What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, Marineland Ontario purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

Marineland sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at Marineland Ontario in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at Marineland Ontario, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

Footnotes:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

An orca through round viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo.
An orca through a viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today, I want to tell you about an organization that is very dear to me: The Whale Sanctuary Project. This sanctuary will allow captive cetaceans a chance at retiring and living freely. I love the organization’s work, research, scientists, and hold the utmost respect for this project. This is one that I’d appreciate your help in supporting!

If you’ve read my Orca series, then you understand why it is wrong to make them perform for humans and keep them in captivity. Cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete tanks. There just isn’t enough space for them to swim and get enough physical exercise. Years of breeding and artificial insemination caused cetaceans to breed too young, too inexperienced, and without the choice of when and with whom to breed with. Mothers and calves are regularly separated when the calf is only a few years old. Some cetaceans are forced to live alone, causing depression in these highly social, intelligent, and emotional creatures. After decades of observation, it is obvious to many how cetaceans are suffering in marine amusement parks. But now we have a chance to make it right.

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

A beluga whale on display at Marineland with people viewing it through the acrylic tank.
A beluga whale on display at Marineland. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We
Animals Media

Purpose of a Sanctuary

There are sanctuaries for all kinds of animals including horses, elephants, primates, pigs, dogs, and birds. Many animals retired from farm life, circuses, and zoos reside in sanctuaries. But there has never been a sanctuary for whales and orcas. What better time than now?

The Whale Sanctuary Project “is the first organization focused solely on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins, and porpoises who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care.”2 Most people now understand that cetaceans in marine amusement parks are akin to performing circus animals. However, even if these animals are retired from performing, there is no place for them to go. A sea sanctuary will completely change that.

“Our vision is of a world in which all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are treated with respect and are no longer confined to concrete tanks in entertainment parks and aquariums.”-The Whale Sanctuary Project3

About The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP)

Bird's eye view of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site.
View of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP formed in 2016. In 2020, after years of research, exploration, and fundraising, the WSP selected a 100-acre site for the sanctuary at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. This is an ideal location because it fulfilled the WSP’s principal considerations: “It offered an expansive area that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that’s open to the ocean but was sheltered from storms. It had access to necessary infrastructure and plenty of room along the shore for the facilities that would be needed to care for the animals.” And the Sherbrooke area locals are very supportive.4 

The seaside sanctuary will be 300 times bigger than the typical concrete tank. It will be more natural than tanks in terms of acoustics, water quality, and habitat surroundings (plant and animal species that share the space).5 The cetaceans will be able to swim further and dive deeper, thus getting the exercise their bodies need. “The goal is to offer captive orcas and beluga whales a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.”6 They’ll be able to make their own decisions, feed themselves, and most importantly – they won’t be required to perform like circus animals.

“We can’t undo all the harm we’ve inflicted on cetaceans by keeping them in captivity, but by providing them with seaside sanctuaries, we can improve their quality of life. That is our goal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose7

Orca performing at Marineland.
Image by Victor Cardella from Pixabay

Sanctuary Squashes Argument For Captivity

SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have always indicated that it would be cruel to set captive orcas free into the ocean because they have been in captivity too long. This is partially true. Like animals in other sanctuaries, captive cetaceans cannot be returned to the wild. They may not be able to survive without some care and monitoring. They may not know how to hunt or socialize, and they may never find their original familial pod. Captive cetaceans may be attached to humans for food and social needs. Many captive orcas have dental problems and other health issues. Obviously, captive-born whales are not candidates for release into the wild. But a sanctuary is another story and is a real possibility.8

The Whale Sanctuary Project will change everything.

“The science tells us that these animals – dolphins and whales – cannot thrive in concrete tanks and theme parks and aquariums.” -Dr. Lori Marino9

Setting The Example

Human riding two dolphins in a performance at marine amusement park.
Image by JensG from Pixabay

“There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. To end captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. But it’s not easy. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to re-learn the skills they will need to survive.” -Whale and Dolphin Conservation10

There are 58-60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine amusement parks and aquariums. Other species include different species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Hundreds of dolphins are held at vacation resorts that offer “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy” and “Swim-with-Dolphins” programs.11 Most of the orcas at parks are candidates for the sanctuary, but it cannot provide a home to hundreds of cetaceans. “While our primary focus is the creation of the sanctuary in Nova Scotia, every aspect of it is designed with the larger purpose of its being a model for other and future sanctuaries around the world.”12

The WSP will provide additional support for cetaceans in situations that do not include its sanctuary through its Whale Aid programs. These programs “range from rescuing and rehabilitating ocean-going whales to developing complete plans for other organizations that are working to retire captive whale and dolphins to sanctuaries. Our Whale Aid team comprises experts from around the world in fields ranging from veterinary care to transport to construction and engineering.”13 The Whale Aid program will assist Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Working with the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, she will be returned to the Salish Sea from which she was born, if the Miami Seaquarium ever relinquishes her.14 

If marine amusement parks and aquariums partnered or even just participated with the Whale Sanctuary Project, they could have a huge impact on the whales’ lives, conservation, and even their own public relations. It “would be a powerful legacy for the marine park that released them – a real example of conservation and education in practice.”

“If seaside sanctuaries function as intended, eventually they will no longer hold any retired captive cetaceans. However, they will also serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans, even during the period when they have ‘retirees’ as residents. And they will be able to serve this purpose in perpetuity.” -Dr. Naomi A.  Rose16

Orcas swimming at the surface with a mountain and sunset in the background.
Image by Chris Amos from Pixabay

Support This Project & Learn More

“Sanctuaries strive to go out of business.” -Dr. Ingrid Visser

Though a new movement, the WSP isn’t the only sanctuary in the works. Clearly, there’s a need for sanctuaries for marine mammals. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary opened in Iceland in the spring of 2019. They care for two female beluga whales who came from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. In addition, they partner with another organization to rescue puffins.17 There have been proposals for a Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy and for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.18

“We’ll spend less on building a sanctuary than a marine park would…spend building the next small concrete tank.” -Charles Vinick, Whale Sanctuary Project19

Image of The Whale Sanctuary Project's new Operation Centre, a white historic house on a street.
The Whale Sanctuary Project’s new Operation Centre. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP had the grand opening of the Operations Centre on October 29, 2021. It is located in the small town of Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site in Port Hilford Bay. This center, to which I proudly donated a small amount toward its opening, is the WSP’s home base for all of the design, engine­ering, and construc­tion of the sanctuary. It will also serve as a welcome center and it has lodging for two visiting staff members and advisors.20 Going forward, they will focus on the construction of the sea pen.

I encourage you to continue to learn more about the problem of captive cetaceans, and I hope you can support The Whale Sanctuary Project with me! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

The Whale Sanctuary Project logo
Logo courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.” -David Neiwert21

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Orca Series, to learn more about captive orcas.

Video, “Whales Without Walls,” Charles Vinick, TEDxSantaBarbara, December 18, 2017.

Page, Deeper Dive, The Whale Sanctuary Project. Features scientific studies on cetaceans.

Page, “Live Series” of Webinars and Conversations, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

 

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Kiska and Kshamenk

Last updated November 6, 2021.

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland, Canada, 2011.
Kiska, a lone orca at Marineland, Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

In my last article, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. Today, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.

Kiska, Marineland Niagara Falls, Ontario

Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at Marineland since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.

Relationships

In 1979, Marineland purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.

In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to Marineland. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between Marineland and SeaWorld.3

Kiska swimming in her tank, view from below the surface.
“Kiska was wild-caught off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, and lives alone in this tank.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Behavioral Changes

Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at Marineland. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).

“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4

Habitat

The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This  would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5

Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls.
Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls. Image taken from Google Maps.

Retirement

In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed Marineland to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will Marineland give her up?

Updates

In May 2021, inspectors issued two orders to Marineland to repair the water system in the pools that house the beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and Kiska. “A months-long inspection of Marineland by Ontario’s animal welfare watchdog has found that marine mammals at the tourist attraction were in distress due to poor water quality,” according to the Canadian Press. Marineland initially appealed the orders, arguing that the unknown number of recent whales deaths were not related to poor water quality.6 But they later withdrew the appeal. It seems that the inspection is still ongoing, and I have not been able to find out whether or not Marineland has begun the required repairs.

There have also been numerous concerns over the regularity in deaths of beluga whales at Marineland, and animal rights activists are calling for more transparency. “The amusement park and aquarium has not been able to breed any new belugas since the passing of federal law (Bill S-203) in 2019 that prohibits the capture and breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity — something animal advocates say once masked the number of belugas dying at the park each year.”7 There were around 54 belugas in 2019, and today there are around 40. Five of those were transferred to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, so what happened to the other 9?

In September 2021, a video of Kiska repeatedly hitting the side of her tank at Marineland went viral. This type of behavior is usually a sign of chronic stress. “Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a neuroscientist, explains that these kinds of behaviors, known as stereotypies, can include endless circling of the tank, grating their teeth on tank walls and gates, and other forms of self-injury.”8 Other visitors have made observations about Kiska exhibiting stereotypes. In addition to her loneliness, she now has poor water quality – this must be extremely stressful for her. 

Kshamenk, Argentina

Orca jumping out of the water during a performance at Mundo Marino
“Lightness” by Lorenzo Blangiardi on Flickr, Mundo Marino, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, an ecotype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.

Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank

The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.

Mundo Marino orca pools, aerial view, image captured from Google Earth
Mundo Marino orca and dolphin pools, image captured from Google Earth, February 20, 2021. This is the clearest image available from Google.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the smaller pool.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the main pool, and not the dolphin pool. The latter is much larger but their map does not accurately depict this. Image downloaded from Mundo Marino’s website, February 20, 2021.

Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:

At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”9 Obviously, the plans were never revived.

His capture

His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”10 There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.11 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”12 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.

Retirement?

The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:

“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”13

The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on its website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.

Image of Kshamenk jumping out of the water at Mundo Marino
“Mundo Marino,” image of Kshamenk by -fabio- on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Captivity Continues

I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.

“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish

Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will Marineland Ontario give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?

Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket!  Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Marineland faces legal complaint about Kiska, ‘the world’s loneliest orca’,” by Bobby Hristova, CBC News,

Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.

Article, “The man behind Marineland: 50 years of controversy,” by Liam Casey, The Toronto Star, October 3, 2011.

Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.

Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.

Website, Free Morgan Foundation

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Footnotes: