Posted on Wednesday, 17 June 2015
I have recently had the great privilege of spending time with Dr Ingrid Visser, an orca researcher and conservation campaigner from New Zealand.
Ingrid is an inspiring woman who is extremely knowledgeable not only on her favourite subject, orca, but also on many other aspects of marine wildlife. Her enthusiasm is endless and has been extremely infectious. I am also very thankful as to how willingly she has taught me so many things, including how to use a hydrophone!
It was a great opportunity to learn more about wild orca as well as be more informed about the plight of orca in captivity. As such I thought you would all enjoy hearing from her too.
I have also included various links on the subject for those who would like to learn more.
Can you give me a brief background that sums up what you do from a scientific and conservation point of view?
I’ve been fascinated in orca ever since I can remember. I completed my PhD studying the New Zealand population (which remains the only study on orca in New Zealand) and I’ve seen a number of different populations of orca around the world. Probably the simplest way to describe what I do is to use the mission statement of the Orca Research Trust, which I founded; To protect orca and their habitat through conservation, research and scientific research.
You have been working with orca since 1992, founding the Research Trust in 1998 and your passion is as strong as ever… what is so special about orca that you are so enthralled with them?
It’s hard to define exactly what it is that fascinates me, but to try and put it in into words, I guess it comes down to their stunning looks, their fascinating behaviour, their varied reputations and the mysteries that surround them. Despite all of this, they face real challenges and I see it as one of my roles to educate people about them, so that the orca can be better protected.
You have had the privilege of working with orca in many places around the world. What are some of the highlights in terms of behaviour that you have seen?
For me I am always in awe with the wide range of behaviours that constitute different cultures of orca. Each population has unique and distinct behaviours, including foraging. For instance, I have been fortunate enough to have seen orca washing seals off ice floes in Antarctica, coming up onto the beaches to take seals lions in Argentina and karate-chopping sharks in New Zealand.
You also have had the privilege of spending many hundreds of hours with orca individuals on many occasions. Who are some of your favourite orca personalities and why?
Just like a mother you should never show favourites! So my glib answer is “which ever orca I am watching at the time” is my favourite. But having said that, I take a keen interest in those that I’ve been involved in rescuing but I also have a special interest in those stuck in captivity, as they tug at my heart strings.
What threats are poised to orca in the wild?
Like all marine mega fauna the general marine conservation issues such as over-fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction also apply to orca. Additionally there are specific issues such as boat strike, entanglement and fisheries interactions (including shooting the orca) which immediately spring to mind. More recently there are issues with wild orca being captured for the captivity industry.
If you would like to view a fascinating orca rescue watch here.
You have been fighting a tremendous battle against keeping orca in captivity. How long have you been involved and what has your involvement been so far?
I’ve always been against orca in captivity but my involvement came to the forefront in 2010 when the USA government asked me to prepare documents relating to the death of the trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando. From that point on I’ve been labelled by SeaWorld as an extreme animal activist in an attempt by them to discredit me as a scientist. I am not the only one who has been attacked by SeaWorld using a similar strategy, but I won’t let it stop me speaking out.
Can you please give the primary reasons why it is so harmful for orca to be kept in captivity?
The list is very long but you could focus on the extremely restricted space the animals are given, the complete loss of choice and control in their lives, the total deprivation of senses and the destruction of their social groupings, as well as the breeding of the females at abnormally young ages are some of the main issues that cause harm.
One example of comparison between wild and captive orca is the mean life expectancy. For orca in the wild it is 38.5 years compared to the mean duration of captivity (life span in captivity) which is 6.6 years.
In the wild there have been 4 infectious diseases reported. Comparatively 15 have been reported in captive orca, despite “the superior health care” these places claim to give their animals.
Sea World continues to dispute that they separate mothers from their offspring yet evidence is overwhelmingly that this is done on a regular basis.
From various media reports I get the feeling that the tide is turning and that the public is beginning to stop supporting marine mammal parks. Do you feel this is true?
Absolutely and it’s only through people such as your readers spreading the word that this is possible. The simple by-line “Don’t buy a ticket” has many long term implications and gets the message across very clearly.
Can you please tell me more about Morgan?
Morgan is a young female orca who was found emaciated and alone off the coast of the Netherlands. A special Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release permit was issued by the Dutch Government to the Dolfinarium Harderwijk . They successfully captured her and started rehabilitation however in the past they have been known to launder whales for SeaWorld in the same way people launder dirty money.
In this case Morgan was laundered by being sent to Loro Parque (an entertainment park) in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The laundering continued because now SeaWorld USA claims her ownership as well as any calves that are produced.
A full rehabilitation and release plan was in place, produced by the NGO Free Morgan Foundation, however commercial interests were put first and the aquarium industry fought to keep her captive. As a co-founder of the Free Morgan Foundation, myself and the others, continue to fight to get Morgan out of the tank she is held in order to prevent the extreme bullying, attacks, rape and harassment that she is currently subjected to.
Having been involved with the release of Free Willy (Keiko) and knowing about the successful re-introduction of Springer we know there is hope for Morgan.
Info on the release of “Springer” http://www.freemorgan.org/morgan-2/morgan-springer/
Info on the release of “Keiko” http://keiko.com/history.html
How far are campaigners away from getting orca banned from being kept in captivity and what are your objectives for the next 12 months?
Just recently Ontario, Canada banned the acquisition and breeding of Orca in captivity. This is despite the fact that they are the only state in Canada that currently has any captive orca. Although it may seem like a small step to those on the outside, after more than 50 years of people speaking out against the industry this is like the proverbial, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Ongoing lobbying and advocacy by those who care, continues to put pressure on politicians who can make a difference.
So no matter where someone lives, if they have orca in captivity in their country or not, speaking out makes a difference.
In the next 12 months we expect to see further progress and it is my objective to educate more people at both the individual and international level. I’ve got projects underway but I know that the captivity industry monitors what I say and do so I can’t divulge here (just yet) what the plans are…
Many people feel that visiting SeaWorld is an educational experience and contributes to conservation. How does this fit with the big picture?
That sort of opinion might have been justifiable 30 or even 20 years ago. But, today with all the amazing documentaries to educate people seeing a wet-circus is nothing more than that and it can hardly be conceived as education when it is purely entertainment.
Even if education was a main component of the shows, the suffering of these animals does not justify it. As for conservation, although companies like SeaWorld do some good their woefully inadequate contribution again does not justify the suffering these animals are put through.
What would be planned for any orca that are currently in captivity if they were to be “released” by SeaWorld or any other marine mammal park?
We place humans in barren and tiny concrete facilities when we want to punish them. In those cases generally the person in question has committed a crime. In the case of the orca their only crime is that they look so beautiful and they are so smart that we can train them, so we use them for entertainment.
To keep orca in places like SeaWorld is no longer acceptable as we know better. Each and every individual orca has a unique personality. As such they need to be assessed as individuals for their suitability for a full release.
Regardless, ALL orca should be removed from the barren and tiny concrete tanks they are currently held in.
Sea pens and netted off coves provide a much richer and environmentally stimulating place for these incredibly intelligent and sentient beings. From our experience with previous rehabilitations of orca and dolphins we understand the feasibility of such a project and it is well within our reach to do the right thing.
How can the general public help?
SeaWorld and other facilities like it, that hold orca and dolphins, exist only because of the public’s willingness to pay and a desire to see these animals. As such the most direct way of making a difference is to avoid buying a ticket as well as avoiding places that hold dolphins for “swim-with” programs.
Another simple way to make a difference is to watch the documentary “Blackfish” and spread the word.
Some of the other things people have done have involved running marathons while wearing orca costumes, sending postcards to politicians and aquariums, writing songs, creating videos, building giant orca sandcastles and producing commercially available iconic items such as OrcaBall all to raise public awareness.
The ex-trainers who appear in the documentary “Blackfish” have a blog with a wide variety of related information, called “voice of the orcas” .
Dolphinaria-free Europe is a recent NGO which speaks out for orca and dolphin for orca in captivity in Europe, and of course The Free Morgan Foundation is speaking out for Morgan more specifically.
But other NGO such as Save Lolita are also lobbying for individual orca and all these NGO’s need support.
Obviously the alternative to seeing whales and dolphins in captivity is to watch them in the wild but please ensure that you go out with a responsible company who cares about the animals and their habitat.