One Dolphin’s Story: Kianu

Quick Facts

Caught: April 26, 1968, Garden Bay, British Columbia
Died: June 1980, at Shirahama Adventure World, Japan

Stories of the first wave of orcas held and showcased in captivity are scant. With the exception of renowned individuals such as Moby Doll, Namu, the original Shamu, Skana, and the still-living Corky II, only the barest of details are known about the other 25 Northern and Southern Resident orcas caught in Pacific Northwest waters between the 1964-1969 period. Without first-hand accounts of marine park staff members, trainers, or veterinarians, it is nearly impossible to get an idea of who these orcas were.

For one orca, had it not been for a marine park diver’s memoir, her story may ended up down the memory hole.

Kianu with Sonny Allen_1969_UPI

Kianu in the midst of target-touching with head MarineWorld trainer Sonny Allen, October 12, 1969. At the time of this photo, Allen had been training her for four months. © UPI, scanned and provided by Jovana Ivastanin/flickr.

Her story begins in the midst of an orca roundup on April 26, 1968 in Garden Bay, British Columbia. Eight orcas belonging to the Northern Resident community were herded and penned up by Cecil Reid, Bert Gooldrup and Bill Cameron. This trio of local fishermen responsible for capturing a full-grown bull earlier in the year — which would later escape, chose to head another orca hunt the following spring.

As the weeks went by, various parks would step in to pay and snap them up. Two orcas were bought by Marineland of the Pacific, and four by the Vancouver Aquarium. Originally misgendered, eleven-year-old “Clyde” was bought for $30,000 along with another pod mate, Bonnie, for an unknown price, by MarineWorld Africa USA in Redwood City, California.

This new park established by San Francisco businessman Brad Barauh was primed to open in the summer. Both whales were flown to their final destination on June 9th.


The only known photo of Bonnie, recovering after giving birth to a stillborn the day before. Photo by The Times, dated July 15, 1968.

During the next month, both animals were acclimated to their new artificial world. It took six weeks just for Clyde to accept being touched by people. She and Bonnie held a bit of a secret: while some of the staffers had a hunch “one [of the whales] might be pregnant,” Bonnie confirmed it by showing signs of labor the late afternoon of July 14th.

Almost two hours later, she delivered a calf but showed no interest in bringing it to the surface. A net was dropped and divers quickly dove to retrieve it, only to find it was a stillborn calf. Bonnie died 15 days later, two weeks after MarineWorld’s grand opening. Barauh gave a sugar-coated statement to the media that she most likely died from a broken heart following her stillborn, reassuring them a necropsy would be performed. The Marine Mammal Inventory Report gives her cause of death as “heart failure,” although stillbirth complications are more than likely the culprit.

Clyde also gave birth to a premature stillborn on August 22, but she miraculously bounced back over the coming weeks. After making a full recovery, the staff re-christened her as Kianu, Aleutian for “Big Woman/Big Mama.” Her first year in the Oceana Theater was spent living and performing alone. The local media was fascinated with the black-and-white marine resident and she was later featured on an episode of ABC News children’s show Discovery, and in a segment of Jacques Cousteau’s episode on whales.

Footage credit: Jennifer Bennett (from The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau: Whales [1968])

Eventually growing to 20 feet, 11 inches in length, and tipping the scale at nearly four tons, Clyde/Kianu was the largest orca held in captivity at the time. In her first year, she established herself as a force to be reckoned with. MarineWorld’s head trainer and IMATA founder William ‘Sonny’ Allen, received the brunt of it. He was dunked and ‘threatened,’ Kianu would open her mouth wide and bare her teeth at him.

In another incident, she pinned Allen’s leg to the side of her training pool. An assistant trainer managed to free him by pushing Kianu away with a pole. Allen recounted how the whale, “did it deliberately. She got mad when we kept doing the same trick over and over. She waited until I turned my head for a second and pinned my leg.”


Late ’60’s MarineWorld postcard featuring Kianu, photographer unknown.

When a newly-hired diver had a brush with the ‘great lady’, he had a lucky escape. Former MarineWorld diver Don C. Reed said of the incident:

Kianu hadn’t bitten, hit, or broken him: she had just laid down on top of him. By way of a joke or an itch or some other killer whale reason, Kianu had gently lowered her vast bulk onto the new diver, until all but his little arm disappeared. His wrist and scrub brush stuck out, still twitching, as if he was going to scrub that tank no matter what… He wasn’t hurt when she lifted off, but he gathered his gear and left the park in dignified silence, and we never saw him again.

Reed had spent over a decade working as a tank cleaner, a conductor of park tours and an animal collector (mainly of sharks and fish). His is the most detailed account about the female whale. He remembered her more fondly than other staffers and respected her power. Despite Kianu’s daunting size, he felt that her “presence was warm and friendly, like a grandmother in the room.”

At the tail-end of December 1969, MarineWorld purchased and delivered two more orcas to the park – a juvenile female and male, around two to three years of age. Both were Northern Residents from Pender Harbor, British Columbia, that had been captured earlier in the month.

NepoYaka_Rafael Edwards_1976

Nepo (left) and Yaka (right), 1976. © Rafael Edwards, CC-2.0 Generic.

For the next five years, the pair of youngsters, Yaka and Nepo, would grow and perform alongside Kianu. Yaka was remembered by Reed as “gentle and sweet-natured,” while Nepo was more than happy to test his strength. As he reached maturity, he began breaking the gates, pushing against them with his rostrum which “would bend like a cartoon rubber door,” He snapped inch-thick stainless steel bars with his teeth in what Nepo viewed as a game. When Reed, his diving partners and welders were finished repairing the gate, Nepo (in Reed’s own words) would gleefully break it again. He was also, at times, dangerously unpredictable.  In an undated incident, trainer Dave Worcester was grabbed by the teenage bull and dragged to the bottom of the pool by his leg, before Nepo released him.

All three orcas starred in the 1977 Dino de Laurentis-produced film, Orca.  It was labeled by critics as a cash-in to the nature-horror subgenre that blossomed following the wake of Spielberg’s Jaws. (As outdated and ridiculous as it is, you have to admit, who doesn’t enjoy watching an orca committing arson?) While Kianu was included in some shots, Yaka and Nepo had much more screen time.

Marine World postcard_Killer Whales_Pierre Marc Atlan

1970’s postcard of Yaka, Nepo and Kianu performing. © Pierre Marc Atlan; scanned and provided by Heather David.

With Yaka and Nepo reaching adolescence, the ‘killer whale troubles’ began. A ‘love triangle’ between the whales cropped up: Kianu became increasingly frisky with the younger Nepo. An  unwilling participant, he would mostly reject her ministrations. Nepo, on the other hand, was far more interested in Yaka. It’s not exactly clear if  it was because their personalities meshed better or he preferred an orca closer to his age.

nepoyaka_Steve Castillo

Yaka and Nepo. © Steve Castillo, from “Notes of an Underwater Zoo” by Don C. Reed. Scanned by the author.

Whatever the reason, the conflict and tension began to brew: Reed could see Kianu’s growing jealousy towards Yaka. The older whale would leap and breach upon Yaka and Nepo whenever they attempted to mate. Occasionally Yaka and Nepo were given free reign in the stadium pool for pre-dawn romps, while Kianu was penned up. The noise of their amorous activities drove Kianu into a frenzy. She would tremble and arch her body, bang the gate and slap her pectorals on the surface, clearly in frustration.

The situation reached its breaking point sometime in early 1978. During a performance, Kianu — instead of making a bow as the script called for — raced out of her pen through a partially open gate and rammed Yaki’s side full-on. For several minutes, the whales fought, Kianu chasing and raking the younger orca’s side, leaving bloody gouges in her wake. Nepo managed to stop the assault by wedging himself between the two and blocking Kianu’s access. This allowed trainers time enough to get nets into the water. Fortunately, Yaka’s injuries were not life-threatening. She was scratched, bruised, and moved stiffly, but managed to recover in the coming days.

For park staff, however, the damage was already done. Kianu, no longer trusted, was banned from performing and banished to the back tank. Entering a state of depression, she didn’t budge even after she was given exclusive access to the stadium pool. Seasoned dolphin trainer Jeff Pawloski (now curator of Sea Life Park in Hawaii) tried to talk to her and coax her out. Achieving some progress, Pawloski hopped onto her back. It was a huge mistake, she quickly bucked him off and chased him out of the tank.


Kianu being maneuvered and cinched up in the stretcher. © Pat Foster-Turley, from “Notes from an Underwater Zoo.” Scanned by the author.

With a dangerous orca on their hands, and returning her to the wild being out of the question, MarineWorld had no choice but to find a new home for her. The search did not take long. A new park in Shirahama, Japan, called World Safari (renamed Adventure World in the ’80s) was more than happy to take her off MarineWorld’s hands.

World Safari, a park with 2,400 animals in their collection, was proud of its facility and more than happy to pay $227,000 for the orca and transport fees.

Kianu seemed less keen to move. On the night of the transfer — April 15, she made the process anything but easy. Despite the tank drained to waist-high water, she wriggled and slipped out of the sling. Reed, the MarineWorld staff and veterinarian Jay Sweeney struggled for over two hours just to get her into it. Finally hoisted up, lathered with zinc oxide cream and loaded into a custom-made metal crate, Kianu was packed onto a Boeing 727 to Tokyo. From there she was moved into a Lockheed Hercules and taken straight to Shirahama, ending her nearly 22-hour trip. She arrived at a park still partially under construction, even though the grand opening was just five days away.

Her arrival was big news for Shirahama. Of the staff and visitors, most had never seen an orca before. Four MarineWorld vets, an animal specialist and one trainer stayed at the park, getting Kianu accustomed to her new tank and transitioning her to new trainers. She spent most of those days floating and unresponsive in the back pools — until opening day, when she slowly entered the stadium tank and swam to the stage, opening her mouth for fish. For her first show, Kianu pulled off a ‘talking’ segment and a tail slap.

Kianu at Shirahama_1

Kianu at Shirahama Adventure World (then called World Safari). From “Someday, Orca: A Memoir of Love between Orca and Trainer” by Kazuhisa Taniguchi and Yoko Oide. Scanned by the author.

Kianu was an instant hit. Thousands flocked to see her, and she was featured in a local documentary. She also earned a new name — ‘Shirahama Mama’. Dan Cartwright, the MarineWorld trainer who flew with Kianu to help her transition, mentioned how her demeanor improved dramatically:

[She did] a lot of… unnecessary behaviors. Swimming fast for no reason. Tail-walking without being asked. Leaping just for the crash it makes. Investigating her environment and the people who come near her. Curiosity, and enjoying the trainer’s company, even sticking up her stomach to be rubbed. Vocalizing. Talking up a storm. Playing.

The orca’s popularity yielded a less desirable consequence. It sparked the park’s interest to get another. In late February 1979, a Taiji, Japan drive netted a pod of five orcas. Following a two-month stay to acclimate at the Whale Museum, one male was sent to Shirahama. Named after the warrior monk in Japanese folklore, Benkei was an intended mate for Kianu. Details are scant as to whether the two orcas got along.

Kianu’s stay in Japan lasted just two years. She died in the summer of 1980 from a vaguely-described “gastrointestinal illness.” Back in California meanwhile, Nepo, the orca who was the source of so much tension and anguish for Kianu, died one month later from acute brachopneumonia. As for Yaka, she lived at MarineWorld until her death in 1997.

Kianu at Shirahama_2

Kianu at Shirahama Adventure World. From “Someday, Orca,” scanned by the author.

Huge thank you goes to Ernie Ismail for “Someday, Orca,” and to Ceta-Base and Tracie Shugo for translation assistance.

Featured image: Kianu at MarineWorld Africa U.S.A., September 6, 1974. Photographer unknown; from a scanned Kodachrome slide purchased on eBay.

The following sources were referenced in this article:

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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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