A History of Captive Rarities and Oddities (Part 2)

In a continuation of the previous article, most of these cetaceans listed have only been kept a handful of times, but not always on display for the public. Some were intentionally captured, and some were strandings, taken in for rehabilitation.

For all their unusual shapes and behaviors, they share a common thread: their existence has always been a footnote in science reports, newspaper articles, or in former trainers’ memoirs. No matter how small a blip they were in the zoological world, their stories are worth sharing.

Pygmy Killer Whale


A wild pygmy killer whale eyes the photographer off the coast of Hawaii.  © Al Giddings; from The World’s Whales: The Complete Illustrated Guide (1984). Scanned by the author.

Observed in the Gulf of Mexico, to the Indian Ocean and much of the Pacific, pygmy killer whales are deep-diving nomads that have been frequently misidentified with their cousins, the melon-headed whale. Only their parrot-like faces sets the two apart. Even with such an extensive reach, these cetaceans are still poorly known.

The best-documented instance of a pygmy in captivity was in at Sea Life Park of Oahu, Hawai’i, in 1963. On the morning of July 16, after ten days of observation and tracking, the park team descended upon a pod of fifty whales, taking an adult male off the coast of Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i Island. He occasionally snapped at the crew during the trip to the mainland, emitting a “blatting or growling noise” through his blowhole.

The Sea Life Park’s male pygmy killer whale, summer 1963. © Ken Norris, taken from Walker’s Marine Mammals of the World (2003). Scanned by the author.

When placed into a training tank, the unnamed pygmy became aggressive towards the Sea Life Park staff almost instantly. In the first few hours, he breached, dove and swam in “tight figure-eights” before shooting partly out of the water to snap his jaws at handlers. However, he readily took squid and mackerel.

Unnamed male at Sea Life Park, summer of 1963. © Ken Norris, taken from “Observations on a Pygmy Killer Whale (Farsena Attenuata) in Hawaii” report.

The pygmy’s hostility became worse when roomed with other cetaceans. Ten days into his stay at the park, he was moved into the tank where two pilot whales resided. For several days, he left them alone until dusk, when he would chase the smaller of the pair. One morning, however, the smaller pilot was found dead: a necropsy showed damage to “the temporal region of the cranium, possibly from a lethal butt from the pygmy killer whale.”

After being returned to the training tank, Sea Life staff tried introducing a spinner dolphin. He became aggressive once more and chased the spinner. The panicked dolphin caused such a commotion that the other spinners from the adjacent tank crowded the gate. Twenty days after capture, on August 4th, the male pygmy died from a respiratory infection. (SeaLife Park went back out to sea and captured two more, in 1970 and 1971 respectively, but neither lived nearly as long.)

Earlier in the same year, on January 28, 1963, a pod of 14 pygmy killer whales were driven and captured in the Izu Peninsula, near Futo, Japan. Trucked to Ito Aquarium and placed in a pool along with other dolphins, the pygmies kept to themselves, spending most of their time spy hopping. All except one died within a week after capture; prior to their demise, seven animals were observed having “convulsing fits and sank with their mouths open.” Their cause of death could not be determined.

Since then, most pygmy killer whales who find their way into aquaria tend to be sickly or have become stranded. Several have been taken to Miami Seaquarium, Gulfarium, Mote Marine AquariumSeaWorld Florida, and at least one was rescued Venezuela. Almost all have perished while in hospice due to their illnesses.

One of two IMMS-rescued pygmy killer whales being hydrated and prepped for his release, July 11, 2016. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lexie Preston via Military.com/CC0 1.0

The most recent, and most successful rehab and release came in September 3, 2015, when a pair of juvenile male pygmies stranded in a marsh in Waveland, Mississippi. Both were barley able to swim, and were immediately taken to the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport.

For almost 10 months, the pair were kept in intensive care; the cause for their stranding remained unknown. On July 11, 2016, with the help of NOAA, Mississippi Dept. of Natural Resources, and the US Coast Guard Cutter Calypso, the pair were released far out in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were fitted with satellite tags prior to their return to the ocean, and by the following day, they had already covered 200 miles from the release site.

Spectacled Porpoise


A wild female spectacled porpoise. © Laura Morse/NOAA

Roaming through the cold waters of the southern hemisphere, these porpoises are sometimes mistaken for Commerson’s dolphins — unless a mature male’s massive dorsal fin can be seen.

Very little is known about this particular porpoise’s behavior and lifestyle, and it has only appeared once in a captive setting. On March 24th, 1997, a female calf, only weeks old, stranded upon the Port Elliot shore in South Australia. While initially re-floated, the calf appeared disoriented and approached people who entered the water.

After being rescued, she was transported to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (RSPCA) marine rescue unit, some 40 miles away from Adelaide. She rejected offerings of dead fish and squid the next day, and had to be force-fed formula and peanut oil. While antibiotics were administered, her system could not digest the formula nor the oil. Increasingly fatigued and disoriented, she died in the early morning hours of March 29th.

The cause of death was inconclusive; aside from considerable damage to her esophagus and stomach due the force feeding tube, her necropsy showed that her organs were normal, and no bacteria was found in her blowhole swabs. Her skull, skeleton and organs are now kept at the South Australian Museum.


The weeks-old female spectacled porpoise calf, March 1997. © Dr. Mark Hill, via Somerton Park Veterinary Clinic Facebook.


One of the caregivers comforting the Spectacled calf at the RSPCA’s marine rescue unit. © Dr. Mark Hill, via Somerton Park Veterinary Clinic Facebook. 


A pod of Sotalia (Guiana sp.) in Sepetiba Bay, southeastern Brazil.© Leonardo Flach, from Guiana Dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) as Marine Ecosystem Sentinels: Ecotoxicology and Emerging Diseases (2014).

Sometimes mistaken for slender bottlenose,  Sotalia are predominantly found in brackish coastal waters and river systems of Northeastern South America. They are split into two member species: the Guiana dolphin, which wanders along the coast of Brazil and up to Nicaraguan waters, and Tucuxi, which are found within the Amazon River and Orinoco Watershed regions. The Tucuxi, in particular, which had been viewed by fishermen for generations as a symbol of superstition, are now being targeted by folk medicine market in the region of Para, Brazil.

(For the sake of easy reading, both species will be referred to as Sotalia, due to lack of differentiation in aquaria records.)

From the 1960’s to the mid-1970’s, only 45 Sotalia were captured for captivity. The first few were exhibited in North America: in October 1965, the Aquarium of Niagara falls caught a pair of Sotalia, along with four Amazon river dolphin (or Boto), from the Negro River in Brazil. Both Sotalia were tranquilized and flown to Vero Beach, Florida for a ten-day observation period. One of the Sotalia died during acclimation from pneumonia, while the surviving male and his Boto tank-mates were flown to Niagara Falls on November 10. The five were placed on exhibit in a small tank. The young Sotalia, later named Neptune, died two years later from a combination of respiratory issues, pancreatitis, and a nagging parasite load.

The female Sotalia (MLF 255, Tucuxi sp.) at Marineland of Florida, November/December 1968. © Marineland of Florida, scanned from The World’s Whales: The Complete Illustrated Guide.

Marineland of Florida soon got their own. A mother and her immature male calf were caught in Iquitos, Peru on November 12, 1968, then shipped to Miami and trucked to St. Augustine. Stationed scientists David and Melba Caldwell conducted echolocation and vocal signal studies on the pair, given so little was known about the mysterious cetaceans.

The mother and son’s stay was brief; after being introduced to the resident Amazon river dolphins on the fourth day, the Sotalia calf was attacked by an aggressive male boto, who forced the calf to the bottom of the tank several times. Because this happened at night, it took the night crew up to an hour to get help to put the young Sotalia into a holding pen. Unfortunately, the attack was enough to send the youngster into a fatal shock; he died 45 minutes later. The mother died a month later on December 19.

In Europe, on the other hand, zoological facilities had slightly better luck. In January 1977, a massive capture operation was conducted by Peter Bössenecker, an animal dealer from Holland. Near San Antero, Colombia, enlisting locals to assist was incredibly difficult, given the Sotalia’s status as a supernatural animal.

A total of 80 dolphins were successfully captured, along with six casualties. Only 24 were deemed display-worthy; throughout the year, anywhere between 2-8 dolphins were shipped to several European facilities. This included the Ouwehands Zoo in the Netherlands, Antwerp Zoo in Belgium, and the Nuremberg, Allwetterzoo Münster, and Duisburg Zoo in Germany.

(Click images below to enlarge)

While Sotalia were trainable, they were far more difficult than their bottlenose counterparts, most likely due to their nature. Described as “timid and rather nervous… [they were] socially dependent on one another, react adversely to novelty and easily frightened by changes in their environment.” The estuary dolphins were also incredibly aggressive towards other species. At Antwerp Zoo, for example, the trio were housed alongside bottlenose, but were separated by nets and gating due to the Sotalia initiating aggressive conflict when paired together under controlled settings.

The dolphins’ reported “vigorousness” in a captive setting did not extend across the board. Between 1978 and 1979, at least ten dolphins died at undisclosed aquaria.

  • 1978: Two Sotalia that shared the same pool died from septicemia within an hour of each other. In the same year, one dolphin died from botulism, one died from a “severely” necrotic intestine, and three were fatally burned from pool chemicals. Lastly, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, Rosita at Nuremberg Zoo died of tuberculosis.
  • 1979: Duisburg Zoo’s only pair, Andrew and David, lasted two years at the facility, both dying just days apart in early January.

By 1983, only a dozen or so individuals were alive. In a last ditch effort, all remaining Sotalia dolphins from various facilities were sent to Nuremberg Zoo to form a single breeding colony in 1985/1986. Sadly, there was no payoff: a stillborn was delivered on January 20, 1987, but the mother, Ines, would die twelve days later from pregnancy complications. There were no other calves.

The surplus males, Coco, Paco, and Sabu, were sent back to Allwetterzoo Münster in 1991, due to aggression issues. The captive population would dwindle throughout the years. Only Paco would outlast them all, dying at 40 in early January 2010 from cardiovascular failure.

Paco in 2008. © Allwetterzoo Münster; from IMATA Soundings 2008, Vol 3. Quarter 4.

Outside of Europe, a handful of Sotalia have been captured and displayed by two Colombian facilities, Acuario Rodadero near Santa Marta (which still holds three dolphins, mainly used for performances and swim-with programs), and Oceanario Islas de Rosario near Cartagena. In fact, a Sotalia x Bottlenose dolphin hybrid named Luna was born at Oceanario in May 1996 and lived at the facility until her death in October 2002.

Shakira, Valentina and Andrés at Aquario Rodadero, 2014/2015. Courtesy Aquario Rodadero.

Irrawaddy Dolphin

An Irrawaddy in Cambodia, April 2012. © Stefan Brending/Wikipedia/CC-BY-3.0

Native to the Sea of Bengal and throughout Indonesia, the Irrawaddy dolphin calls the estuaries and rivers home. Looking like a gray, miniature beluga, they are relatively shy and have the unique ability to spit water at schools of fish to stun them.

This finless dolphin’s populations are listed between vulnerable by ICUN, to critically endangered by the governments of Vietnam, Laos, Camboida, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, and Malaysia. However, one population located between Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia is considered functionally extinct. Fishing (with nets, electricity or explosives), pollution and hydropower dams are the biggest threats to their survival. To make matters worse, Irrawaddies are still occasionally captured for public display.


An Irrawaddy observing the photographer Jaya Ancol Oceanarium. © Stephen Leatherwood; from The World’s Whales: The Complete Illustrated Guide (1984). (Via Whaleopedia)

Jaya Ancol Onceanarium (also named Ocean Dream Samudra) in Jakarta, Indonesia, was the first aquarium to set up a captive colony. Using motorized canoes and nets, the staff drove and caught six dolphins in September 1974 from Semayang Lake, which would go on display for the park’s opening that year. The oceanarium would go on to capture four more in October 1979 and ten in August 1978 from the same location. In 1984, another six were captured in the Mahakam River system.

A few of the finless dolphins were trainable, and after a reported 3 months of training, they performed ‘Pesut’ stage shows, where the dolphins and scuba-equipped trainers put on a show entirely submerged in a unique, underwater theater.

The other Irrawaddies were used for their experimental captive breeding program. The success was poor: the first calf, a female named Isui, was born July 4, 1979 after a 14-month gestation period. Another calf, an unnamed male, was born December 11 but died shortly afterward. A female, Budiyati, was born February 14, 1981; she, along with Isui, were listed as alive in 1984. Yet it was never reported if either captive-born individuals lived long enough to produce their own offspring.

(Click images below enlarge)


Due to extremely spotty record-keeping, their longevity at the facility isn’t entirely known. From the scant notes that were kept, it appears to have been poor: two dolphins from the 1974 capture died 10-20 days later due to gastrointestinal stress, while two from the 1978 capture died after 30 and 115 days later due to pneumonia and liver cirrhosis, and ‘constitutional heart weakness,’ respectively. A male from the 1979 capture would die from ulcers after 20 days in captivity. The fate of the six dolphins caught 1984 is unknown. Two individuals, either from the 1984 collection or a later capture, were photographed in the very early’s 1990’s.

It wouldn’t be long until other mom-and-pop aquaria learned of the Irrawaddies’ training ability and wanted their own.

“Tourist Victoria Maltseva from Siberia leans forward to touch cheeks with an Irrawaddy dolphin, a critically endangered species, at Pattaya Dolphin World. The dolphin trainer seen behind her is giving the command for the dolphin to rise out of the water during a swim-with-dolphins session. ” Courtesy Phuket News and Bangkok Post.

Featured image: A pair of Irrawaddy dolphins at Jaya Ancol Oceanarium, Indonesia/Stephen Leatherwood/The World’s Whales: The Complete Illustrated Guide, 1984. (Scanned by Jennifer Bennett).

Resources Cited:

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About Jordan Waltz

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I am an artist by day, researcher by night. I served as archivist and researcher for the documentary films "Blackfish" and "Vancouver Aquarium: Uncovered." Most of my writings cater towards the lesser-known corners of the cetacean captivity issue.

Author: Jordan Waltz


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