Value Judgements

1970 was the peak year for orca captures in the Pacific Northwest, with 16 being taken from the wild, and stories about orcas received wide coverage in both local and national media.

In March of that year Sealand of the Pacific, based in Victoria, British Columbia, began their own whale-catching operation. Chimo, an orca captured on their first trip, was a striking all-white young female, whose albinism was caused by a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Syndrome. By now orcas were selling for tens of thousands of US dollars but such was the attraction of this rare white orca that a US aquarium offered to buy it for half a million dollars. Sealand declined the offer and displayed Chimo until she died two years and eight months later.

While Chimo was attracting all the limelight, three members of her pod, captured at the same time, languished in nets at Pedder Bay, west of Victoria, refusing to eat. After 78 days, one of them died and the other two - a male and female that were scheduled to go to an aquarium in Texas - were freed one night by persons unknown. To this day, the pair can been seen swimming around Vancouver Island, and since 1979 they have been seen with a calf.

But the most extraordinary catch of the year came in August when Griffin and Goldsberry captured some 80 whales at Penn Cove, Washington. Never before or since have so many whales been captured at once. Although they were unaware of it at the time, Griffin and Goldsberry had captured three pods traveling together. Those 80 whales comprised almost the entire 'resident' orca population off southern Vancouver Island and in Puget Sound. For a day, until they released the majority of the whales, the fate of an entire 'community' or breeding stock of orcas was in the hands of two unregulated collectors.

As news of the capture spread, aquarium orders poured in. Seven whales were shipped to aquaria in japan, England, France, Australia and the US.

A few months later, near the site of this capture, three young orcas, their bellies slit, their tails weighted with anchor chain, washed ashore. Griffin and Goldsberry denied knowledge of the corpses. Later, as evidence mounted, they admitted responsibility for four accidental deaths.

These events, and the continued capture of local orcas for world aquaria, led to a public outcry in the Northwest. As a result the Canadian authorities, and subsequently the state of Washington, imposed new regulations and permit requirements for capturing killer whales. Finally, in 1972, the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed by congress and orcas were at last protected from being harassed or killed, and would- be captors now had to apply for a special federal permit.

Beginning in 1973, the Canadian federal government funded a field study to determine the orca population in the Northwest. The captors claimed they saw hundreds of orcas on their spotting trips, and estimated their total numbers in thousands. Using a detailed photo-identification study, Michael A. Bigg and his colleaugues in Canada, and later Kenneth C. Balcomb in US waters, determined that about 300 killer whales frequented the waters of the British Columbia-Washington coast. In other words, the catchers had been taking orcas from the same pods.

This evidence, combined with public opinion, has helped to limit the Northwest captures ever since and, in recent years, the 'cropped' pods have increased in numbers.

After the 1970 deaths of the 'Penn Cove Four', Griffin sold the Seattle Aquarium to Sea World and dropped out of the capture business. Until recently Goldsberry continued to participate in the capture of killer whales around the world as Sea World's Corporate Director of Collections.

Today, Sea World has four large marine parks, in California, Florida, Ohio and, most recently, in Texas. The company has built it's marketing strategy on orcas, trademarking the name Shamu, as well as Kandu and Namu. Each park has at least two orcas; some, at times, have had up to six. The animals are moved around from park to park as needed. When one Shamu dies, a new on takes its place.

Sea World's need for new orcas has fueled most of the controversy over captures since the early 1970s. In 1976, Goldsberry used aircraft and explosives to chase a pod of six orcas through Puget Sound, finally cornering them in Budd Inlet. The State of Washington filed a lawsuit against Sea World in federal court, charging that Goldsberry's inhumane treatment of the whales violated the terms of his collecting permit. The whales were held in nets for days as a result of a court injunction. The judge subsequently dismissed the case on condition that Sea World release the whales, relinquish its permit and agree never to collect orcas again in Washington State.

That's when Goldsberry went to Iceland. He did not want to be officially involved in the new capture operation but agreed to lend his expertise to W.H. Dudok van Heel, zoological directory of the Dutch Dolfinarium Harderwijk, and J¢n Kr. Gunnarsson, director of S‘dyrasafnid, an aquarium near Reykjavik. Their first captures were two young whales, netted during the autumn of 1976, which were airlifted to the Netherlands; one remained there while the other was forwarded to San Diego's Sea World after six months.

The same team captured six orcas in October 1977, and a further five the following year. Sea World had now received nine new whales in two years, enough to satisfy their immediate requirements and they therefore dropped out of the project. Gunnarsson then took over the Icelandic captures using International Animal Exchange of Ferndale, Michigan, USA, to handle sales to the world market. The going rate for a healthy young orca in November 1979 was $150,000 excluding delivery costs from Reykjavik, in 1980, the prices ranged from $200,000 to $300,000.

By the early 1980s, Sea World wanted more Icelandic orcas. Their import application to the US National Marine Fisheries Service was refused, however, partly because the status of the species in the North Atlantic was unknown. Sea World considered capturing Antarctic orca, but the logistics were forbidding. Instead they prepared a permit application for Alaska.

In 1983, Sea World announced a grand scheme to expand their operations and mount a five-year capture plan in south-eastern Alaskan waters. They proposed capturing 100 orcas, 90 for research purposes and eventual release, ten to be kept for Sea World parks. Despite outcry from conservationists, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued the permit. Sea World agreed to mount a photographic identification study but the state governor and many Alaskan residents and conservationists were strongly opposed to any captures. After months of protest, Sea World finally withdrew.

With the collapse of the Alaskan operation, Sea World tried several new strategies to obtain orcas. In late 1986, Sea World's parent company, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, purchased Marineland of the Pacific for $23.4 million. Sea World officials promised to keep the park open but two months later moved Orky and Corky, the parks' two star orcas, from Los Angeles to San Diego and closed down Marineland.

Sea World's most highly publicized route for obtaining new orcas has been through their breeding program. On 26 September, 1985, the first 'Baby Shamu' was born at Sea World in Florida. Since then, five more Baby Shamus have been born, three in the autumn of 1988. Five of the six were still alive in February 1990. Prior to this, five orcas had been born alive in aquaria but none had lived for more than 46 days; a further five were stillborn.

On the basis of its breeding record, Sea World has been granted permits to import whales from other aquaria in other countries on 'breeding loans' and has subsequently obtained whales from the Netherlands, England, and Canada.

Sea World has invested substantial research funds to determine the population of the North Atlantic killer whale and to review the history of their capture in Icelandic waters through the Sea World Research Institute/Hubbs Marine Research Center.

However, the results of these studies will not be known for some time. Researchers have so far identified on 143 individual orcas in the capture areas off Iceland, from photographs dating back to 1981. They feel this represents a conservative estimate of the Icelandic population; shipboard sightings may indicate as many as 4,000 orcas. The Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries has, in any case, been restricting capture permits to between four and ten per year. There are now two main permit holders, J¢n Kr. Gunnarsson (S‘dyrasafnid Aquarium) and Helgi J¢nasson of the Fauna Co., both Icelanders.

Compared to many dolphinaria, the conditions at Sea World's parks are among the best. Orcas there receive good veterinary care and their survival rate has been above average for captive orcas. Yet Sea World's program includes riding the animals, making them do numerous shows every day and exposing them to sustained close contact with large crowds, far larger than at other aquaria.

Former trainer Graeme Ellis, who worked with orcas at Sealand and at the Vancouver Aquarium, contends that this intensive program may be all right initially for younger animals but that, after a time, the whales suffer stress and many become violent. There have been at least a dozen publicized cases of Sea World orcas turning on trainers. Several trainers have suffered broken bones and other internal injuries and some have sued for damages.

In August 1989, at Sea World in San Diego, Kandu charged another female orca, fatally injuring herself in what appeared to be a fight for dominance. Sea World said the death was an accident following routine aggressive play. Critics suggest it was 'artificial behaviour' brought on by stress after years in captivity; such violent displays have never been witnessed among orcas in the wild.

In 1989, Harcourt Brace Jaovanovich sold Seaworld to Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, for $1,100 million.

Lost? Click here for the main index page.