CORKY THE ORCA: CAPTIVE FOR LIFE
Corky is a female orca who was captured in 1969. She was 4 years old. She has now spent more than 53 years in captivity. When Corky was captured, very little was known about orcas. Since then, we have learned of orcas’ complexity and social maturity, and that they form closely-bonded family groups in which they remain throughout their lives.
To an orca, family is everything.
In the wild, Corky’s family is known as the A5 pod of British Columbia. She has relatives living free whom she knew as a youngster, as well as siblings she has never known.
Each year, we see members of her family return to the waters around Hanson Island; we know them all by name. OrcaLab has been supporting the campaign for Corky’s release since her capture. Due to her age, she could no longer be returned to the wild to reintegrate fully with her family. However, there is still an opportunity to transport her to an open-net ocean sanctuary – in her historic home – so that she might interact with her natural environment and family members once more.
We truly believe that this is a better life for Corky than performing tricks enclosed in a concrete pool, despite Seaworld’s efforts to create a more ‘natural’ habitat for their orcas. We will never stop lighting a candle for Corky and her safe return home.
Corky in 2012 (photo: Jeff Friedman)
Learn more about Corky’s life
We know about Corky’s journey in detail, thanks to the efforts of many people who have joined the cause to bring her home. Click the tabs below to read her story in full.
There was a fierce and terrible storm, December 11 1969, the night Corky was captured. Her pod chose that evening to enter Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver, British Columbia. It was just after 9 pm when word reached a group of local fishermen, enjoying the warmth and shelter of the pub, that there was a group of whales close by. This was the chance they had been waiting for. Ever since the last capture in 1968, in the same area, they were aware that whales meant money. Aquaria around the world were willing to pay top dollar for a “killer whale”. Quickly, the fishermen jumped onto their boats, located the whales, and encircled part of the pod with fishing nets. All night they battled to keep the nets in place and afloat. Thousands of dogfish got trapped in the nets and threatened to pull the cork lines under. “Sheets” of rain poured down in the darkness.
At daybreak on the morning after the capture, half of Corky’s pod lay trapped inside the net, with the others still outside. Then they were surrounded too. The buyers soon arrived and six whales were selected. The other six were released but they did not go away immediately. Corky was now separated from her mum for the first time in her life.
The buyers then organized her removal. Separated from the others, Corky was moved into shallow water. Divers got into the water and positioned a sling around her body. There were holes for her pectoral fins. A crane slowly lifted Corky’s sling out of the water and hoisted her onto a truck. The truck pulled away from the dock and drove over a narrow winding road to the ferry. Grease was spread over Corky’s skin to prevent it from drying out on the long journey ahead. Sponges of cool water were squeezed over her to try and keep her body temperature down. Removed from the almost weightless experience of the ocean, Corky’s own weight was now crushing down on her. The transport truck had been modified with a tank which partially helped to support her weight.
The journey was long: another road after the ferry, then transfer to a special plane, the flight, transfer to another truck, more roads, and then the final lift into a circular tank at Marineland of the Pacific near Los Angeles, California.
Corky’s world had suddenly changed. Now, movement was restricted by never changing dimensions. Concrete walls replaced the cliffs, rocks, sand, caves and kelp forests of the vast and almost limitless ocean. There were no longer any passageways, nooks and crannies to explore. Choices were limited. Gone were the familiar sounds of the sea. Instead, there was the constant drone of filtration pumps, and when any of the whales in the tank called, their sounds reverberated off the barren walls. There were no waves, no currents, no fish to chase and hunt, no dolphins or porpoises to play with – all was forever changed. The sameness was relieved marginally by the companionship of four other members of Corky’s family, two captured with her & two captured the year before. But soon that ended too. After a year Corky I died and Corky was given her name. Patches died in 1971. A male who was never named died in 1972. From then on Corky and a male cousin named Orky, who had been captured in 1968, were by themselves.
By about 11 years of age, Corky began to mature sexually and she mated with Orky. On February 28, 1977, Corky delivered her first calf, a male. This was the first live orca to be born in captivity. Orky helped the calf to the surface after the difficult birth. The situation grew tense after the baby failed to nurse. The staff intervened, drained the pool, and force-fed the calf several times each day. Despite these efforts, the baby continued to lose weight and died of pneumonia. He had lived for just 16 days. Corky became pregnant again very soon after and gave birth to another male calf on October 31, 1978. Again the baby failed to nurse and the staff again tried to force-feed him in a desperate attempt to keep him alive. The calf died after 11 days. Pneumonia and colitis (brought on by bacterial contamination of the formula) were the cause of death.
In 1980 Corky delivered an eight-week premature stillborn calf, on April 1.
Then on June 18, 1982, Corky gave birth to a female calf. This was to be Corky’s longest-surviving baby. This baby also failed to nurse, and after 46 days Corky and Orky took the calf to the bottom of the tank and drowned her.
To encourage Corky to nurse properly, the Marineland staff made a dummy calf and “taught” Corky to position herself appropriately. Corky did well during training sessions but she did not do so well after her babies were born.
Corky had two more pregnancies. On July 22, 1985, she gave birth to another female calf who survived for a month. Again the calf failed to nurse. Corky’s last pregnancy ended on July 27, 1986, when an aborted fetus was found at the bottom of the tank. Corky had been pregnant 6 times. This meant she had been almost continuously pregnant for ten years. Finally, at the age of 21, Corky stopped ovulating.
In the wild, at her present age of 46, Corky would be in the prime of her life. Swimming beside her would be her own babies, some already grown to adulthood, with their own babies who would be Corky’s grandkids swimming beside them. A female orca in the wild typically has about 25 reproductive years during which she bears perhaps 4 to 6 offspring.
In December, 1986, Sea World’s corporate owner, the U.S. publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (Sea World is now owned by the Blackstone investment group) purchased Marineland of the Pacific and the surrounding lands for a rumoured $23 million. Then in January, 1987, after more than 17 years at Marineland, Orky and Corky were removed to Sea World in San Diego. For the very first time they would be among whales who were not members of the A5 pod. The facility at Sea World was a much larger, far busier and more hectic environment for these two whales who had spent most their lives alone together in a much smaller tank. At Sea World, performances were much more “showy”, with trainers in the water riding on the backs of the whales and other complicated tricks. A year and a half after the move to San Diego, in September 1988, Orky died. Before he died, Orky fathered two calves with Icelandic females. He was also involved in a tragic accident in which a trainer was seriously injured.
This incident eventually led to a major shake-up in the Sea World organization. It was believed that sexual tension had compounded a miscue during a show and had caused Orky to land on top of the trainer. Training practices were criticized. Several staff members lost their jobs, trainers were forbidden to get into the pools during shows and allowed to interact with the whales only from the sidelines. However, the audience reaction to the more subdued shows was negative, and eventually, the former flashy format was returned. Then, during the summer of 1988, Orky began to lose weight. In two months he lost more than 4000 lbs and died.
Now Corky was left totally without any family in the tank, except for the calves Orky had fathered. Corky became Sea World’s main performer, “Shamu”. Over the following years, Corky has had some difficulties socially. The lowest point came with a tragic incident that occurred between Corky and an Icelandic orca named Kandu V, who was Orkid’s mother. There had been a lot of tension, on and off, between the two females. Then, in August 1989, just as their show was starting, Kandu rushed out from the back pool and charged at Corky. In the attack Kandu fractured her jaw, a bone fragment severed an artery, and she bled to death. No one had ever seen or heard of an orca attacking another orca before. Orkid was just one year old. In an odd twist of fate, Corky became Orkid’s surrogate mother.
Back in the wild, Corky’s family carries on. The A5 pod originally had 18 members but the 7 who were removed in the 1968 capture all died and one entire matriline was lost. Of the six taken in 1969 only Corky survives. Slowly over the years, as their fortunes waxed and waned, the complexion of the wild pod has changed.
At present (January 2012) there are 11 members, which is about the same as in 1969, but the pod now has just two functional matrilines, a sharp contrast to the 5 matrilines of pre-capture days. The death of A26 (Foster) in 2000 brought the “A9” matriline to an end, and the 2011 death of Corky’s cousin Nodales (A51) virtually ended the “A14” matriline. Nodales’ brother, Fife (A60) has been traveling with the A8 matriline and Nodales’ son, Codero (A85) with the A23 matriine, Corky’s original group. Despite the losses, the pod appears strong, and its members still love to hunt big Spring salmon when they travel the waters of Johnstone Strait, Blackfish Sound and the rest of the Inside Passage. But they have never been seen near Pender Harbour again.
The time left for Corky to reconnect with her family is disappearing. She has already survived longer than any other captive orca. This tells us that Corky is an incredibly strong individual… but no one, no matter how strong, can last forever.
A sanctuary is being built for Corky at Double Bay, Hanson Island. Read more about the project and keep updated here.
“The former fishing lodge, Pacific Outback Resort, was purchased in October, 2018, by Michael Reppy to be converted into the infrastructure for a whale sanctuary for the Northern Resident Orca, Corky.
For the past three years, Michael has been directing the rebuild of the facility, that is nearly ready to house a SeaWorld team of vets, trainers, and staff. Corky will continue to receive the same hand feeding and medical care she has received all these years. This is the best of both worlds, to give Corky a better quality of life, with the commitment to care for her at the sanctuary for the rest of her life. And there is room enough for a companion orca, so Corky would not have to be alone. In addition, her A5 pod family passes by often in adjacent Blackfish Sound, would communicate with Corky vocally with the A5 dialect, and would undoubtedly come into the bay to re-connect with Corky at the net. What an amazing moment that will be! For the complete story of the rebuild of the facility, read more.”
Image and text courtesy of Double Bay Sanctuary Foundation.
Watch Corky’s story
This short film depicts Corky’s traumatic capture and life in captivity.
Edited by Megan Hockin-Bennett.