This has been a blogpost I’ve been toying with writing for a long time. In 2012, I volunteered abroad in Tenerife with the Atlantic Whale Foundation. Amongst the stunning days spent recording pilot whale behaviour with the company of playful dolphins, we decided to begin an undercover mission to see how the orcas were treated at the infamous Loro Park. Posing as students innocently wanting to learn more about the wildlife, we tried to get as close to the tanks as possible, backstage if we could, and befriend the trainers to ask about the way they treated the orcas. What we found, 4 years before SeaWorld’s great demise began, reduced me to tears.
Some background first.
Parque Loro is an amusement park containing all sorts of wildlife, including six orcas. Kohana, Skyla, Keto, Tekoa and Adán were captive born calves, but one orca, Morgan, has quite a different tale and became the focus of our ‘secret’ operation. She was found emaciated in the Wadden Sea, just off the coast of the Netherlands, and with the supposed circumstance of subsequent release, she recovered at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk. The Free Morgan foundation traced her to a probable wild population and prepared for reintroduction. But that never happened. Instead she was shipped off to Tenerife, to live in a park allied to it’s notorious cousin SeaWorld. Safe to say, my dutch friends were rather passionate about this whale in particular. All in all, SeaWorld loaned these orcas to create a pod of dysfunctional youngsters with no matriarchal control or parallel to real-life pod hierarchy. It was a disaster waiting to happen – tensions, teen attitudes, and 6,600-pound killer whales.
In 2009, Keto killed trainer Alexis Martínez. A violent incident with bite marks, fractures, rips and tears was passed off as lack of oxygen not an attack. But I bet you never heard of this? The world carried on as normal and it was barely reported in the media (even now). Nevertheless, just two months later, Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death was splashed across the world headlines, and this time, the global community took notice. The notoriously aggressive Tilikum pulls her underwater by her ponytail, in front of horrified visitors and orca captivity comes into question. That was 2010.
Back to 2012.
We began heading towards the dolphin tanks whilst the first orca show was on. When we got there, immediately something was wrong. The image of this solitary dolphin, floating on it’s side, just staring up at the sky, will forever haunt me. It was not interested by us, it was not interested by anything. In the wild, bottlenoses delight onlookers with intricate leaps, breath-taking speed and quite astonishing intelligence. This dolphin had the enthusiasm of a vegetable. It looked so sad.
After sitting through the 20 minute dolphin show bawling my eyes out as they stood on their faces and treated them as surfboards, we recuperated and went to the next orca show.
There is something so troubling, about looking at these six-metre huge predators, and not feeling in awe. I’ve been lucky enough to see orcas in Canada and New Zealand, and the sight of them laying awkwardly un-elegantly on a fake beach is so unnatural it left me speechless.
Fin’s flopped down, performing the same routine to the delight of the crowd, one trainer brought it to the front of the tank, and “made it laugh”. The forced, loud, piercing shrill scream was not a sound that was pleasing or compelling, it was haunting.
The show ended, and we dashed to catch the trainers as they herded the orcas into their tiny pens. We “innocently” questioned about their feeding regime, their daily routines, enrichment for their mental wellbeing (even in Zoo Tycoon this is an necessity), playing up the language barrier in an attempt to find out the facts whilst getting a look at the orcas in their tanks. The trainers were polite, but they were not giving anything away, and in the end left in a hurry as we began to give away our true motives with too much poorly-veiled argumentativeness. Morgan, in particular, they were not in the mood to discuss. All the while, a young calf was bashing its head into the metal gate, the noise impossible to ignore. Head-banging, in which an animal repeatedly, neurotically, bangs its head against hard surfaces has been noted as stereotypical captive behaviour due to the stress and incredible boredom. In between these episodes, it displayed almost a mirror image of the lonely dolphin in the pool, slowly floating lethargically around the edge.
This was four years ago, one year before the ground-breaking “Blackfish” premiered at the Sundance Festival. Described as “an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance killer whales”, the fallout was, and still is, huge. Whilst SeaWorld maintains it was inaccurate and misleading after foolishly refusing to take part, bands cancelled performances there, attendance slumped, and SeaWorld began to pump out propaganda to counteract all the bad publicity. By 2014, the “blackfish effect” began to take hold; an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Act was passed unopposed, calling for an update on its cetacean captivity policies, SeaWorld CEO announces he is standing down, Harry Styles riles up the one-directioners into a anti-seaworld frenzy, and at the end of last year SeaWorld announced plans to end killer-whale shows at its San Diego theme park.
This last year has been vital in the change in perception of captive killer whales, and it has been four years now since I went to Parque Loro, and somehow sadly it has remained hidden in the wake of SeaWorld backlash. Four years later, Morgan has continued to live in her concrete coffin, self-harming and driven insane in, what is to her, a bathtub.
Next month, “I am Morgan: Stolen Freedom” has been selected for the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival. I dare you to watch the trailer and not contemplate the contrast between the freedom and richness of life in the wild with the shock of captivity. Whilst there is so much hope for ending captivity of whales at the moment, I urge that all facilities are called into question, because the sights in Loro Parque that I remember so perfectly clearly four years later as I write this blog, should not be seen by anyone. When the size of a orca’s tank, is smaller than the space we give to park our cars, we need to question our priorities and worry for the mental, emotional and physical states of such beautiful creatures. Why see an animal act unnaturally for a cruel reward, when there are so many other opportunities to see them from (responsible) boats or land – it will be an a far more enriching experience that will be etched onto your heart forever, in a positive way.