsuit against Sea World for its actions but would help pass a state law prohibiting the capture of orcas in the Puget Sound. “The people are sick and tired of these Southern California amusement parks taking our wildlife down there to die,” he stated to the press. “They keep naming the whales the same name, but they’re not fooling anybody. Their bottom-line there is commercial profit. Their scientific studies are baloney.”

Less than a decade later, Sea World tried to get Alaska to sign an agreement for the capture of 100 orcas—ten of which they would put into captivity. The park needed more whales, and it was not afraid to push hard to get its wish. Sea World’s owner lobbied state officials and took out full-page advertisements. It promoted the necessity of scientific testing. It highlighted how its biologists would perform blood work, extract teeth, and take liver biopsies and stomach samples. Some orcas would be fitted with radio transmitters; while the rest would be branded for future identification. Alaska’s citizens bought into none of this and rejected the petition. Iceland, for the time being, would remain Sea World’s only option for its labor supply.

Between 1976 and 1987, a grand total of eight orcas were captured in those icy Atlantic waters. Among them, Kasatka would become the most infamous. Troubles with her began to appear in 1993, when she tried to bite a trainer during a show. It was an aggressive act and one which, if done successfully, might have injured or even killed the individual. Sea World cautiously wrote it off as an anomaly. Six years later, Kasatka made a similar public attempt. With the employee escaping with only an inch to spare, it was too close for comfort. “She definitely tried to bite the trainer,” a spokesperson confessed.  Kasatka would be sent back for some additional training and behavior modification. Until then, she would continue to perform “but not in parts of the show while a trainer is in the water.” The next incidence happened on November 29, 2006. It was during the final performance of the evening, when Kasatka decided to change the script. Instead of rising up out of water, so that her trainer could dive off her nose, the whale grabbed a hold of the man, pulled him under, and pinned him to the bottom of the pool. The sixteen-year veteran did manage to get himself free, only to find himself pulled under once again. Whereas he was able to evade Kasatka’s jaws a few years earlier, he had no such luck this time.

In the subsequent aftermath of the attack, Sea World went into full crisis mode. The news had already made the national and international wire. And it was just a matter of time before new information began to leak out. At first, the park tried to convince the public that this was just an isolated incident. But that was soon proven wrong, when Kasatka’s earlier episodes were brought to light. Next, Sea World confessed that Kasatka did have a history, especially with the one trainer, but that its orca program was firmly under control. This too turned out to be false.

It was only fourteen days beforehand that Orkid, a seventeen year old captive-born, had crunched a senior trainer’s ankle during a show and yanked the person to the bottom of a tank. In fact, in 2002, she broke another trainer’s arm in a similar attack. Then there were the recent incidents at other Sea World locations. In April of 2005, Taku—also captive-born— hospitalized his Orlando trainer with a blow to the body. That previous summer, another orca jumped on top of his San Antonio trainer. Sea World, however, choose not to divulge any of this information.

As for Kasatka, she was sent back to work almost immediately. “She’s been one of our strongest, most consistent performers,” the park emphasized. There will be restrictions with her, as she will be limited to performing those stunts that do not directly involve trainers. The show, nonetheless, will triumphantly go on.  Behind the scenes, though, Sea World officials once again crossed their fingers and hoped that business would return to normal. It did, for five months. In April of 2007, Orkid made the news once again. During a routine medical examination, she had pushed her trainer off a high retaining wall. Sea World would claim that it was an accident. 

This essay excerpted from JASON HRIBAL’s forthcoming book, Fear of the Animal Planet (AK Press / CounterPunch Books.)

JASON HRIBAL is the co-author of The Cry of Nature: an Appeal for Mercy on Behalf of Persecuted Animals. His new book, Fear of the Animal Planet, will be published this fall by AK Press / CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com