This happened a “few” years back, when I was a young lad.. I had been working for a local aquarium who had rescued a wild baby killer whale that had been shot in the back – likely by a fisherman, and was nearly about to expire. The animal was discovered by another fisherman, and it allowed him to hand feed it fish. In a brilliant PR move, the aquarium jumped into to assist, no need to take all the bad press about capturing wild orcas by netting off nearby bays.. they could play the hero and have the chance of acquiring new stock. They transported the ailing orca, resting in a sling and periodically being wetted down with water, via truck, from Nanaimo to Victoria, and made arrangements with a local hotel in town that had a salt water swimming pool to use the pool for the summer as a recovery venue. This place was one of the businesses around the world that have provided animals to seaworld, as the infamous Orca named Tilakum was purchased by Seaworld, from Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, whom acquired it from those who captured it in Iceland.
My job at the aquarium then expanded to include helping vacuuming out the pool to keep it clean, but also to keep an eye out for anything unusual coming out, so the job description also including poop inspection. It was a slightly dirty job, but how many people get to splash around with a baby orca? One of the more amazing aspects was that the baby killer whale was in fact teething at the time, and it loved when I put my hand inside its mouth and rubbing its tongue and gums.. and it was completely gentle. At that point in time I never had any fear that it would try to do me any harm..
Years later after the orca was moved to the aquarium’s “Seaworld-like” show area, the poor thing had been swimming around in a small pen all by itself for a few years by this time, with nothing to keep it company or socialize with. Upon reflection, based on my own observations, it is my opinion and belief, that this orca had become mentally unbalanced by its captivity, lack of opportunity for social interaction, and having being trained into exaggerating behaviors.
Because of my past experience with the animal, I was given permission to take some underwater film footage of it. My next visit with the orca proved to be a handful.. lucky I had an assistant/model with me, so when the animal started “playing” with one of us, the other could distract it.. playing orca style pretty much means amusing itself by grabbing and tugging on anything available, like the strap on weight belts, air hoses, fins.. anything it could grab with its mouth.
The most “exciting” behavior that occurred was when it closed its mouth “very gently” over my whole hand, past the wrist. I felt no pressure or pain, and for a brief second I wondered if it was possible that the orca has recognized me from when I used to rub its tongue and wanted me to repeat that. That thought quickly went out of my mind as the orca then started to spin around on its nose to tail axis.. my hand was NOT coming out of its mouth as it closed down so that I was truly stuck. It was like a greedy monkey trying to grasp a handful of rice or a banana from an Indonesian monkey trap (who cant get loose because it wont let go of the prize) – my hand was not coming loose anytime soon, so I had to start spinning around in unison with the orca so that I didn’t get my shoulder dislocated as it spun around. I did get free eventually as my diving buddy assisted in distracting the animal, and with all my limbs and appendages intact.
I would like to say that the animal was completely gentle with me. but I received few nips. some that even got recorded on the super 8mm underwater camera I was using.
Another year or so passed and I was back again, no wiser apparently than the last time, this time with a still camera in an underwater housing.. but I was diving by myself this time, and the Orca had been by itself and alone even longer than before.
The head trainer advised me that if I got into real trouble, to jam my thumb into the animals eye in order to make it let go… as my life was more important than the killer whale’s vision. I kind of agreed with that sentiment, although it wasn’t a strategy that I was contemplating having to use or even consider. I was pretty sure that it would something hard to do to another being that so clearly could think and had a personality, even if it was my life at risk. Hmm, silly me, but I was a young 20 year old hard core diver.. there wasn’t much that would phase me in terms of what I thought I could safely handle. I did have total respect for the size and power of the animal, and I very much respected the traditional man / beast relationship.. the best analogy I can use to describe the situation was that I had willingly dressed up as the marine equivalent of rodeo clown dealing with a hyperactive bull who was contained in a small area, but the joyride wasn’t to be for disgusting crowd of humans, it was nearly entirely for the entertainment of the juvenile whale!
When I jumped into the pool with it, the orca became completely animated and excited — it had a new play toy, and I was it! But the person on deck who was supposed to be watching me had taken off, so I was totally on my own.
Of course the orca was all over me immediately again, and this time I had no buddy to help distract it, so it went and successfully popped the quick-release buckle on my weight belt. While I caught my belt as it started to slip off, and concentrated on getting it back on, the orca went after my camera… it also managed to wrestle one of my fins off me.. I quickly one-foot-finned my way over to the side deck and pushed my camera up and out of the pool.. Turning around I swam over and tried to rescue my other rubber fin, to the extent that I had both of my heels on either side of its head and was twisting the fin back and forth like it was a bone in the jaws of a pet dog.. Eventually I did manage to repatriate my swim fin, and after putting it back on I decided that perhaps it as prudent to get the heck out of there as a.s.a.p.
I shouted out a “hey who’s there” hoping to get the attention my of “spotter”, but they had left me alone. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t possible for me to get out of the pool in full scuba gear by myself, as there was no ladder and the edge of the deck was a good 18″ above the surface of the water. I was just making preparation to shed my scuba gear, and try to flop up onto the deck unaided, when the Orca got me from behind. It had grabbed my fin and dragged me back to the center of the pool – it was certainly not going to let its new play toy get away that easily! We continued to play the “catch and release” game, until my shouts for assistance were finally heard, and I had someone to help in getting me up and onto the deck.
Truthfully, I was not scared, as I am normally quite sanguine when things go off kilter when diving (a function of having spent more than 5000 hours underwater), but I was seriously concerned, and I was not particularly appreciating the nearly total lack of control I had over the situation!
I reckon that one of “nine lives” certainly got used up with this little adventure, as there have been a number of documented deaths with trainers, staff, and intruders and orcas in captivity.
In case you are wondering, the name of the killer whale was “Miracle”, and has been the subject of books and even a movie.
The Murder Mystery
Sadly Miracle, along with a seal named Shadow that had been put into the pen to keep Miracle company both died in the 1980’s at the same time. The official line was that somehow they both had gotten caught in the nets that form the pen. In fact, the owners and management of the facility were actively blaming Greenpeace for the deaths, insinuating that the animals had died through an attempt from Greenpeace to set them free. I was actually called up by the management asking if I still had my underwater camera equipment, as they wanted photos of the whole in the net and details to “prove” that the net had been cut by intruders. The RCMP were involved in the investigation, and in fact the mystery of how the two animals died spawned a documentary film, “Who Killed Miracle?”, that purported a cover-up.
I declined to assist by taking photos for the management, and I reminded them that after my last dive with Miracle, I had reported to them that the net had a number of holes in it due to disrepair, some as large as 6 or 8 inches. In my opinion, it was very unlikely that Greenpeace or anyone else had cut the net. It was completely plausible however, and supported by both the facts and my knowledge of the operation there, that simple neglect of maintenance allowed small holes to develop, perhaps initially through rot of the netting, or perhaps through weakness in the material subsequently exploited by the animals over time. It was those small holes that provided an opening, that eventually allowed the animals to get in between the inner and outer nets, with no place then for them to surface to get a breath of air.