Corky’s saddest day

Corky's rainbow P1050551

In 1990, which seems now such a long time ago, the world celebrated the release of Nelson Mandela from his 27 years of incarceration. We marveled at the man and his ability to survive, adjust, reconcile and go on. We thought of Corky and wondered if she were to be let go free, would she be successful too? Nelson Mandela’s story gave us confidence. At that time Corky’s mother, her strongest connection to her past life was still alive; Corky also had siblings she had never met. Back then so much was being learned about orcas in the wild, their wonderfully complicated individual and social needs, their amazing physical and acoustic abilities, their impressive natural ranges. All of which contrasted starkly with the stifling life of captivity. So we plotted. We tried to do whatever we could to bring the world’s attention to Corky’s plight. There were petitions, demonstrations, the creation of a wonderful 2½ kilometer banner made by people from around the world, there were news stories and songs made in Corky’s honour. We even fantasized about asking Nelson Mandela to make a plea on her behalf. We never did, and all the great efforts by so many failed to wrench Corky free.

An incredible 44 years after her capture and confinement Corky is still swimming in circles, marking time. However, in Corky’s wake attitudes to captivity have been shifting. Take Keiko, the star of Free Willy, who was let go because a demanding public saw the injustice of the entertainment industry making millions while he continued to languish in captivity. His journey back home was unprecedented. Take the orphaned baby orca Springer and the efforts made to return her to her home waters and community. The alternative of placing her in captivity was simply not palatable to an educated public who demanded the experts come up with a better plan. Ten years later, Springer has her own baby. Take “Blackfish”, the recent documentary that exposed, as never before, the dismal story behind the glitz of SeaWorld.

A life in the wild has remained a distant dream for Corky that now presents added urgency as she grows older. However, unfolding events in the world beyond her tank make us believe it is still possible. As a business, Sea World’s lights have dimmed in the wake of Blackfish and savvy commentators are noticing. SeaWorld’s now publicly traded stock is drifting down; musicians like Bare Naked Ladies and Willie Nelson are refusing to perform at SeaWorld; and an awakening public is showing signs of preferring rides to animal abuse as holiday entertainment. All these contribute to the feeling we retain today. Like Nelson Mandela’s dear friend Archbishop Tutu, we are “prisoners of hope”.

Please join us. Light a candle for Corky today.

by Helena Symonds & Paul Spong

December 11 2013

Thanks to Lori Freiburger for her rainbow Corky photo!

Links to Corky stories:

Emily’s blog


Although I came to Hanson Island with a one track mind – to concentrate on and learn as much as possible about orcas, being here has opened my eyes to the vast wealth of wildlife the Pacific Northwest coastline has to offer. My days have revolved around listening to orcas, but during this I have heard humpbacks trumpeting, seen sea birds dive into huge bait balls, watched bald eagles swoop and catch salmon, photographed Stellar sea lions swimming by – and this has all been from my seat in the lab.

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Life takes on a different tone here, we live by the tides and nature no longer is something you go to a zoo to see, it is part of all of us, every day. I am woken by deers crunching next to my tent, squirrels charge past me while I’m eating my granola, throwing acorns from the tree tops. Washing dishes in the ocean I see crabs scuttling off under rocks, purple starfish, and sculpins, then further out are humpbacks fluking as they dive down into Blackney Pass. I’ve fallen asleep in my tent to the sound of trumpeting humpback whales out in the pass. What a lullaby.

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My favourite times in the lab have been the early morning shifts – sitting in the lab alone at 5am means you can watch eagles foraging for their breakfast at low tide, see sea lions cruising past, watch dalls porpoises pass by – all whilst everyone is sleeping. It is amazing to sit there alone and know you are the only person on the earth watching this, you can soak it all up all to yourself. It has been truly moving to enjoy these experiences alone, and to sit in awe of such a raw, wild environment.

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I’ve been woken many times by the loud calls of ravens and their fledglings, but my favourite calls are those of the eagles – their sound is almost delicate and gentle, definitely opposite to what you’d expect (and not what they show in the movies!). I have seen bald eagles daily here, and I’ve come to know which ones will sit on which branch of which tree, and which ones are good at fishing… – despite their cool, calm, collected appearance some of them have a thing or two to learn about catching supper, I’ve seen many dunk into the ocean and end up with soggy feathers and no fish. Most times however they swoop through the skies and watching over the ocean from the tree tops with a great sense of superiority, seemingly full of wisdom and regality. It makes sense why the First Nations would hold the eagle in such high esteem.

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You may perhaps note this post is very orca unrelated. If you’d have told me when I was 16 that I’d write a blog for Orcalab that was by choice ignoring orcas I would have said you were crazy! However, my time at Orcalab has been completed by wild animals that sometimes have felt like part of the family. Here, there’s no sense of humans being at the top of the pecking order. Every living breathing organism here is equal, and all are incredible in their own way.

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So to conclude this post, I’d like to share a few precious stories from my time with the wildlife of Hanson Island.

Swimming with seals;

On a warm day in July I hiked alone to Dongchong Bay, the bay where the lost orca Springer was held until her family came by. By the time I returned to Orcalab I was covered in cuts and bruises after ‘bushwhacking’ through places I’m sure no man had ever trodden before. I felt truly exhilarated, and immediately donned my swimsuit and jumped straight into the ocean. I swam in the beautiful green waters of Blackney Pass, and I felt the feeling you don’t get too often. I felt truly alive.

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The girls (or Strong Women as we came to be known) sang the ‘Little Mermaid’ song as I paddled, then I noticed a seal staring right at me from the other side of the bay. I can imagine it was quite confused, these waters are extremely cold so you don’t get people swimming often, if ever. So a grinning human must have been a bit of a shock!

The feeling of swimming somewhere so truly wild was just wonderful. Swimming in the water I’d dreamt about since I was a young girl, in the water orcas for countless generations have called home, in the water that truly felt my spiritual home, and in the water where when I pass I want my ashes to be spread… It was a feeling like nothing I can describe. And there before me was a seal, so close. How often can people say they’ve had a seal staring at them in disbelief, and that they’ve stared back with an overwhelming feeling of joy.

I went to sleep that night with the warmth of my experiences that day lulling me into the happiest dreams.

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Orcas by bioluminescence;

One night whilst I was at Cracroft Point, Orcalab’s outcamp, I was snug in my sleeping bag listening to the hydrophone at around midnight. Orcas were calling, a sound so beautiful to lull you to sleep. However I’m so glad I hadn’t been lulled to sleep that night. I got a message from Kate who was on shift that evening that calls were now being heard on the Cracroft Point hydrophone! I ran outside into the pitch black of night and listened for blows. With my ears pricked, I noticed the oceans edge was glowing. Glow in the dark glitter seemed to be getting washed up onto the rocks below. It was bioluminescence, the first I’d ever seen! My, it was beautiful. I sat on the edge of the deck, momentarily forgetting the reason I’d come outside in the first place as I was so flabbergasted by the sparkling ocean. A loud blow brought me back to reality. The orcas were close! It was almost eerie – the air was damp with ocean fog and every way I turned was black. No light pollution meant night truly was night in Johnstone Strait. But somewhere out there were orcas, swimming through the black depths with only echolocation to guide their way. A blow permeated the night air, a female, perhaps only around 15 meters to my left. I could hear the water rippling off her back, my sense of hearing heightened in the dark. My heart was in my mouth – it felt like I could reach out into the night and stroke her smooth skin.

I noticed a stir of sparkle only about 5 meters in front of me. The sparkle twisted and spiraled as the water was being displaced. Displaced by an orca. Swimming right in front of me. Her eye patch and underbelly reflected the glittering glow, whilst the outline of her streamlined body sparkled as she swam gently. Her fluke swept slowly through the water of Johnstone Strait, leaving a plume of sparkling bioluminescent glitter in her wake. A glow in the dark orca, right before me. Soon she’d gone. The water returned to black, the whales passed, but for me time stood still, I’m sure I didn’t breathe for a long time, and I just sat, overwhelmed at what I’d seen. Taking it all in. How would I ever see anything again that would beat that, my whole life paled in comparison to the previous 10 seconds. Life was complete.

I didn’t need to dream that night, as I’d had an experience more incredible than anything I could dream of, or that my mind could comprehend.

by Emily Hague,

November 2013

Saying goodbye to Orcalab – Megan’s final blog.

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As my time here at OrcaLab draws to a close every morning i try to remind myself to remember & savour every inch of what i see, hear and smell of this place. For when i return to England i will wake every morning missing it! From the green moss hanging above my tent to every molecule of the panorama view of Blackney pass spanning from Burnt point to Gabe’s rock. To remember every smell, from red cedar to the Sealions. To remember every sound, from the A30’s N47 (or whirly doodle as Mark calls it) to the Raven’s echoing song. And most importantly to remember every person. The people i have met in my 3 months at Orcalab have been such a special part of my experience. Everyone has taught me something valuable, made me laugh, watched me cry and most importantly shared amazing encounters with creatures large and small. We were all here for the same reason and that is Orca so immediately everyone has a common ground to jump from but the relationships that have formed with this years band of ‘STRONG WOMEN’ has been incredible. Spending every waking second together discussing everything imaginable, mostly whales and food!

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Paul and Helena are the heart & soul of Hanson & having the wonderfully unique opportunity to be here with them has been a dream come true. Not only are they wonderfully hospitable and hugely generous hosts but they are priceless mentors, getting to know them & learning from them about the project of OrcaLab, from its history to its day to day running has been a leaning curve from start to finish. And to begin to understand the complexity of Orca acoustics has been the biggest treat. To begin myself to start to recognize different families of whales like you would the sound of someone’s voice is one of the most surreal and rewarding experience’s of being here. To get to know so much about the lives of these whales and have amazing close encounters with them just from land has been incredible. And the best part about this is that OrcaLab manages to do this with without interfering with their lives at all. I wonder if they know how much we care about them, how much we think about them, and how much we cherish them?

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3 months ago I didn’t know what to expect of my summer that laid ahead of me & now that it have flown by I can’t imagine my life off Hanson Island. Some small home comforts I will enjoy briefly once back in civilization but i guarantee within a week i will be craving the sound of squirrels throwing pine cones at my little tent in the forest and the anticipation of waiting for the fire to heat the water tank before A shower! So thank you to everyone and everything that has made my summer not only life changing but completely unforgettable. Every second has been an absolute privilege.


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Goodbye Hanson Island, goodbye Paul & Helena & goodbye Orca, see you soon, Love Megan.

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by Megan Hockin-Bennet

October 2013