In 1969 a young female orca was captured in the waters of British Columbia, Canada at the age of 4. Taken from her mother A23 (Stripe) from A5 pod she was transferred to Marineland of the Pacific, Los Angeles to perform to the paying public.
Marineland opened its doors in 1954 and at that time was the largest marine park in the world. Like many other marine parks, next to killer whales they also held dolphins, seals and sea lions. Marineland of the Pacific closed in February 1987 after it was purchased by the owners of SeaWorld San Diego. They moved the orcas from Los Angeles to their park soon after.
The young female calf captured was called “Corky II”. She was moved into a pool with a male orca they named “Orky II” who was captured a year before Corky. On February 28, 1977 Corky gave birth to a male calf without anyone even knowing she was pregnant. It was the first ever orca ever to be born in captivity. The young bull died only a couple of weeks later. During her time in Marineland Corky would give birth to six more calves. Her longest surviving child died after only 47 days. When she was transported, together with Orky, to SeaWorld in San Diego she was again pregnant. At the new park the female orca had a miscarriage, loosing child number 8. She would not become pregnant anymore after this.
While their new pools were bigger than their old pool in Los Angeles, Corky and Orky had now had to share it with the other killer whales that were already in this SeaWorld park. They were trained to perform in the park’s shows and Orky was a welcome addition to SeaWorld’s breeding program. Orky would become a father on September 23, 1988 to a young female orca. Orky died 3 days after Kandu V gave birth to his daughter. The female calf was named “Orkid” (a combination of Orky and Kid). Kandu V died after attacking Corky in 1989. Being the more dominant female she ruptured an artery in her lower jaw while trying to rake Corky. While she was slowly bleeding to dead, she kept swimming next to her daughter Orkid. After the dead of Kandu, Corky took over in caring for Orkid showing how emotional and social killer whales are.
During this time many people already were stepping up against captivity. It was the kindness and intelligence that these killer whales showed that made them wonder if these orcas belonged in captivity. Studies showed these animals were extremely social and smarter than most other species on the planet. Then in 1993 a discussion started about releasing Corky back to her family in the wild. While activists stated she should be set free in the waters of Vancouver, Canada, SeaWorld said the female orca had spent too much time among humans to make it in the wild. They doubted if she would even recognize her family after spending 24 years in captivity.
An American news show called “ABC Nightline” did a report on the discussion on Corky being in captivity and the opinions of both sides. They interviewed a man named Paul Spong who had then been trying to get SeaWorld involved in an experiment. Dr. Paul Spong, a scientist from New Zealand, who has studied the wild orcas of Canada for over 30 years asked SeaWorld a daring question. Over the years he had recorded the vocalizations of Corky’s wild relatives and as an experiment he wanted to bring the recordings to SeaWorld to play to the female killer whale. As orcas all have their own dialects he wondered if it was possible that Corky would still recognize her family if she could hear them “talking”. SeaWorld refused his experiment.
Now ABC Nightline asked the park the same question and it was accepted. They brought the tape to the park and played it to Corky. No one could know how the killer whale would react to hearing her family for the first time after 24 years. When they pushed the “play” button and the sound of A5 pod came out of the speaker, all the orcas in the pool reacted to the sound of the wild orcas. Corky however started shaking and reacted different then the other SeaWorld animals. Maybe it was coincidence but it looked like the female orca did recognize the voices she last heard when she was a juvenile. The fight over the release of Corky is still going today.
In 1996 a similar experiment took place in the Miami Seaquarium. The oldest marine park of America opened in 1955 and has been the home to an orca called “Lolita” for over 40 years.
Lolita was captured in Puget Sound, Washington on August 8, 1970 and sold to the Seaquarium to become a partner of their male orca called “Hugo”. Hugo was also captured in Puget Sound two years earlier in February 1968. When Lolita arrived in Miami she and Hugo were kept separated as it was feared they would fight. The two orcas however came from the same family and spoke the same language. They started communicating back and forth and soon it was decided the two should be put together.
The Miami Seaquarium has one of the smallest pools for orcas in the world. It is only 60 by 80 foot (18 by 24 meters) and 20 feet deep (6 meters). Still they had these two giants perform in it together and although the audience enjoyed the show, Hugo seemed to be less happy. Often he would refuse to perform, act aggressively towards trainers or bang his head against the concrete wall of the pool or the viewing glass. Many believe this is what led to the death of Hugo when he died in March 1980 of hemorrhage on the brain. Since then Lolita has been the only orca at the Miami Seaquarium.
NBC Dateline showed an item on TV in 1996 where they brought recordings of Lolita’s family that were provided by Ken Balcomb, a whale researcher and specialist in killer whale identification, to the pool Lolita was in. Like with Corky, Lolita reacted to the recordings of the voices of her pod that she had last heard over 35 years ago. She came close to the reporter holding the tape player and started spy hopping. At one point she came up high out of the water and leaned towards the reporter almost touching him with her rostrum.
Although it is not scientific proof it sure looks like orcas remember the sounds of their families even after spending many years apart. And many feel these animals should and could be reunited with their pods in the wild.