Corky's family in the summer of 2015
Incredibly, December 11 2015 marks the 46th anniversary of Corky’s capture in 1969. There was a huge storm that tragic night, much like the one that is battering Canada’s west coast today, causing power outages and ferry cancellations. For some unknown reason, perhaps the weather, perhaps seeking disappeared relatives, perhaps for some other purpose, Corky’s family decided to swim through the narrow entrance of Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver B.C. The evening was pitch black but their entry was noticed and word spread. Fishermen who had previously captured orcas in Pender Harbour sprang into action. By morning, the orcas were trapped behind nets and soon on offer to the developing marine entertainment industry. Corky was sold to Marineland of the Pacific near Los Angeles, where she joined 4 other captives, including a male named Orky who had been captured in Pender Harbour the year before. One by one the other captives died, leaving just Corky and Orky alive in the Marineland tank. When Corky was 10 years old they mated and Corky became pregnant. When her first baby died just 16 days old she became pregnant again, and when that baby died she became pregnant again. The cycle was repeated until Corky’s last baby, her 7th, was found as an aborted foetus on the bottom of the tank. Six months later, in December 1989 she and Orky were sold to SeaWorld and moved to San Diego. Corky stopped ovulating soon after, so the dismal cycle of births and deaths ended. A year and a half after arriving at SeaWorld, Orky died, leaving Corky in the company of orcas captured in Icelandic waters. Year after year passed, with Corky endlessly circling her tank. Despite her isolation from everything that had nurtured her, Corky survived. Today, she is the longest living and oldest captive orca, matched only by Lolita, another orca who was captured a year after Corky and still survives in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium. Their endurance is remarkable. Both have family in the ocean they deserve to meet again. For decades we have advocated for Corky’s return to her home waters, to no avail. The simple fact however, is that Corky is still alive, and because of that, she still has a chance to return home.
The problem Corky faces is SeaWorld’s intransigence. We have always felt that Corky could not return home without the active cooperation and participation of SeaWorld, including staff who know her well. SeaWorld, to our mind, could benefit enormously from their involvement, and perhaps begin to repair their corporate image, which has been battered by the 2013 release of the documentary film Blackfish. The outspoken comments made by former trainers in the film revealed a corporation concerned primarily with the bottom line rather than the welfare of the orcas it held. Attendance, share value and profits have since fallen. Moreover, a recent decision by the California Coastal Commission to prohibit breeding of orcas poses an ultimate threat to SeaWorld’s future. Simply put, the writing is on the wall for SeaWorld. To survive, it must change. The new SeaWorld CEO seems to be well aware of this, having recently announced an end to the circus style performances that have trainers flying off the heads of leaping orcas. The stated intention now is to have shows that focus more on conservation. It’s difficult not to be cynical about this strategy, but Corky could be very helpful to SeaWorld as it attempts to move into a new era. She could be transported to a retirement home and a live link created that would teach SeaWorld audiences much about orcas. Corky could still be part of the show, only this time as a bridge to the ocean and her true home and family. That, we have no doubt, would boost SeaWorld’s reputation, and might just save it from sliding down to the bottom of the slippery slope it’s on.
Please join us in burning a candle for Corky today.
In a few short hours from now, we will mark the 45th anniversary of Corky’s capture. Incredible. Incredible to think she has survived for so long, creating a new record for captive orca longevity with each breath; incredible to contemplate the strength of will and character that has enabled Corky to withstand the stress of being surrounded by concrete walls all this time – walls that deprive her of the sounds of her family and the comfort of the ocean she was born into; and incredible to realise that she still has a chance to return to the ocean and hear those sounds once again.
This past year has seen a resurgence of energy directed towards giving Corky a chance to “retire” to an ocean sanctuary, where she would continue to be cared for by humans and also be able to meet and interact with her kin and community. The location is Blackfish Sound in British Columbia, Canada. Corky’s family visits regularly each summer, and even occasionally during the winter. It’s a place where SeaWorld can establish a facility to care for Corky, bringing staff who know her well, and incorporating a live video/audio link to their home base in San Diego. Though still confined in her new home, Corky could meet her kin again. It would require SeaWorld to “come clean” about who Corky is and where she comes from, that she has family, even a brother and sister though she has never met them, and become involved in the future of the marine park industry. That future does not include performing prisoners.
SeaWorld is now a publicly traded company. Following the release of the documentary film Blackfish SeaWorld’s stock has fallen precipitously, and attendance at its “parks” has declined significantly. SeaWorld holds on to the belief that all it needs to do is improve the size of its tanks and all will be well for their bottom line and investors. It’s a vain hope. Understanding of cetaceans now includes the concept that they are sentient beings, deserving of fair treatment not slavery, and the “non-human rights” movement is gathering steam. Projecting not so far into the future, a day will come when it is widely recognised that harm has been perpetuated on innocent victims, and amends must be made. Orcas have the second largest brain on our planet. They live in complex non-violent societies that have evolved over time we cannot imagine. They deserve the right to be free of human interference. As a society, we are beginning to grapple with some of their needs and our responsibilities. In Canada, the federal government created the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to establish a framework for dealing with the needs of species besides ourselves. It’s a profound concept. For orcas, who are officially recognised as endangered or threatened in both Canada and the U.S.A., much needs to be done, and some changes such as protecting their food supply and their acoustic environment will be difficult to accept. But change is coming. The only question is how long it will take, and whether it will be in time to head off disaster. SeaWorld could be a part of the solution. In becoming so, it could save itself.
Many things that happened this past year give us hope. Corky’s great Freedom Banner has been on the move again, thanks to Christine Pasos, a Seattle teacher who devoted her summer to Corky; and in San Diego a citizens’ group has formed that is bringing Corky into the public mind again. It has launched a petition asking San Diego’s City Council to declare December Corky Orca Retirement Month. Please sign it and pass it on:
A wave is building, not just for Corky but for all the captives. In California, a law imposing strict conditions on the marine park industry’s ability to hold captive orcas is a distinct possibility. If it comes to pass, SeaWorld will have to change its ways. A new day will dawn.
Please join us in lighting a candle for Corky today.
And remember to sign and pass on the petition to San Diego’s City Council:
Thank you for caring about Corky!
IWC 2014 Day Four
Several pertinent comments were made during the rush to complete the agenda of IWC 65 before delegates headed for the exit. My favourite is one Antigua and Barbuda’s Commissioner Daven Joseph made after Japan once again failed to obtain a “small type coastal whaling” quota. Bluntly stating there was no way a South Atlantic Sanctuary for whales would ever happen unless concessions were made, he said “We have a blocking minority”. It was a revealing moment, putting into explicit words what we’ve known for a long time, that Japan’s allies at the IWC, who for the most part are small developing nations, systematically vote as a bloc and deliberately foil the work of many nations that have only the best interests of whales and our planet’s oceans at heart. It explained perfectly why the IWC’s work has been hampered in so many ways for so many years. I also liked Australia’s comment during the wrap up session in which the wording of the summary document was approved: “I wonder why there’s no mention of the outcome of the vote on the Monaco resolution?”. It turned out not to be quite true, but the fact was that this significant step forward for the IWC was buried in fine print and difficult to discern. It will be interesting to find out whether the Chair’s promise to note Australia’s comment and request will influence the layout of the final document. Australia wanted the highlights to be clear, with bullet points, and considered Monaco’s resolution to be one of them. The Chair, despite her (for the most part) even-handed performance during the meeting is solidly on the whalers’ side. Having cut verbose Commissioner Joseph off a couple of times during the meeting, she contributed a pretty good line herself in the closing moments when she joked: “My colleague from Antigua and Barbuda may not want to talk to me after the meeting”.
Levity at the end of a predominantly dark week aside, the last day of this 65th meeting of the IWC did have outcomes that brought some grains of hope to whales. Despite the failure once again of the Buenos Aires Group (Latin American nations) to achieve their dream of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, they edged ever closer to their goal, this time with 69% support. That’s close enough to ¾ to warrant another couple of years’ work in the Scientific Committee and Conservation Committee aimed at reinforcing the real benefits to science, education and economy that will flow to coastal communities in South America and Africa from a Sanctuary designation. The case was eloquently stated, almost as an aside, by a video presentation from Ecuador following the afternoon coffee ’n cake break. We were treated to scenes from a small Pacific coastal community that has been transformed from poverty into economic sustainability by the presence of humpback whales. The humpbacks return to local waters annually and have inspired a thriving whale watching industry. The people love whales, they can’t stand the thought of killing them, and the more than 100,000 visitors who come each year have real money to spend. It’s a win-win-win situation that could be duplicated again and again, including in the poor and developing nations that currently support Japan’s intransigence. The world has moved on since the days before the Moratorium, as New Zealand and Australia are fond of pointing out. People love whales; so get with the programme.
In some ways, what is happening at the IWC parallels what is happening in the outside world regarding the Climate Crisis. There are those who understand perfectly what is happening to our planet’s climate and how to deal with it; and there are the Deniers. Japan’s bloc is in much the same position as Canada and Australia’s prime ministers. With their head in the sand attitude, the blocking minority are letting the world pass them by. Unfortunately, in the meantime they are wasting real opportunities and causing real harm.
Certainly a highlight of the last day, and quite possibly the highlight of the meeting, was the passage of New Zealand’s resolution on special permit (“scientific”) whaling. The text had been debated and negotiated for days, apparently with some willingness to compromise on both sides, but in the end remained pretty much where it began. When the vote came, it garnered 64% support, far more than was needed to pass, and the NO votes included several countries who thought the resolution didn’t go far enough. It will now be the job of the Scientific Committee to put in place a system for authorising permits for lethal (“scientific”) whaling that meets the bar set by the International Court of Justice. Japan has one last kick at this can before new rules are set, in that it will host a meeting early in the new year, i.e. before the next meeting of the Scientific Committee, to draft it’s new Antarctic “research” plan. If Japan fails to come up with a plan that satisfies the ICJ decision, it will lose the Antarctic big time. It’s really quite a gamble, but given that we are meeting next door to a casino, perhaps not all that surprising.
Two more encouraging notes, both thanks to Chile. “Civil Society” will play a bigger role in future meetings, bringing the IWC in line with other international organizations like CITES, where NGOs participate more, contribute significantly, and are respected. The Scientific Committee will also get a nudge in the direction of allocating more of its resources to conservation.
By the end of this last day of IWC 65, pretty much everyone had fallen under the benign spell of Slovenia’s lovely Adriatic coast, and there were smiles all round. Japan, which had lost on just about every front it fought on, walked off with the prize of Vice Chair, which will bring it to the head of the table four years from now. Only Iceland seemed intent on clinging to the gloom.
by Paul Spong
September 18, 2014