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Nami – Experimenting with captive orca may have lead to premature death

January 17, 2011

Nami (photo courtesy of Port of Nagoya public aquarium)

On January 14, 2011, Nami, a 5,900 lb, 28-year-old captive killer whale died just shy of 7 months after being transferred from her home of almost 25 years. Nami was transferred from a man-made, natural sea pen in a cove in Taiji, Japan to an artificial concrete tank at Port of Nagoya public aquarium in Japan.

Nami is classified as a transient orca. Captivity for a transient orca is much different from the more popular resident orcas. Transient orcas are less predictable, harder to observe in the wild and are more evasive of humans. Transients are the mammal eating orcas unlike their fish-eating cousins, resident orcas. instinctively, transient’s hunting skills are far superior to resident orcas.  Transients kill and feed on great white sharks, larger whales, dolphins and seals.  Transients generally live alone or in very small pods, unlike their resident cousins who may live in pods of up to 50 to 100 members. Many of the transient orcas generally only come together to mate or to hunt. Nami had what was classified in captivity to have “aggression tendencies” when in actuality, Nami only was displaying her natural instinctive behaviors as a transient orca.  Nami would never be in captivity what her counter part resident cousins would be.

Nami's home in Taiji (photo courtesy of Taiji Whale Museum)

In 1985, Nami was captured in Japanese waters and sent to live in a seapen at the Taiji Whale Museum. The majority of her life was spent alone. She lived briefly with 2 other orcas as they awaited their transfers to other parks. Nami’s third companion, Ku, lived at the Taiji Whale Museum for 6 1/2 years, yet they had to be separated by a net due to Nami’s aggression towards Ku.  Rumors have stated Nami killed a dolphin. In the wild dolphins would be a source of food for Nami.

In captivity, Nami was denied her natural-born rights to hunt, to be secluded if she felt the need, to roam and play in the great vast open ocean which was once her home. Life for Nami, as a transient orca, drastically changed once placed in captivity.

The Taiji Whale Museum over saw Nami’s care for almost 25 years. Nami thrived and continued to live in captivity under the care of the Taiji Whale Museum. Nami was on public display in a cove near the Taiji Whale Museum where she would perform daily shows. Namis’ life was easy, laid back,  fairly calm and consistent. Nami’s trainers never entered the water with her.

On June 19, 2010, Nami was moved to the Port of Nagoya public aquarium in Japan. Nami would soon be living with two other orcas  from a different marine park in the near future for breeding. Nami had never even met the other orcas ever, yet was now going to be expected to breed with the male.

Nami at Port of Nagoya (photo courtesy of Port of Nagoya public aquarium)

Life for Nami soon would become an experiment….she was placed in a concrete tank, forced to interact with dolphins, more demands were made of Nami and trainers would soon be pushing their way into Nami’s water world training her for water work shows. Nami would now be expected to perform up to 10 public training sessions daily. The trainers at the Port of Nagoya public aquarium expected more of Nami. Nami was exposed to not only one dolphin but eventually numerous other dolphins during her training sessions. In Nami’s home of 25 years in Taiji, she never was expected to come out of the water onto a slide out, she was not expected to perform shows with dolphins or do 10 public training sessions.

Nami in just 6 months after her move would become so sick it would lead to her death in January 2011. In December of 2010, it was announced by the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium that Nami was sick and receiving treatment. It has been rumored that this would be the second time in the 6 months Nami was sick and received treatment.

Nami’s life and transfer opens many questions which most likely will never be answered due to no scientific studies on transfers and deaths of captive orcas.

From Nature to Natural to Artificial in a lifetime

In the wild Nami roamed as she pleased, utilized her sonar to benefit her, hunted for her own food and would eventually choose her own mate. Life was natural for Nami in the wild.

In Taiji, Nami received fresh filtered sea water daily in her sea pen. The sea pen was shallow yet flourished with natural flora, rocks, wooden docks, nets instead of walls and artificial “sea” water. In Taiji, Nami still would have been able to utilize her sonar skills with no negative effects to her. Nami never experienced metal gates or moving through gates, as Nami had never been gated off before. Taiji trainers respected Nami as a transient and stayed within the boundaries Nami would set.

At Port of Nagoya public aquarium, Nami’s new home would consist of a totally new environment, one which Nami never even knew existed. Concrete walls and gates would now replace netting, natural rocks along with wooden docks. Chlorinated water would now become the main source of life for Nami. Chlorine in water is known to burn the eyes and has a taste and smell that was completely foreign to Nami. Chlorine is also known to diminish the good bacteria flora in the stomach. No more fresh scent of seawater or the smell of the ocean breezes would fill Nami’s senses. Nami would struggle with her sonar bouncing back off the concrete tank walls at her new home. Some scientists believe that sonar bouncing back at the whales drives them crazy.  In Taiji, Nami’s water temperature changes were naturally occurring with the ocean water. At the Port of Nagoya public aquarium, the water temperature would now be controlled by a thermostat.

For 25 years Nami lived as close to nature as captivity would allow, yet in one single day life for Nami would drastically change to nothing but artificial. Nami was never prepared for her transfer. Nami had no idea the stress she would encounter upon arrival at her new home.

Nami & dolphin tankmate (photo courtesy of Port of Nagoya public aquarium)

Could the stress of going from Natural to Artificial have been the reason for Nami’s premature death after her transfer? Could the loss of nature and the high pressures being placed on Nami for more demanding performances been the reason for Nami’s premature and sudden death? Could the toxic, artificial water Nami was now being exposed to be enough stress for her to die a premature sudden death. Stress is a known factor, whether animal or human, which leads to illness and death. Nami’s life in Taiji again was very different from the life she was expected to live at the Port of Nagoya public aquarium, as different as night and day. Could it had been that Nami being a transient orca was just not equipt to live in captivity with large groups of dolphins and/or other whales, as this is completely unnatural to them. Transients generally do not socially bond with other animals, including humans as their cousins, the resident orcas do. Transients eat dolphins. Again I am repeating this, transients eat dolphins. So how fair was it for Nami to be forced to interact with all the dolphins which by nature, would be her food source. Nami had to fight her own hunting instinct every day they placed her with dolphins for training sessions.

Nami lived in a natural environment suited for her for almost 25 years and within only 7 months of being placed in an artificial concrete tank, Nami passed away. This type of transfer has never been done before. No one knew how an orca of Nami’s life style and age would do in this type of transfer, yet Nami, the sole survivor of the Japanese wild captures, was sold for breeding to die before she would ever even get to meet her mate. Was Nami not able to acclimate to her new artificial surroundings? Maybe it is time, we as a society reconsider captivity in artificial settings. This is a lesson Nami’s death could teach us. Should Nami die just as an experiment and in vain for our own selfish needs?

Over and over again captivity in an artificial setting has proven to lead to shortened life spans of orcas. Captivity kills prematurely. To date the oldest orca in captivity is Corky, a 44-year-old wild caught resident orca. No other captive orca to date has made it to Corky’s age. Captive orcas die prematurely even though they are provided daily feedings, vet care and human interaction.  In over 40 years, veterinarians still have not been able to learn enough about captive orcas to properly care for them or why else would so many of them be dying prematurely? One would think the care that captive orcas receive should be extending the lives of the orcas. There is no cure for stress in captivity, except death. The oldest wild living orca , Granny is near 100 hundred years old. Granny moves in and out of very polluted ocean water and still keeps on thriving. 

When Keiko, the first and only captive orca to be released back to the wild,  went from an artificial setting to the wild, he thrived and lived many years.  Many people blame the release of Keiko back to the wild for the reason of his death….yet what damage had been done to Keiko’s immune system while being in captivity? Could that have been the reason Keiko had such a difficult time fighting off his illness? Keiko learned to hunt and fend for himself. He gained thousands of pounds and grew stronger every day. When Keiko did return to the ports for human contact, he was sick and all Keiko knew was that in the past when he was sick, he was taken care of by humans. Could Keiko have been trying to get medical help? Veterinarians have a difficult time diagnosing orcas. It is easy for an orca to be sick and the illness not be detectable by a veterinarian.

The situation between Keiko and Nami show two different situations, Keiko thrived and acclimated to the wild while Nami suffered and died very rapidly in an artificial setting. Both whales were over 20 years of age.

Scientists are finding out Orcas have proven to be too sensitive, too large and too intelligent to keep in captivity. Orcas are generally submissive to humans out of some higher intelligence and respect, but when one orca has had enough of the stress of captivity, captive orcas have no concern for holding back their submissions, which is leading to trainers deaths and numerous attacks and warnings. 

After 40 years captive orcas, are still dying prematurely and even worse yet is after 40 years captive orcas are killing highly experienced trainers. If the best of the best trainers are not safe working with captive orcas, one must question again is there any safety working with captive orcas?  This issue also brings up the stress the captive orcas go through after an attack, warning or kill. Being such basically docile creatures to humans, what stress does it place on orcas after they have to become aggressive towards their trainers? How fair is it to them when they have to kill or harm a human because they are frustrated? Orcas at one point were called whale killers now they are called killer whales.

It is time to phase out the captive breeding program for orcas and dolphins. We do not need to see them in captivity or the wild to understand them. No human has ever seen a dinosaur, yet humans are completely fascinated by them. Children learn about them in books and movies.  Humans have respect and understanding for our Jurassic friends, they have not gone forgotten.


One Comment leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 9:28 pm

    Lolita, now the oldest orca in captivity, has not been performing over the weekend of 5/6 March in her tiny tank at the Miami Sequarium. Allegedly because of a tooth infection, supporters who have been calling for her rehab and release for years, are gathering outside the MSQ waiting for news. A large helicopter has just been seen landing in the grounds…
    Legal Issues of Lolita’s Captivity
    Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium’s captive orca, has been kept in a tank for 43 years that does not meet the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulatory standards for minimum size, as outlined by the Animal Plant Inspection Service. Lolita is 21 ft long but her tank is only 35 ft wide and 20 ft deep (12 feet at the edges). It is the oldest and smallest orca tank in the world today.
    As Newsweek pointed out back in 2008, Lolita would have to swim back and forth across her pool more than 6,000 times to keep up with fellow orcas in the wild that often swim more than 100 miles on some days.
    Additional AWA violations of her captivity include:
    • lack of a perimeter fence to deter visitor harassment
    • lack of shelter from sun and elements
    • lack of social stimulus and enrichment via other orcas
    Conservation Issues of Lolita’s Captivity and Retirement
    Lolita is the last surviving captive from a group of 46 animals that were captured in 1970 and taken from Puget Sound, Washington in the Pacific Northwest. Seven juveniles were taken and sent to zoos and marine parks around the world including two to Japan, and one each to the UK, France and the USA.
    There are many researchers who believe that it is not just Lolita who continues to suffer, but that the Southern Resident Community of killer whales in Puget Sound (now known as ‘L Pod’) from where Lolita was taken, is still struggling to recover from the capture of her and the other seven juveniles that made up the majority of a single generation .
    Current research estimates that the pod has dwindled to only 87 individuals. Despite her great age, there is a small chance that the ‘L Pod’ might benefit from Lolita’s breeding potential, were she returned to her family.
    Respected conservationists, scientists and animal welfare advocates have approved a viable plan for her ‘retirement’ back to the Pacific NW where a sea pen is already waiting for her. This would allow her to reside in the generously sized bay pen and be taken care of while slowly being re-acclimated to her natural waters. The plan is for her to get used to her natural surroundings while being able to interact with her own family.
    It is widely believed that pods of whales and dolphins have their own individual ‘languages’ and experts believe that her pod would recognise Lolita were she to be put in touch with them. In 1995, she was allowed to listen to a brief recording of “L-pod” (her family) calls, brought in by NBC Dateline. She responded quickly and seemed very interested, calling back to the recorder. The camera crew was forced to leave Miami SeaQuarium, for obvious reasons.

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