When Natural Disasters and Captive Cetaceans Collide

During and after Hurricane Irma’s devastating assault on Florida, the world’s attention was tightly focused on the impact to human life. What few considered, outside of the animal rights community, was the potential consequences of Irma’s assault on captive marine mammals.

Florida boasts umpteen zoos and aquariums who cater to the tourist industry. The Keys, which took the brunt of Irma, have a plethora of aquariums. Two of the most notable is the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Marathon, FL, and Theater of the Sea in Islamorada. The DRC had a team in place during the storm and tail-tagged dolphins for identification and recapture, should they escape. According to DRC, they will be closed for several weeks. Theater of the Sea also sustained damage and remains closed.

On the mainland, two of the largest parks in Florida — SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa, entertain visitors year round. Off the east coast of the state, in Biscayne Bay, is the barrier island of Virginia Key, site of the Miami Seaquarium and home to several dolphins and one solitary orca, Lolita.

Our modern civilization boasts a system that can often alert us to an impending natural catastrophic event. With such notice, we are given the opportunity to prepare and even move out of the path of potential damage if we so choose. Is it perfect? Of course not, but we are warned and we can often take measures to protect ourselves. The choice is yours to make. Captive cetaceans, on the other hand, don’t get this choice. Unlike their wild counterparts, who are free to move out of harm’s way, they must ride out the storm in an open tank and hope to survive. Only their human caretakers decide otherwise.

Cuba, in the face of Irma, airlifted their dolphins to a safer area to ride out the storm. At Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, staff remained behind to care for the dolphins during the storm. Director of Zoology, Phillip Admire, told ‘ABC News‘ that their, “number one concern was that trees might fall down and tangle them in something,” and the dolphins, “could drown or be injured.” Admire, concerned about the storm’s aftermath, added, “I knew after the hurricane, the Florida Keys were going to be shut down and [the dolphins] would go a week or more without any care. I wasn’t going to leave them.”

With the storm surge, the lagoon where the dolphins were kept was flooded, but the dolphins stayed put and came through it.

Abandoned dolphins can face any manner of threat, both during and after, a severe storm. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wound up thrashing the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss. Dr. Moby Solangi, owner, and director of the facility had moved six of his 14 dolphins into hotel swimming pools; the remaining eight were left to fend for themselves. A 40-foot storm surge swept the abandoned dolphins into the Gulf of Mexico. One baby dolphin was found in a muddy pool on a golf course; the others were tracked down almost 2-weeks later — battered and hungry, swimming in the Gulf. They were eventually recaptured after being trained at sea.

These bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were being fed in the Gulf of Mexico after they were washed out of their pool at the Marine Life Aquarium in Gulfport, Mississippi by a huge 40-foot (12 m) wave generated by Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA/Public Domain

Hurricane Irma is not Florida’s first tropical cyclone. Since being first documented, the state has had hundreds of storms dating back to the 1500s. Miami is listed in the top five most vulnerable cities in the world for hurricanes. You can see the storm history for Miami at HurricaneCity.com. It isn’t pretty. Somebody, however, decided to build the Miami Seaquarium off the coast of Miami on a barrier island which inevitably takes the initial brunt of a storm. And in that aquarium, they place Lolita, an orca captured from the Pacific Northwest with some Pacific white-sided dolphins for company. The ocean temperature surrounding Florida averages around the mid-80s. The Northern Pacific coast (Lolita’s home range) averages around 50 degrees. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how damaging a storm surge could be for these animals.

CetaBase.org lists fifteen facilities that hold dolphins and whales across Florida. Smaller dolphins are of course, much easier to move should the need arise, but the sheer numbers of them held in captivity presents an impossible task for larger aquariums like SeaWorld. At its Orlando-based facility alone, there are 56 individual dolphins and whales onsite. Far too many to relocate and rehouse. Still, when facing a catastrophic storm like Irma, they do at least, have a team in place.

In August 1995, former SeaWorld trainer and “Blackfish” castmember, Dr. Jeff Ventre, rode out Hurricane Erin at SeaWorld Orlando.

“Trainers are assigned certain weeks to be on the ride-out teams,” Ventre told Dolphin Project. For Erin, Dr. Ventre’s teammates included fellow Voice of the Orcas‘ (VOTO) member John Jett Ph.D., Jeff Heimerman and supervisor, Al Kordowski. Ventre explained, “We stayed in the protection of Shamu Stadium with periodic checks on the whales and checking for debris. We also had to feed Nyar, who was sickly, and not eating. We tube-fed her in the morning in high winds, but winds that were tropical force strength or less.”

Miami Seaquarium has 31 dolphins from the bottlenose species to Pacific white-sided. It only has one orca — Lolita, for a total of 32 animals. Lolita is held in a tiny tank (80 feet across for a 20-foot animal) which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins. From several accounts, including available online video, they don’t always mix well. According to the ‘Seattle Times,’ in 2016, unsealed court documents revealed, “these dolphins scraped Lolita’s skin with their teeth more than 50 times in 2015. Through a review of the records and their own on-site observations, the plaintiff’s’ experts concluded that the dolphins — rather than being best buddies with Lolita — are often at odds with the whale.”

Ironically, the one agency that is supposed to oversee Lolita’s conditions is equally complicit with the aquarium in failing her. As VOTO pointed out on their blog about Lolita, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tweeted, “If it’s not safe for you, it’s not safe for your pets either. Take them with you when you go. .” Now, granted, moving an orca is a lot more complex than accommodating domestic pets. But, if news reports are accurate, Miami Seaquarium staff completely abandoned the facility altogether, leaving Lolita and all of the other animals to fend for themselves. Despite a Facebook video of Lolita posted by the aquarium on its page Sept. 12, the Seaquarium remained silent until after the storm had passed.

With nobody around to check on Lolita, and activists fearing for her safety, Dolphin Project’s Lincoln O’Barry flew a drone over Miami Seaquarium to check on Lolita and her conditions. Contrary to reports that O’Barry was arrested by police and his video deleted (communications are not the best obviously after a storm), O’Barry’s video allowed those concerned for her welfare, to see that Lolita had made it through, yet again.

If [the Seaquarium] has no plan or protocol during a storm other than leaving her behind, then Lolita shouldn’t live there … It’s a death sentence. — Lincoln O’Barry; ‘Miami New Times.’ Sep. 13, 2017.

Although Lolita appeared physically okay, we can only imagine what this sentient whale endured during the storm itself. At SeaWorld, orcas have other pod mates to help them cope, but Lolita endured it alone and couldn’t escape. Her only tank mates were the Pacific white-sided dolphins that harass her day in and day out. Ventre said that in his opinion and during Hurricane Erin, the whales at SeaWorld, “definitely sensed something and appeared agitated.”

These animals have a routine, so, “when there is a disruption in what the whales perceive as normal, they tend to become agitated. Typically bad things happen to captive animals when the pattern changes. Specifically, cranes can pull up and pod members disappear.”

Ventre added:

The whales tend to put differences aside and pattern swim in a group when agitated. And that’s my recollection of what they did in 1995. They had access to A pool and probably B or C pool. Nyar was in the med pool.

Like other aquariums in Florida, the Seaquarium took damage from Irma. It’s been closed for more than a week now and curator emeritus Robert Rose has offered no timeline for reopening.

Whether aquariums have protocols in place — or not, it becomes a pointless debate if those animals cannot be moved out of harm’s way. In Texas, post-Hurricane Harvey, Chief Stephen Carlisle of the Roman Forest Police Department said that he would, “hold anyone accountable that unlawfully restrains their dog in extreme weather conditions … Dogs are your family members too,” he said.

Something aquariums often claim themselves.

“The hurricane threats to captive killer whales include missile injuries, blunt force trauma, stress, contaminated water, and foreign objects in the pool,” wrote VOTO in its blog calling out APHIS for its lack of oversite.

You preach animal safety, but your record in policing the Miami Seaquarium calls into question your ability to enforce the law fairly … When, if ever, will the city or APHIS take action? — VOTO.

None of these animals are in captivity by choice. Lolita, an endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale is not there by choice. She was captured and ripped away from her family members and placed in a concrete tank. This is not something she would have ever chosen for herself. Humans, looking to make a profit, chose it for her. Her sole purpose is to entertain you, and each time you purchase a ticket you fund her misery. In what world is it deemed okay to force an animal into an artificial environment where it cannot leave and is 100 percent reliant on human care for its survival, and then abandon it in a time of crisis?

It’s not okay at all.

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt
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