WDCS: Raking out the truth?

The UK Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) really does not like cetaceans in captive care and leaves no stone unturned to spend its’ members donations on this “conservation” issue even to the point of paying the salary for a “Captivity Programme Manager”.

One of their latest reported concerns on their web site is some injuries seen on a killer whale Ikaika (Ike) housed at Sea World California who returned to the park in November 2011 after a breeding loan to Marineland Canada.  Full WDCS article can be read HERE.

WDCS state: “Ike has suffered from a variety of injuries since returning to SeaWorld and attempting to reintegrate into the orca hierarchy in San Diego, including deep rake marks that were evidenced in December 2011”

 One injury displayed in the article does seem to be a scrap mark that may have been caused by the newly introduced “safety barriers” that the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) ordered Sea World to install.  But the other marks are indeed rake marks on Ikaika and also alluded to on another killer whale Morgan exhibited at Loro Park, Spain.

Rake marks are to a greater or lesser degree seen in all species of toothed whale.  Primary they are gained during rough play behaviour, sexually interactions and social dominance.  It has been claimed that killer whales display very few rake marks in the wild and supporters of this often cite the work of Visser (1993).  Visser studied killer whales in New Zealand’s waters, where two whales observed had prolific body scarring (rake marks) from assumed interactions with other whales while seven whales were also seen to have collapsing, collapsed or bent dorsal fins.

In her conclusion Visser states:
The prolific body scars on the two adult male killer whales appear to be unusual and are the first of their type reported in the literature. They are almost certainly caused by conspecifics. The collapsing, collapsed and bent  dorsal fins found on the New Zealand killer whales do not appear to be uncommon in this population,  with 23%, of the adult males having some form of abnormal fin (Visser, 1993).
Unfortunately, these comments have been interpreted by a number of people to mean that rank marks are not commonly seen on wild killer whales, which is not the case. Visser is making a statement that these two animals have very extensive and unusual rank marks, which the pictures in her paper clearly show.

However, a quick review of photo IDs from various whale research organisations around the world such as the NAKID project and the Centre for Whale Research show that  rake marks can be clearly seen on many animals and are not uncommon.

Moreover, Dahlhelm (2008) states:

Resident and transient whales typically showed extensive rake marks on their dorsal fins and body made by the conical-shaped teeth of conspecifics

The WDCS seem incapable of understanding the actual social dynamics of many zoo animals when new animals are introduced within a group and continue to promote the idea that these superficial marks are some form of evidence that the animals’ welfare is being consistently compromised.  Indeed, if this these animals were displaying the gross body scarring Vissel cited in her paper or animals where being injured over a prolonged period of time there would be genuine cause for concern but this is not the case.

WDCS also state: “It is not uncommon for orcas to be transported between SeaWorld facilities, or even abroad to international facilities, such as the four SeaWorld orcas that were shipped to Loro Parque in 2006. The constant movement and relocation between facilities is extremely stressful for orcas”

Indeed “constant movement” could be stressful for many zoo animals including killer whales but the facts show that the WDCS is being rather disingenuous.

To start with moving animals within the zoo world is quite common and undertaken primarily for reasons of improved husbandry and breeding; of the twenty-five killers currently exhibited by Sea World twenty (80%) have been acquired by captive breeding programmes.

A review of the available data in the last ten years reveals thirteen transports of killer whales between marine parks involving Sea World.

April 2004: 

  • Tekoa from Sea World Florida to Sea World Texas
  • Tuar from Sea World Florida to Sea World Texas
  • Keet from Sea World California to Sea World Texas
  • Kohana from Sea World California to Sea World Florida
  • Takara from Sea World California to Sea World Florida

Taraka was moved from Sea World Florida to Sea Texas in February 2009 where she remains at the time of writing.  Keet was moved from Sea World Texas in February 2012 and returned to Sea World California.   Kohana moved to Loro Park in 2006.  The remaining animals have not been moved since the above-cited transports.

Feburary 2006:

  • Skyla from Sea World Florida to Loro Park
  • Kohana from Sea World Florida to Loro Park
  • Tekoa from Sea World Texas to Loro Park
  • Keto from Sea World Texas to Loro Park

These four captive bred animals Skyla, Kohana, Tekoa and Keto were moved to a new purpose built fancily in Loro Park.  Currently there are no plans to move these animals .  Since their arrival the group of animals has increased by two with the birth of a calf in 2010 and the relocation of a stranded killer orca rescued by the Harderwijk Marine Mammal Park called Morgan.

November 2006: 

·         Kayla from Sea World Texas to Sea World to Sea World Florida
·         Ikaika from Sea World California to Marineland Canada

Captive born Kayla was moved to Florida after she failed to rear her first calf and it was considered she needed to obtain observational experience of calf rearing from experinced animals. She is reported to have integrated well with the Florida group

Ikaika that is cited in the linked WDCS article was moved to Marineland in Canada on breeding loan but returned to Sea World California in November 2011 after Sea World became concerned about the animal's "physical and psychological health" and filed court proceeding for the animals return.  Of course, if Sea World were concerned about this animals welfare then ultimately it had no choice than to move it back into its direct care. 

The WDCS finally state: “…public display industry is a threat to populations in the wild that are targeted by live capture operations used to supply public display programs worldwide.”

This is actually a puzzling statement as in the USA no killer whales has been acquired from the wild since 1983 and as stated 80% of the animals at Sea World have been acquired by captive breeding and there appears absolutely no plans by Sea World to deliberately capture more killer whales from the wild.  A full list of the current living population of captive killer whales can be found HERE.


Shouka, a killer whale formally of the Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, was transported to Sea World California on 20 August 2012.  Shouka was born on February 25, 1993 in Marineland, France.  She was transferred on breeding loan to Six Flags Parks in May  20, 2002.  However, no suitable mate was acquire for her. 

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