From Pool To Pod

Many peoples first encounter with an orca is in captivity. The many parks around the world that have killer whales in their shows are a popular attraction. Young children will press their noses against the glass around the pools of the orcas to get as close as possible to the magical black and white giants. Seeing these huge animals jump up out of the water and splashing down back in the water leaves an impression many will never forget. Probably the largest group of people in America that have seen a killer whale have done so in one of the SeaWorld parks. Before water work was banned after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, trainers would swim with, stand on and “play” with the animals in their parks. These shows were THE place to be for paying visitors. Almost every show would have a part in it where one or more children would be picked from the audience to have an up close experience with one of the killer whales. Some would be lifted on top of the animals back for a picture, others would be allowed to touch the animal. Of course this is a unique opportunity for anyone and the children would be filled with joy when they were selected from the crowd to join the trainers on the platform the orca was lying on.

Rick Wood, filmmaker and killer whale enthusiast is one of those who in his youth had a close encounter with an orca in his childhood. The make of “Fragile Waters” was 10 years old when his parents took him to SeaWorld to see “Shamu” perform tricks. Shamu is the performing name for the killer whales at SeaWorld.

In October 1965 a female orca was captured for the entertainment industry. She was taken from the waters of Puget Sound, Washington as a mate for “Namu” who was then held in the Seattle Marine Aquarium. The female would be named “Shamu” as a combination of “She” and “Namu”. Namu got his name when he was found by a fisherman in one of his nets close to the shore of Namu, British Columbia in 1965. The orca was sold to the Seattle park for 8,000 dollar to become the only killer in captivity at that time.

Shamu would not stay with Namu for long as in December 1965 she was bought by the SeaWorld park of San Diego. On April 19, 1971 SeaWorld wanted to use Shamu in a publicity stunt. A female employee of the park was asked to ride the female orca wearing a bikini while being filmed. Shamu threw the woman of her back and started dragging her through the pool by her leg. She was rescued in the end but ended up with 200 stitches. After the incident Shamu was retired. She died shortly after in August 1971. SeaWorld continued to use the name “Shamu” for its orcas.

Being at the show in 1980 Rick was amazed by the agility of the black and white giants that were splashing through the pool. They looked happy to perform and the audience cheered for every trick these animals would show them. Then it was time for the orca to swim up to the pool and “greet” the children that were picked for the “pet” session. Rick was one of the lucky ones that could step up to the platform to touch the animal. He went down to the platform and stared at the orca that was lying there waiting for him to reach out his hand. The mouth of the animal lay open and Rick reached inside to touch its tongue. While doing this he wondered “Why wouldn’t Shamu just close its mouth on my arm?”. Little did he know that only 10 years earlier the original Shamu had sunk her teeth into the leg of the employee.

After this experience it would take 21 years before he would encounter his next orca. In 2004 after recently moving to Washington State, Rick decided he wanted to go on a whale watching tour. San Juan Island is well known for its orca sightings and other marine wildlife. The Southern Residents roam the waters surrounding the island and so there are many companies who offer wild life tours. While on one of these tours Rick saw a mink whale. The sight of such a big animal was impressive for sure! But not much later something more exiting to him appeared in the best possible way. A super pod of orcas consisting of J, K and L pod came by their boat. About 90 animals together swimming together left Rick mesmerized and in awe. These animals would not do tricks on command, these animals enjoyed their freedom and played and socialized with their families and friends.

This encounter changed the way he looked at killer whales and captivity. Never again would he visit a marine park to see orcas. He now educates people on orcas and what humanity does to them. By pen and through film he shows others why these majestic creatures should be free and protected.