Saturday, 26 May 2018

Trip summary/review of Florida’s two captive orca parks - 1/2/3 May 2018

In early May 2018, I took a trip to Florida for several reasons: I hadn’t been in 16 years, I wanted to swim with wild manatees and go to Rockville Festival. But the primary reason was to visit Florida’s two facilities that currently hold captive killer whales: SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium. Going to these places has an air of controversy about it. A colleague of mine went to Orlando the week before I, and sheepishly admitted that he went to SeaWorld. I told him I didn’t judge him, but I understood his hesitance in telling me, for fear of being judged harshly.

Now let me clear this up. I have a grey opinion when it comes to orcas in captivity. Despite the colouration of these beautiful creatures, I don’t feel black and white when it comes to this. Yes I attend captive facilities, but that doesn’t mean I support them. That doesn’t mean I support ‘abuse’ as some people will call it. I am thrilled that the Blackfish movement has meant that the captive orca industry is dying out in North America, and it angers me that Russia and China are trying to ignite theirs. I am hopeful of a time where orcas are no longer in captivity. However – whilst they are still there, I do have the desire to go see them. In fact I would like to see all the captive orcas around the world, and the reason for this is because I have been following their life histories for the last 15 years and therefore know a great deal about each individual. I have also had a particular interest in seeing Lolita, because she is such an extraordinary orca. She is famed for living in the world’s smallest orca tank, which activists have been fighting to get her removed from, and she has lived in it without another orca companion for the last 38 years. How is it that she has managed to live for almost 50 years in the world’s smallest tank, yet other captive orcas have met premature ends? (such as SeaWorld’s last calf, Kyara, who lived for only 3 months). This was something I hope would get answered on my trip to Florida. 

SeaWorld Orlando was the first park I visited on my trip. I arrived around 1pm and went straight over to the Shamu Stadium. A private Dine With Shamu was going on, and I was able to go inside the stadium once it had finished. Swimming in the main show pool, the first orca recognisable to me was Katina. She is easily identifiable with her dorsal fin flopped over to her left at a 90 degree angle. And then I noticed, at the base of her dorsal fin, the wound that I had recently seen photos of. About a month ago, Katina sustained a V-like chunk missing from her dorsal, which I suspect may have been caused by tank mate Kayla. The entire time I was at SeaWorld I saw the orcas paired into two groups, the groups consisting of Katina, and her two children, Nalani and Makaio; the other group being Kayla, Trua and Malia. Before the 5pm show, I spoke to a trainer and he said that they found it better to keep the orcas in those groups of three, and my suspicion is that, as Kayla is the second oldest female of the group, she and Katina probably had had a conflict, and so SeaWorld decided to keep the females separated and had kept them grouped like that since.  

My chances to see the orcas were restricted to primarily only 45 mins before, during and slightly after show times. The orcas were no longer kept in the Dine With Shamu pool, which has the underwater viewing area, as four Pilot Whales now inhabit there. On the first day, when I had returned to the stadium 30 minutes before the 5pm show, I saw that they had rotated the groups around, so that it was now Kayla, Trua and Malia in the show pool. I went over to the far right side of the pool, where the trainers were, which was when I spoke to one of them. Trua was at the glass, watching us. The trainer said he liked people watching. He then swam away when the trainer left. Malia was very interesting to watch, as she would take a fish in her mouth and try to bait the birds with it. Kayla was mostly lapping around the pool, until the orcas had their attention on the trainer stood on the right stage staircase. It was then show time, and all orcas were featured accept Katina. But after the show, Katina, Nalani and Makaio were held in the show pool, whilst the other group went into the back pools.

I returned to SeaWorld the following day, arriving in the morning. I headed over to Shamu Stadium to get in early for the 11.30am Ocean Discovery show. Again, Katina, Nalani and Makaio were in the show pool, not doing a great deal just swimming around. I watched the show, and it was just those three featured in it. There wasn’t a great deal of orca action really, it was mainly talking and videos on the screen – it was described as an educational show. After the show I went for my Dine With Shamu encounter, which I think should now be called Dine With Pilot Whales, as the orcas aren’t in the DWS pool anymore! After the food, we were guided back to Shamu Stadium for the ‘private viewing’. The orcas in the pool were still Katina, Nalani and Makaio. The session went a little bit into each individual orca, but not too much, as the main focus was Nalani. Makaio was having a training session, being taught to slide across the entire back stage slide out with a target, whilst Katina was having a trainer session to the side. Nalani was the one being used to twirl, shake her pecs and tail to the crowd. The private session was quite brief and then we had to leave the Stadium.
I didn’t see the orcas again until coming in early for the 5pm show. The same as yesterday, the orcas had been rotated again and Kayla, Trua and Malia were in the show pool. They were finishing up with a private orca encounter, and were posing for guests at the glass. When the guests left, Malia was baiting her birds again whilst the others lapped around the pool. And then I had to leave, and that was my time with the SeaWorld orcas!

I then took a flight over to Miami, and the following day I made my way over to Miami Seaquarium! I had half-expected to see protestors outside with ‘FREE LOLITA’ signs, and wondered if I would get heckled for buying a ticket, but there wasn’t any of that.
I first headed over to Lolita’s stadium. There wasn’t a show on for over an hour, and the stadium entrances had metal shutters down, so there was no way for anyone to access the stadium unless it’s show time! Before it was show time, we were only admitted into the stadium 15mins before the show, unlike the 45mins beforehand at SeaWorld. When I was allowed in, I braced myself to see the world’s smallest orca tank, but, I wasn’t actually saddened or disgusted by what I saw...
I saw Lolita, on the right side of the pool, and she had her head out of the water. I came to realize that she was actually looking at everyone coming in. She spy hopped a lot, because she’s curious. She’s interested to see what is going on. Guests are able to get relatively close to Lolita. We could stand right at the tanks barrier, and then there she is, spy hopping directly in front of you. You could lean over and touch her she’s that close. And I felt very humbled, because I could see that we made eye contact. I was looking at her and she was looking right back at me.
It was then showtime, and I will give the Miami Seaquarium credit. It was actually quite an informative show, with not a great deal of orca theatrics. The show has obviously evolved because of the Blackfish effect and OSHA ban. The show talks about the wild orca populations and talks about conservation. So I was quite impressed with the Miami Seaquarium in that respect. And whilst I was watching, I noticed that they fed Lolita huge salmon chunks, which I figured must be great for her health. She appears to get a better diet than what the SeaWorld orcas get. And that is when I noticed her TEETH, and they are fantastic! Lolita, a captive orca over the age of 50, has ALL of her teeth, which I was absolutely stunned by! I am so used to seeing the SeaWorld orcas with their teeth so worn down, and I was very surprised and happy to see that Lolita’s teeth look in great condition!  After the show, guests were allowed no more than 5 minutes to view Lolita, before being kicked out, and the shutters closed on the stadium. I went along to the evening show, which was basically all the same again, to view Lolita one last time, as I can’t imagine I will ever see her again.

So I came along to the Miami Seaquarium expecting to feel saddened or disgusted by the world’s smallest orca tank, but I had different feelings. From the 70 minute viewing time I had in total, I have assessed that Lolita is actually okay. Free Lolita activists will probably argue against my assessment and have their judgements on Lolita’s condition without ever actually seeing her. But I have my reasons for believing that she is okay, so hear me out.
Assessing Lolita by body condition alone, she is in great shape. As I have already said, all of her teeth intact, and she appears to get fed the best diet that I have seen any other captive orca receive – huge salmon chunks, rather than little fish. Her lack of orca companion actually makes it so that she is physically well. At other parks, you will see the orcas to be all raked up, caused by conflicts with each other. But as Lolita doesn’t have another orca to share her tank with, or fight with, she is actually in good condition. And from a behavioural perspective, I thought it was actually quite interesting to see that when the guests came in, Lolita was very interested in checking everyone out. She had a curiosity to what was going on which I took to be as positive sign of her mental wellbeing. I have witnessed orcas who will lie at the surface of their pool, virtually lifeless, because they are that bored and disengaged. So I was pleased that I didn’t see Lolita doing that, however there is a chance that that is how she is when the public can’t see her.

But overall, I think that Lolita is okay. She has managed to survive in the world’s smallest orca tank for almost 50 years, so there must be something that the Miami Seaquarium are doing right in terms of looking after her physical health. Now it is actually the SeaWorld orcas that I feel sorry for. They are the ones who are in way, way worse condition than Lolita. And I don’t mean just the SeaWorld Orlando orcas, but the San Diego and San Antonio ones too. Physically, the SeaWorld orcas are far worse off. They’re all banged up, scratched up and injured either from fighting with each other or injuring themselves in the tanks (like Nakai’s chin injury in 2013). The SeaWorld orcas are put into social groupings with orcas from different parts of the world, and with different dialects, and therefore they clash. The SeaWorld orcas have practically non-existent teeth, one of the reasons being they chew on the walls in boredom. And a lot of the time, they drop off like flies because of various diseases. Poor Kasatka of SeaWorld San Diego had to be euthanized last year after a long battle with a bacterial infection that was grossly eating at her skin. The SeaWorld orcas are not in a good way at all. So much emphasis gets put on ‘poor Lolita’, but it’s actually all the other captive orcas I feel sorry for. I think they are the unlucky ones. Lolita is a real trooper for living as long as she has, which must be aided by excellent health care she receives at Miami Seaquarium. Just because she is in the world’s smallest tank, and doesn’t have another orca companion, doesn’t mean she is suffering horribly…

So the message to be taken from this trip is to not just blindly follow what others say. Go out, do the investigating for yourself and form your own opinions. Because you might just surprise yourself with what you come to find..

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