Corky is an Orca at SeaWorld San Diego. I Can’t Get Her Story Out of My Head.

I first learned about Corky, a killer whale living at SeaWorld, on Saturday. In the two days since, my mind has continually strayed back to her. Still living at SeaWorld San Diego. Very far from her home in Pender Harbour, British Columbia, where some of her family still lives.

I came to this blog to try to write it out, Corky’s story. But there just isn’t any way to write it. So instead I am just going to lead you through the internet search (part of it at least) that lead me to learn about her.

On Saturday, someone posted a 1972 National Film Board of Canada documentary called “Mudflats Living” on Facebook. It was about a small group of people living (illegally) on land slated for development in North Vancouver. I watched it, because I like that kind of stuff. I like history, I like timelines. I like looking at old images and interviews and thinking, “wow, that was almost 50 years ago. That land is so different now. That water isn’t as clean as it used to be. Those people, 50 years ago, knew what they were talking about, but we burned down their settlement and built a shopping mall anyway.”

Among those interviewed was a Dr. Paul Spong, who talked about coming to Vancouver from New Zealand. As an academic, he’d ended up working with the local whale population after his arrival.

Mudflats Living, Robert Fresco & Kris Paterson, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Curious, I Googled Dr. Paul Spong to see what had become of him almost 50 years after the documentary. I was lead to Orcalab, the organization he founded. Orcalab was not an unfamiliar name to me. As a lifelong British Columbian, I’m used to groups, organizations and individuals who want to Save the Whales and Save the Great Bear Rainforest and Save the Wild Salmon and Stop the Pipelines and Stop the Mining. I agree with all of these folks, of course. But in a land of so much activism, over so many decades, a lot of it has become overlapping buzz.

It was the latest blog entry on Orcalab’s website where I first learned about Corky. That entry, entitled, “Corky’s Saddest Day Number 49,” begins:

“Almost unbelievably, today is the 49th anniversary of Corky’s capture! Please give some space in your day to thinking about her and dreaming of her returning to her home waters. She is not forgotten by us and by people around the world.”

At which point, I think I stopped. Wait, 49 years? What?

And you know, there’s this modern-cynical disbelief that sets in, because this is 2019, and it cannot possibly be true that a killer whale has been living in a tank for 49 years. It just cannot be true.

But then you look a little deeper, you know, and you discover that, not only is it true, but activists have been trumpeting her cause for decades. Decades. And it gets sadder and sadder because, not only is this beautiful, sentient creature confined to a tank at an amusement park, but getting her home seems implausible. That’s not just because SeaWorld won’t send her back to B.C. where she was captured on December 11, 1969, but because their reasons for not doing so are, well, valid reasons — if you accept them at face value.

Here’s what happened. In the late 1960s, several orcas were captured by fishers off Pender Harbour, who sold them to places like Marineland for cash. At the time, whales were not a protected species; they were seen by some as plentiful and sometimes an annoyance as they fed on the local fish population. Corky was among those captured. It’s estimated she was four years old at the time.

In a statement to the CBC in August of 2018, SeaWorld said this of Paul Spong’s proposal to create a “retirement home” for Corky near her ancestral waters:

“The animals at our parks know only human care. To take them out of this environment would be inhumane and irresponsible, and we will never take such a risk.

“This option would expose them to harmful pollutants and toxins, rapidly changing environmental conditions, infectious viruses, the effects of boating traffic, algae blooms, pathogens and other known issues for wild killer whales.”

Of course, SeaWorld would also lose a cash-generating attraction if it were to release its orcas. But you also can’t deny that whales raised in captivity — or, like Corky, kidnapped in her home waters and transported to Marineland and then SeaWorld where she lost all semblance of life as a wild and free creature — are vulnerable to untold risks in the ocean if they were to go back there. That’s not just because of the adjustment; it’s because we’ve done such harm to the ocean environment it’s no longer safe for marine species who would otherwise live there.

Dig a little deeper, and you discover that Corky’s story has made headlines before. Back in 1993, she was featured on Nightline. A reporter played her a tape, provided by Spong, of her family’s vocalizations. All of the SeaWorld orcas responded to the sounds; Corky alone not only responded, but began to shudder.

But the most poignant moment in that Nightline report actually comes near the end. The voiceover says that, “time is running out” for Corky, who, at (then) age 28, was nearing the maximum lifespan for whales in captivity.

At age 28, time was running out. Corky is now 54. She has lived longer in captivity than any other killer whale. In a few months, it will be 50 years since she was first captured.

Fifty years. Fifty years. Think about that for a second. Think about what 50 years means to you. If you can remember fifty years ago, society considers you almost part of the senior population. Yes, you may be young and vibrant, but you qualify for AARP membership (literally). Fifty years ago, people in Vancouver were still routinely hunting whales, according to this 2016 Province article that offered an in-depth history lesson of how we used to view whales and how our attitudes about the natural environment have changed in that time. We’ve evolved, from hunting, to capture-for-education-or-entertainment to no-cetaceans-in-captivity.

[The Vancouver Aquarium agreed just last year to stop keeping whales and dolphins in its facility only under pressure from the Park Board to do so (and a new bylaw). The Aquarium has long stated its research and rehabilitation work were crucial and that the ban would impede that mission.]

We’ve evolved; it’s been at least two human generations, the past 50 years. But Corky is still in captivity. According to Orcalab’s description (from 2012), living a life of limited… well, of limited living:

“When she is not performing, Corky is held in one of the back tanks with some of Sea World’s eight other orcas. Mostly she passes time by circling her tank. She has found some companionship from the younger whales in the Sea World tanks, including Orkid (Orky’s daughter, now 23 and without offspring despite attempts at artificial insemination) and Nakai, a male who who born in 2001. In April 2001, Bjossa, an Icelandic female orca, was added to Sea World’s San Diego “collection”. Bjossa had previously been held captive at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., where her companion for many years was Corky’s cousin Hyak. Bjossa knew the calls of the A5 pod, and used them as well as her native Icelandic dialect. Corky and Bjossa had a common bond in Hyak, but it did not last long, as Bjossa died just 6 months after arriving at Sea World. As the years pass, Corky’s life continues much the same, day by day – around and around and around.

Before you write this off as spin written by an advocacy organization, remember this: Corky is a killer whale. And she has lived in captivity for just short of 50 years.

Fifty. Years.

If you’ve actually read this post, here to this point, and want it to really hit home how long ago that is, scroll back up. Have a look at the Mudflats documentary. The events in that film took place in about 1970-71. When that film was shot, Corky had already been stolen and sold to Marineland. The land in that film looks very different, as do the people in that film. Corky is still living in an amusement park, her experience limited to those few metres of water and her interactions with human keepers.

“Every once in awhile she mistakes something, we don’t know if it’s her brain or her eyes.”

There’s a video on YouTube that purports to be a closeup view of Corky, filmed on April 14, 2019. The visitors wave, and Corky, pursuant to her training, eventually waves back. The person leading the tour points out the various characteristics of Corky’s physical frame. The point, I suppose, is to educate the visitors about killer whales.

At one point, the woman says, “every once in awhile she mistakes something, we don’t know if it’s her brain or her eyes.”

We don’t know, they don’t know, because we can’t talk to Corky about her experience. We can’t ask her what life feels like for her day after day after day. It’s like that with all animals, but we’ve learned (I hope) that just because we can’t express or understand the unique perspective or experience of animals doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If we were to ask Corky if she wanted to go home, she might say yes, she might say no — imagine if a human, in the same circumstance, were asked the same question. It would be too confusing, too traumatic, to even consider. To keep her in captivity seems cruel; to transport her to risky waters seems cruel; to make choices about her welfare without asking her or knowing what she wants also seems cruel. But I believe she is sentient, and has a soul. And she’ll take the experiences from this lifetime and use them in the next, in a way that karma and justice will ultimately prevail.


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