By Cara Wilson-Granat
This is the seventh in a series of ten in which we meet one of the San Diego 10 orcas and hear from an advocate who continues to be one of the voices of these imprisoned voiceless orca, never stopping until the whole world listens.
After reading about Prisoner #7, Nakai, please scroll down this article and “meet” one of the top San Diego 10 Prisoner Advocates! This week’s Advocate is Zach Affolter. [Here are the other orca Prisoner profiles - Orca Profile #1 and #2, #3 ,4 #5 and No. #6.]
Prisoner #7: Nakai
Sweet-natured Nakai was born on September 1, 2001. His claim to fame is that he was the very first orca to be conceived through artificial insemination. Not only that. He was born head first, which is extremely rare in most captive orca births. His mother, Kasatka, who lived in California, was impregnated through semen collected from his father, Tilikum, who lives in Florida.
Both parents are Icelandic. (Note: If you would like to know more about Kasatka, you may read all about her in our Series #2 article. If you want to know about Tilikum’s tragic ongoing story, we recommend you see the movie, Blackfish, in which he is the featured force behind it.)
When Nakai was just 18 months old, trainers separated him from his mother in order for him to perform solo in SeaWorld shows — uncommon for such a young orca.
As of June, 2010, Nakai (his name is Native American for “Victory”) weighed 3,350 pounds (1,520 kg) and was 12 feet 8 inches (3.86 m) long. Currently, he lives at SeaWorld San Diego with nine other whales, including his mother, his half-sister, Kalia, and his two half-brothers, Ikaika and Makani.
Before waterworks were stopped in 2010, Nakai was actively involved in them. At the time he did very well in them, never showing aggression towards his trainers. Independent and affectionate by nature, Nakai’s playful nature made him accessible and fun to be around; also more malleable for his trainers to work with him. He would often interact with the park’s guests when he was younger; but now that he is older he doesn’t do that as often, but does only when he wants to do so. Now reaching maturity he is also becoming sexually mature and likes to see what he can get away with.
But late in September of 2012, something terrible happened to Nakai. The controversial details are still debated, but that sweet orca sustained a horrifically serious injury to his chin. The ugly wound deeply penetrated both skin and blubber.
What could have caused such a massive loss of flesh? The bone of his lower jaw was completely exposed. SeaWorld originally said that the injury was due to a design flaw in the tank—an impact with a barrier, or as they said:
“The injury occurred during contact with the pool’s environment.”
In a statement published by ABC 10 News, SeaWorld said that Nakai was injured during a nighttime performance Sept. 20, but did not make clear how the injury occurred, other than to say it occurred during “normal social behavior.”
There is evidence that good-natured Nakai had some aggressive interactions with two of his tank mates prior to the injury. Remember, violent aggression of orca-to-orca is not typical behavior for those whales living in the wild; just those captive in insufferably small tanks and unable to avoid each other in tense situations.
A whistleblower reportedly told People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that Nakai had definitely been attacked by two other whales. PETA filed a complaint at the time with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, accusing SeaWorld of housing the incompatible mammals in the same space—a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
PETA claims in a statement that:
“…the parks have a long history of housing incompatible orcas from widely divergent groups together in enclosures—and the result has been stress, agitation, aggression and bloody raking, serious injury, and death.”
SeaWorld assured everyone that, “…it is committed to the physical, social and mental welfare of its animals.” Really? By designing metal tanks that could have ripped off the entire lower jaw area of an orca? Or by confining incompatible whales together? What kind of “welfare” is that????
Dr. Ingrid Visser, of the Orca Research Trust, has spent twenty years studying and observing orcas in the wild. She took the photo of Nakai’s wound featured in this story when she took the initiative to get on a plane to have a look at Nakai’s injury herself and attempt to talk to the trainers to find out what had happened.
She reported that the trainers and security guards were not happy with her trying to photograph Nakai and stopped her photographing from certain points. They obscured other observation areas by moving sun umbrellas and outdoor gas heaters in front of viewing spots and they also moved Nakai to prevent Dr.Visser from taking photos os him at all. The security guards would not let her talk to the trainers either.
Dr. Visser’s photo of Nakai’s wound shown here clearly shows four puncture marks, curved to the same shape and size as the wound. Dr. Visser wrote of these marks:
“By assessing the four puncture marks in my photo and comparing their spacing to Nakai’s teeth (also visible in the photo) it doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to see that they are similar in their distribution. Of course there is a chance that the four puncture marks were inflicted by something else, as I stated during an interview. However, this is a generous assessment, as having seen many puncture wounds on orca prey items over my 20 year career of working with wild orca, I am confident that the four puncture marks are from orca teeth.
As for the gash on the side of the wound, that appears to be a tear in the flesh that may have occurred in a number of ways, but it would be speculation to determine how it happened without SeaWorld having the integrity to come forward with their video tapes and photographs. As they have not done so, their evidence must be incriminating.”
Several weeks after the grotesque injury to Nakai, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sided with SeaWorld in its conclusion that Nakai’s injury was caused by the whale scraping the track that holds the watertight gates between the two pools at Shamu Stadium. Whether Nakai’s horrible injury was sustained by “a design flaw in the tank” as SeaWorld would like everyone to believe, or the result of the unavoidability of frustrated, incompatible orcas being unable to steer clear of each other in such close quarters remains to be seen.
But less than 10 weeks after his injury, Nakai was returned to perform in shows, and four months later, his wound was still not completely healed, although SeaWorld said it had fixed tank design issues to address the cause of Nakai’s injury. Such is the non-life of a marine mammal money-machine at SeaWorld… We’re praying for you every day, Nakai.
There is absolutely no age or limit to the who/what/why/or where of a true activist. Meet Zach, an 11th grade student from Rancho Penasquitos, who has been an animal activist for over four years and a vegetarian his entire life. Both a video producer and a writer, Zach is currently working on novels about Angel, an albino dolphin who was captured in Taiji, Japan, as well as about a captured orca named Lolita.
His videos focus on the cruelties of captivity, but from the perspective of captive cetaceans. One of them about the drive hunts in Taiji, was ultimately shared by Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and has since gathered over 28,000 views.
Zach is also the junior activist captain of Earthrace Conservation Society’s Junior Activist Club, and the Social Media Campaigner for Protest SeaWorld. “I held a booth on April 27th with some friends and members of Earthrace. We gathered over 150 signatures for Assembly Bill (AB) 2140 throughout the day.” [AB 2140 would make illegal the use of orcas for entertainment, the importation and exportation of whales and their semen, and release all 10 of San Diego's orcas into sea pens.]
There were many pivotal moments in Zach’s life in which he can recall why he does what he does today. But this is one key turning point.
At the end of sixth grade after attending a SeaWorld camp, Zach underwent a big change in opinion and personality.
“Since third grade, my passion was to be a SeaWorld trainer. I would play with toy Shamus and act like I was riding them. But I never thought about how each individual orca may have felt, how they did feel when performing in real life. I never thought that three of the orcas were captured, that Orkid’s parents had died, that they live way shorter in captivity. It was about how much joy I was having, my love for orcas, how I felt when they jumped in the air. Their tricks were all a distraction to what lay behind the curtain.”
“When our instructor at the camp led us over to Dolphin Point, the small 8-ft deep enclosure next to Shamu Stadium, she told us that we could feed the dolphins.
Excitement pierced my mind. As we walked up to the concrete wall, the dolphins greeted us, swimming over in a robotic fashion. I reached my hand out towards one of the dolphins, touched his slippery skin, then tossed him a fish. I walked away then came back again, wanting to relive the experience.
The dolphin approached the wall again, and I reached out my hand and touched him once more, but I did not toss him a fish this time. Having tricked him, the dolphin stared me in the eye with an indescribable intelligence. I shivered, then asked the instructor if the tank was too small. She said that the dolphins were happy. This tank is eight feet deep and they have plenty of room. The rest of the day, I was startled. I awoke from that trance that the shows put me in. On the way home, I was mad, angry and confused.”
Zach never went to SeaWorld again after gazing into that dolphin’s eyes. He became involved with online campaigns and helped to administer an organization, Global Wildlife Warriors. At the end of 7th grade, he traveled to Hawaii and snorkeled with wild dolphins.
“The tropical, salty waters of Hawaii kept me afloat as I ducked my head beneath the surface. Spinner Dolphins gracefully swam ten feet below, caressing and nudging each other. I took in a big breath of air as they let us right in to the middle of their pod, as if we were one of them. Babies swam next to their mothers, effortlessly riding the slip stream as we flopped about above, unaware and unable to match their grace.
Suddenly, about a few hundred yards away, one of them lept from the surface, spinning and twirling his/her body through the air. It looked so much more different than what I had seen at SeaWorld. The ambient ocean sounds fluttered into my ears, along with the enigmatic language of the dolphins. I had always wondered what they were saying below, what they thought of us.”
“I had already begun to turn against SeaWorld, but I never really fully understood why until I saw those dolphins swimming below me. The freedom they showed, seeing them communicate and caress each other, and simply their utter grace and speed in the ocean, made me realize that there was more to these animals than jumping high or smiling all the time, as SeaWorld too often stereotypes them.
Seeing them in captivity was no comparison to my experience in the wild. I could feel their sonar bouncing through my skin as if they were looking through me and all of my mistakes. Seeing me who I really was, still forgiving and loving me.”
These experiences led him to protest SeaWorld for the very first time at the start of ninth grade. He says,
“I had been involved with social media campaigns on Facebook since 7th grade, and eventually an invite to a protest made its way into my notifications. Understanding that a true activist does not just press buttons on a keyboard, although social media is a great tool, I decided to attend.
“My parents drove me to the South Shores boat ramp and I walked nervously to the intersection where that red light beat ominously, even back then. Not much more than 50 people were present, compared to the 100+ on most demos now.”
Right above the entrance sign to SeaWorld, Zach stood with a sign displaying an acronym: “Overt Cetacean Exploitation And Neglect.”
“People around me chanted to the cars flying by, but my mouth still remained closed. Then I thought of what the cetaceans inside were going through inside of SeaWorld, how Kasatka, Ulises and Corky felt when they were captured from the wild. How the rest of them never got to taste the ocean, born in an unnatural environment that differs greatly from their home.
Immediately, the words flew from my mouth. ‘Stop teaching your children that enslaving intelligent, altruistic animals is okay!’ I shouted as cars were halted by the red light. Throughout the remainder of the protest, I continued chanting and even pressed the crosswalk button so people had time to read our signs. Cars were consistently backed up all the way to the end of SeaWorld drive on each light, whereas there are only five or six in each lane now. That protest kicked my activist efforts into full gear.”
After attending that protest, Zach began participating in other protests against animal abuse which made him find, “…a much deeper, more real connection with the earth and its inhabitants.”
In his first term as a junior at Westview High School, Zach managed to rack up hundreds of hours of community service for AP Environmental Science and received an award for it last fall. He’s been on a huge spurt of activism lately, doing more than ever. He has emailed schools in his school district to end SeaWorld field trips, the Mayor and San Diego city council members to support AB 2140, and hosted a booth at the Earth Fair recently in Balboa Park, collecting over 150 signatures for the bill. Zach reports:
Right now I’m putting a great deal of my efforts to remove all ties with SeaWorld from my school district, Poway Unified.
Mount Carmel High School, a neighboring school to my own, recently announced their prom is at SeaWorld. I find it sickening news to hear our district and three other schools here in San Diego have prom at SeaWorld, along with the many with field trips, not only because of the cruelty that cetaceans imprisoned there must endure, but also because it is a great disservice to students.
It places them in the middle of a controversy, where they are left to decide whether to go to prom or stand up for what they may believe in. Not only is this choice for prom a promotion of animal abuse and cruelty, but should never be somewhere where students may feel guilty about going or not buy tickets just because of the venue.
I recently created a petition, which has gained over 800 signatures, including those of Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, and Ric O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project, a campaign under the International Marine Mammal Project at the non-profit Earth Island Institute.
The petition calls for Poway Unified School District to remove all ties with SeaWorld until the park changes its business model as per AB 2140, a California bill which would make illegal the use of orcas for entertainment, the importation and exportation of orcas and their semen, and release all orcas in captivity in California [currently 10 are in San Diego] into sea pens. I hope the bill will get the ball rolling so that all cetaceans can be included.
The petition will be delivered on May 15th to the Superintendent and President of the Board of Trustees in my district. I am targeting them because my goal is to remove all future activities at SeaWorld within our district, not change Mount Carmel’s prom.
The juniors at Mount Carmel are responsible for the location of prom, but the district approves all school field trips and other activities. I do not think that Mount Carmel’s prom can be changed, as a whole year’s worth of planning and money goes into it. If the student body is disappointed with this decision, then they can organize an anti-prom and I would be happy to support it.
I hope that this petition will carry on and make students in San Diego more aware of what goes on behind the curtain at SeaWorld. As a junior, I think that we need to realize that not everything we hear is true. We need to understand that we were taught places like SeaWorld are acceptable and realize that keeping sentient beings in a small, concrete box for entertainment is wrong.
Please sign and share his petition to remove all ties with SeaWorld from Poway Unified School District. https://www.change.org/petitions/poway-unified-school-district-remove-all-ties-with-seaworld
Next SeaWorld Protest: Saturday, May 10th, between 10 am and 1 pm!
We will meet at the corner of Sea World Drive and Sea World Way. For parking, turn onto S. Shores Park off Sea World Drive and park in the boat ramp lot (NOT in the spaces signed for boats and launches), then walk about half a mile on the pedestrian and bike path alongside Sea World Drive west to Sea World Way – see our facebook. https://www.facebook.com/events/399137250226266/
“The indifference, callousness and contempt that so many people exhibit toward animals is evil first because it results in great suffering in animals, and second because it results in an incalculably great impoverishment of the human spirit.”-Ashley Montagu
Cara Wilson-Granat is an author, speaker and freelance writer. Years ago one of her advertising accounts was writing for Sea World. When she recently watched Blackfish the movie changed her perspective–and in many ways her life. (www.wordsfromcara.com)