Here Is the Background to SeaWorld’s Orca ‘Nakai’ Who Just Died of Infection

by on August 9, 2022 · 0 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Editordude: “Nakai”, one of SeaWorld’s captive orcas, just died last week of an infection. Nakai was “Prisoner #7” in a series the Rag originally published in May 2014 entitled, The San Diego 10 – the Captive Orcas of SeaWorld.”

Here is the report on Nakai:

 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.

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.


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