Conservationists hope to reunite an orca with her family in the ocean after she was held in captive in a concrete tank for 50 years.
Corky was caught off the coast of Canada in 1969 aged four and is now the oldest and longest held killer whale in the world.
Marine biologists have found her brother Fife and sister Ripple still swim in the waters where she was captured. Scientists are creating a “retirement home” for her – a sea sanctuary so the family can be introduced, which will be a first.
Resident orcas have the most closely bonded families on Earth, they are born into a pod they never leave until they die. Dr Paul Spong, co-founder of Orca Lab and who witnessed her capture in 1969, said: “For decades, Corky’s confinement has been the same, day after day. I have never given up hope of her coming back home.
“Corky represents a chance for the marine entertainment industry to show that it can do the right thing. “Her family, including her brother and sister are alive and thriving in the ocean.
“She has entertained millions of people and brought untold millions of dollars into SeaWorld’s coffers.
“To enable her to meet her family again, and feel the natural ocean she was born into around her again, would be a gesture of appreciation for all she has done for people. She deserves the chance.”
In a remarkable twist to the tale, the retired fisherman who caught Corky says he regrets her capture and how he wishes he could put her back.
Dr Paul said: “Standing on the dock where she was hauled away, Sonny Reid told me he wants her to come back here. I asked him what changed his mind? ‘In the instant when the captives were loaded into a truck and I heard them cry.’
“He wished he could put them back but couldn’t. We can change that.”
The organisation hopes to relocate Corky into a sea sanctuary at Vancouver Island’s Double Bay, which is adjacent to Blackfish Sound, where her family often travels.
Dr Paul added: “She will hear the sounds of their voices, and they hers. A deep channel on one side of the bay will enable Corky’s present day family to enter and ‘visit’.
“Though Corky has never met them, she has a brother and sister and she shares the ancient dialect of her heritage along with other close kin. Exactly what will happen in this family reunion we do not know, but we will learn much.”
Orca Lab’s co-founder Helena Symonds added: “It’s almost unbelievable she’s still alive. But it gives us hope she can meet her family again.”
But SeaWorld San Diego, where she is held with two other orca torn from the wild, Katrina and Ulisses, has so far refused.
Corky was first sold on to Marineland in California, where she spent 17 years.
Here she gave birth to six calves but none survived. In 1987 she was sent to SeaWorld in San Diego where she was named Corky II following the death of the park’s first Corky in 1970.
After a violent start where she was attacked by the dominant orca Kandu V, who died from a ruptured artery in her jaw, she was placed in a tank with her calf Orkid, where she remains.
Corky is just one of thousands of whales and dolphins held captive around the world. There are 50,000 left in the wild, diving to depths of 250 metres and travelling up to 28mph.
Experts say those in captivity repeatedly suffer an endless cycle of physical, psychological and social distress within the confines of tanks.
Danny Groves, from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: “Kidnapped, imprisoned and forced to perform, for an individual who is used to swimming many miles every day, a tank is a featureless prison cell.
“They live shorter lives in captivity – the death rate for captive orcas is 2.5 times higher than in the wild.
“In confinement, whales and dolphins may swim endlessly in circles, lie on the floor of the tank for long periods, chew on the sides of the pool and repeat patterns of behaviour.
“Orcas kept in tanks spend most of their time swimming in circles, causing their tall dorsal fins to collapse, which happens to 1% of wild orcas.
“One hundred per cent of captive male adult orcas have collapsed dorsal fins. Some parks even give captive whales and dolphins tranquillisers to relieve the stress they’re feeling.”
Seventy orcas have been born in captivity since 1977, not counting another 30 that were stillborn or died in the womb, according to experts.
And 37 of them are dead, with only a handful of wild-caught orcas living past the age of 30, making Corky’s longevity extremely rare. The average life expectancy for a captive orca is just nine compared with nearly 50 in the wild.
At least 166 orcas have been kept in captivity since 1961. There are 60 killer whales languishing in parks and aquariums around the world but experts say the figure could be higher as China, where numbers are unknown, continues to build facilities.
“A third of the known captive orcas are held in the US at SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California. The firm announced in 2016 an end to orca breeding, although this continues for bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
The firm’s reputation suffered after the 2013 documentary Blackfish which led to mounting criticism. Since then three CEOS have come and gone.
The UK ended the practice of keeping captive whales and dolphins back in the 1990s.
Last year, holiday firm Thomas Cook stopped selling tickets to attractions with killer whales, followed by Virgin Holidays and Tripadvisor.
Danny Groves, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, added: “Her mother died in 2000.
In their matriarchal society, Corky would have acted as babysitter to siblings, learning how to care for newborn and young family members from her mother and aunts until she had her calves.
“Lockdown is temporary for us – not for whales and dolphins, and visiting facilities that keep them captive props up a cruel industry.” SeaWorld failed to respond to requests for a comment.
Lead Image Source: Corky the killer whale is currently being held in SeaWorld San Diego (Image: Alamy Stock Photo)
This article was first published by The Mirror on 1 May 2020.
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