“Orca Ishmael Demonstrated Intelligence I’d Never Encountered Before” – Former Trainer

September 8, 2015 Candace Calloway Whiting

As I scrambled to get off his back and onto the safety of the pool deck, two things occurred to me: the young orca Ishmael just demonstrated an intelligence I had never encountered before in an animal, and he didn’t belong in a tank.

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The year was 1969. I was a weekend feeder at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Point Mugu, CA. I was responsible caring for the orca named Ishmael, who was captured from the southern resident pods, either the J or L. Part of my job was scrubbing the orca’s skin with a light brush. Orcas and other dolphins shed their skin constantly, replacing their entire surface every two hours.  The sloughing skin is believed to be a mechanism to help with high speed swimming, which dolphins and whales have limited opportunity to do in tanks. This causes the dead skin to build up on their bodies, requiring manual removal by humans.

Ishmael and I had done a dance of sorts when I first started my job, each developing trust in the other until a routine was set. I would brush him as I squatted near the ledge wherever he presented a part of his tail flukes, around his tummy and chest. Then I would step onto his back and kneel or sit to get at his flopped over dorsal fin (this bending over of the dorsal fin is a pathological result of captivity), before finally applying sunscreen to prevent his skin from blistering in the sun (something that also only needs to be done in captivity). When done, I would hop off onto dry land, give him the last of his fish, and that would be it for the day – his only activity for the next 24 hours.

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But on that day, when I was done scrubbing and had stood up to jump off his back, he suddenly pivoted and lunged towards the center of the tank. I think I avoided an unexpected joyride and dunking by the whale because the tank was shallow at the edge (eight feet), which limited his maneuverability.

When I was back on dry land, we regarded each other for several minutes as I contemplated what had just happened.

My curiosity was piqued. I picked up the soft scrub brush, stepped to the edge of the tank, and waited to see what he would do next. Eventually he positioned himself along the pool edge. Because the tank was in the ground it was simple enough to step onto his back as I resumed scrubbing his loose skin. Things went on as normal.

The next weekend I was ready for this new wrinkle. When he again lunged to the middle of the tank when I had finished, I leapt off his back instantly.  He tried again the following day, with the same results.

Then one day, instead of remaining stationary in one spot as I scrubbed, he started swimming slowly along the perimeter of the tank, carrying me along. I thought this was fun…he swam, I scrubbed, always with the ledge right next to me, which made me feel secure, knowing I could jump off easily at a moment’s notice. We settled into this new routine and while I never let my guard down – which you can never do with any wild animal – I was confident that he had gotten the message. If he wanted more time to interact he had to “behave”.  I wasn’t his trainer so he always got his bucket of fish no matter what he did, but his antics had only served to cut our sessions short.

And so our weekend time went – until he changed the game.

On each lap of the tank he moved just a bit farther from the ledge – very slowly, inch by inch the distance grew as we circled the perimeter of the pool. I was aware of it, but not concerned at first since the ledge was still close enough for safety. However, once he had moved a foot or so away from the edge, I decided to bail.

As I got to my feet on his slick back he suddenly twisted and tried his dash for the middle of the tank again. This time he had more room, and as I leaped off the distance to the edge had grown, but I made the landing, however ungracefully.

I loved the animals, loved my job, but my experiences there just underscored my determination to help these captive animals.

Whether he had been training me to trust him, or trying to trick me, one thing I know for certain is that this behavior took forethought and planning on his part. He changed his technique gradually, going from remaining stationary at the edge, to swimming slowly along the edge, to gradually inching away from week to week. On weekdays his trainer took over with a serious training schedule and I had other duties.

It became clear that he had intentions I was only vaguely aware of. He had us locked in a patient game of cat and mouse, one that was harmless and likely resulted from a desire not to be alone.

Because I had grown up around a variety of wild and domestic animals on our family’s wildlife ranch, I had learned at young age to gauge each individual each time I entered their environment. But this was different – the orca wasn’t just building on his experience each time, nor showing the cunning and even sneaky things I’d seen other animals do…this was a game, and he was trying to make the rules.

Ishmael wanted choice and empowerment, not just positive reinforcement when he did what was expected of him.

For decades we were entertained, unaware of the grief and misery within those beautiful sleek bodies as the whales performed.

Years later, in the early 80’s I submitted ideas to help ease the life for captive whales to SeaWorld via a friend who worked there, Steve Leatherwood.  He took my plans for designing ‘busy boxes’ that could be placed on the sides of the tanks and for coating the walls of the tanks with sound-absorbing material, and passed them along.

Nothing came of it, of course, and I am sure that I am not the only one who has worked with these animals who tried to make similar changes over the decades – but the captive industry has remained both closed off and intransigent. Their bottom line is in getting performance for shows and raising baby orcas to sell.

For decades we were entertained, unaware of the grief and misery within those beautiful sleek bodies as the whales performed.

At the point in time that this took place, my job as a research assistant to a graduate student had expanded from helping do non-invasive research on dolphin metabolic rates to training the animals for a variety of other tasks, as well as doing weekend feeding. I loved the animals, loved my job, but my experiences there just underscored my determination to help these captive animals.

As a trainer/feeder I was powerless to affect change from within and although it broke my heart to do so, I walked out, planning to go back to college and find a way to help the captive dolphins and whales have a better life.

Now, five decades later, I do see that changes have begun – albeit slowly. We can all do better by the dolphins and whales. They deserve that from us.

Candace Calloway Whiting has long been involved with marine mammals. She has worked at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center with Orca Ishmael, has been a lab assistant and trained bottlenose dolphins, sea lions and harbor seals. She has published journal articles, is a published author and her writing appears regularly in Seattle PI. Candace is also invovled with the International Dolphin and Whale Stranding Network

Photos credit: US Navy. Source: ABC News.