Killer Whales

Pilot Whales

Dolphins & Porpoises



Eye to Eye with Orky and Corky

This article by Nina Easton appeared in the August 9, 1987 edition of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Photos courtesy of former Marineland employee Tad Smith.

Trainer Tim Desmond
Corky with her calf at five weeks old.

Mankind's fear of and fascination with killer whales dates back centuries before marine parks dropped them in among their trained seals and souvenir shops.  Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest - where much of the world's killer whale population lives - believed that the animals ruled the seas, sometimes taking lost Indians as their slaves.  Sailors' legends tell of man-eating killer whales. 

Only over the last two decades, as whales were taken into captivity, have researchers dispelled the myth that killer whales, which are actually a type of dolphin, hunt and kill humans.  In fact, the experience of watching killer whales in captivity reveals a much different story.  Despite their name, the creatures are often affectionate with trainers and usually seem to know how to assert their strength without endangering their human companions.

Orky and Corky, captured in the Pacific, have lived a remarkable 19 and 18 years, respectively, in captivity. [Orky and Corky were moved to Sea World, San Diego in 1987 following the closing of Marineland.  Orky died in 1988.  Corky, at over 35 years old, is alive and well.]  Trainers and veterinarians who have worked with the pair are impressed not only by their sleek grace, but also by their intelligence and uncanny memories.  Unlike more dull-witted species, a killer will look its trainer in the eye - sometimes with affection, other times with anger or a challenge.  "They are cunning and smart. You can see the brain churning," says Jay Sweeney, former Marineland veterinarian.

Orky, the bull, has the more imposing personality of the two.  He is proud and moody; not given to displays of playfulness.  Gruff is the word used by Timothy J. Desmond, Marineland's former assistant curator, who worked with the whales for 12 years.  A few times, Orky's temper flared into violence.  Ten years ago, he nearly drowned a trainer whom he pinned to the bottom of the tank; other times he has warned trainers with angry shoves, but his outbursts are proceeded by warnings - eyes that turn bloodshot-red or a quick flip of his head.

Corky, who is half her mate's size, is more lighthearted, but can be just as testy.  With a new trainer, she will at first by shy and standoffish.  She requires a lot of attention, and once she gets it she becomes playful.  Desmond used to play hide-and-seek with her; he would stand outside the windows of the tank and lightly tap the glass, sending her racing toward the sound. 

Over the years, Orky and Corky have given birth to six calves.  Two were stillborn.  The other four lived only a short time.  Marineland almost became the home of the first killer whale born and raised in captivity when Corky had her fourth calf, a female, in 1982.  As with earlier births, Corky had trouble nursing, so the Marineland staff tube-fed the calf with man-made formula four times a day. It was an impressive success, and the calf flourished in the tank for nearly a month.  Unfortunately, Marineland's animal specialists didn't have a ready answer for the next problem they encountered. 

When the calf was a month old and began to show signs of independence, Corky became increasingly rough with her, bruising the calf by pinning her against the sides of the tank.  Fearing for the calf's safety, the Marineland staff put her in a tank separate from her mother.  The calf died a couple of days later.

Orky: 14,000 pounds, 25 feet

Excerpts from Eye to Eye With an Orca, by Marineland trainer Tim Desmond.

Taken from the October/November, 1982 edition of Animal Kingdom magazine, published by the New York Zoological Society. 

When I was still but a rookie trainer, Orky thoroughly intimidated me.  On first encounter his sheer bulk was overwhelming.  And those teeth!  To my surprise, however, he was just as responsive as the dolphins I'd worked with.  The difference came after the whale's first performance was below par.  When Orky returned to me for his reward, I refused to feed him (any good trainer knows that poor performance is not rewarded.)  The whale shrieked angrily and jerked his head at lightning-quick speed.  I was petrified.  His left eye (whales generally look at us with one eye at a time) opened wide, showing its bloodshot white.  The red eye, as we call it, signals anger, sometimes surprise.  The behaviorist in me overruled and I forked over the fish. 

Unlike many predators who attack when they sense fear, Orky used my fear to extort food or exercise greater control over me.  The more-experienced trainers taught me to rein Orky's behavior.  The key was realizing that if intimidation proved unsuccesful, Orky would cooperate, taking the path of least resistance.  I was trained to either ignore his outburst or, when I gained more confidence, show anger in return by having him do several tricks without reward and giving the signals with emphatic body language.  Eventually Orky became more cooperative and his attempts to intimidate me diminished.  Gradually my blood pressure returned to normal.

There will always be those times when Orky is highly emotional and nothing can prevent a confrontation.  He then forces the trainer into disciplinary action.  Having the session end and losing out on half the day's food is the most severe penalty.  I've learned to let the fight come, dock his pay, and let him vent his emotions.  Usually he's fine by the next show. 

On rare, frightening occasions, he deliberately increases his aggressiveness toward the trainer.  It progresses from balking at a signal, to the quick head movement, squirting, bringing his head and neck up onto the platform, jaw popping, and, finally, to controlled physical contact with the trainer.  This steady escalation signals that either our approach is wrong or Orky is being asked to do something unacceptable to him.  In effect, he is warning us. 

In the past eight years there has been only one serious injury at Marineland - a near drowning that occurred when Orky held a trainer underwater.  I firmly believe that this incident, as well as mishaps with other killer whales, though hostile acts, are not all-out attacks.  It seems impossible to me that anyone could survive a serious attempt on his life by an orca.

Orky is extremely aware of the differences between trainers.  If one trainer pays a lower breach, he'll breach low. If another is lax on stationing (how the animal positions itself in front of the trainer), he'll station poorly.  Several times I've seen Orky take advantage of a single trainer on a specific point over a period of several days.  For example, at one time Orky had developed a habit of taking a brief swim between tricks in the show.  Orky's swim grew longer and longer until it caused a substantial delay in the show.  By introducing an attractive reward (an eight-pound bonita) for prompt positioning, we corrected the problem and things went smoothly for about a week.

Then with one trainer at a time, Orky began testing the rule, taking just a little longer to come into position.  Two of the trainers picked up on the maneuver and withheld the reward until Orky positioned properly, which he did with little protest.  Since many such problems crop up all the time, neither trainer mentioned it to others, but the third one hadn't noticed Orky's subtle ploy and after a while Orky was taking his swim again.  This went on for a week or two before the trainer caught his mistake.  Meanwhile, Orky was positioning perfectly for the other two.  When the third trainer finally corrected the situation, it brought an uproar from Orky.

Like a picture painted by number, these experiences have given me a sense of Orky's personality:  he is proud, with a strong need to control his environment.  He is not only a fast learner, but an adept game player.  He also has an excellent memory, easily recalling tricks he hasn't performed in a year or more.  He needs intellectual stimulation and, though he is only occasionally playful, positive support from people.  Despite his gruff demeanor, he has a sensitive, even fragile, side.  Finally, he has shown great awareness, tolerance, and patience toward Corky, his mate. 

Corky is entirely different.  When I first appeared at her working station, she became red-eyed and drifted away, ignoring me.  The session was nearly over before she returned and halfheartedly did a few maneuvers.  I had a strong feeling that she just didn't like me.  Other trainers suggested that she had to get to know me before she would work with me.  So I squirted her with a hose, tossed her the boat bumper, tried everything that would arouse her interest.  Most important, I spent time with her, and slowly we became friends. 

We developed a slew of games, many of which we play even today.  In one, she swims around the perimeter of the tank, while I hang onto the railing and bounce along on her back.  Sometimes this evolves into a massage.  She'll stop, roll onto her side, and contendedly close her eyes, letting me jump until my legs cramp. 

Corky also enjoys a form of hide-and-seek.  The tank is ringed with three tiers of windows, some open to public viewing and some adjacent to offices and storage rooms.   The whales can see through these as well as we can.  At the slight tap of my whistle on a window, Corky will come from anywhere in the tank to that exact spot - quite a display of her sonar ability.  Then, running from level to level or room to room, I hide at another window; she almost always finds me.

All of her trainers know these games and Corky is ever alert to the chance to play.  When a trainer approaches the tank railing, she races over and thrusts her pectoral fin into the air - her signal that it's time for fun.

Trainers working in a room adjacent to the tank often find Corky filling the window behind them, observing their activity.  She has even learned the routes people take through the building, and may follow them as they go about their business.  Some windowless rooms next to the tank have only one door; hence, whoever goes in must come out again.  Corky will wait at the windows next to these rooms until whoever she is following returns.  One doorway leads past the time clock, and is the way her trainers leave the area.  Here she waits only a few moments before sadly leaving. 

Once Corky accepted me, I found her exceptionally responsive.  Eye contact and a slight motion of my hand could right poor stationing, and performance errors required just one repetition to correct.  A common disciplinary technique is the "time out", in which a trainer leaves an animal alone for a short period without the chance for reward.  By simply avoiding eye contact with Corky, I usually achieved the same effect when necessary.

Corky's ability to learn is nothng short of unbelievable.  Aside from responding very rapidly to formal training, she imitated all tricks Orky had been taught and she hadn't.  At first I was skeptical when she learned a trick in about one fourth the time it had taken Orky.   I suspected it had been taught earlier, but she spontaneously did Orky's next new maneuver as soon as he learned it, and has performed it on cue ever since. 

To really test her, I gave her the signal for Orky's leap to a ball suspended 20 feet over the tank.  It was a trick she didn't know, but a regular in the show.  She looked at the signal, and at the ball.  Then she took off.  A few seconds later she soared into the air and came within a foot of the ball.  The motive for such incredible learning?...I think she just can't stand to be left out.

On the other hand, Corky may refuse to perform if a trainer is not being friendly enough.  When this happens, no amount of discipline can get her to work.  Yet she has never hurt anyone.  Squirting water, pushing against the working platform, and detaining her trainer in the tank when she was being ridden have been her worst offenses.  Asked to describe Corky's personality, I would say she is intellegent, alert and extremely sensitive.  She needs a tremendous amount of affection from people, but she has great patience, endurance and resilience.  If you cross her, she can be stubborn and exasperating - but she'd really rather play. 

Corky's Calves

Corky has given birth to four calves.  [She has given birth to two more calves after moving to Sea World, San Diego.]   The first, a male born in February, 1977, lived 17 days.  Thought to be brain damaged at birth, it never nursed or responded animately to its environment.  The second calf, a male born on Halloween, 1978, appeared normal, but Corky failed to nurse it, and despite our feeding attempts, it died after 12 days.  The third calf, a female, was stillborn on April 1, 1980, about one to three months premature.

Late in her most recent pregnancy - the fourth - I arrived in the park at daybreak every third day to take my turn watching for signs of impdending labor. Morning's first light revealed the orca's relationship at perhaps its warmest.  Waking slowly, the whales gently rubbed each other as they floated or swam leisurely around the tank.  This developed into play; they took turns going limp while one pushed the other around.  Sometimes they would just lean their flukes against the side of the tank and hang there for several minutes.  They cavorted for an hour or two before settling into the day's routine. 

The fourth calf, a female, was born at 3:20am this past June 18. [1982]  Labor lasted one hour.  The calf was charcoal gray with beige markings, as are all newborn killer whales; she measured 8 feet long and weighed approximately 450 pounds.  Corky took immediate charge of her calf, vocalizing to it and guiding it around the tank.  Late in the first day, the calf began nudging the gape of Corky's mouth.  Over the next two days, both mother and calf made repeated nursing attempts.  Corky had been trained to present her mammaries to a surrogate calf, and when given the signal, she tried to position herself as we'd taught her, but she couldn't adjust to her fast-moving infant.  This calf came closer to nursing than previous ones did, but after three days she stopped exploring and focused her nursing attempts on the gape of Corky's mouth. 

At that point we decided to intervene.  We lowered the water level and began tube-feeding the baby four times a day.  Corky allowed us to swim out and catch the calf in shallow water; eventually she guided her to us.  The beautiful baby baby flourished on its artificial formula, rapidly gaining strength and weight in spite of some worrisome blood test results.  She became very active, playing with Corky and the incoming water jets.  She even responded to the movement of people and objects through the windows.  Orky, meanwhile, seemed engrossed with the baby, although he did not develop the strong bond that existed between Corky and the calf.  We were hopeful that our whales finally had a viable offspring.

After one month, we began noticing subtle behavioral changes.  The calf became progressively more independent of Corky, exploring on her own instead of staying behind or alongside her mother.  When this happened, Corky would streak off after the baby and bring her back.  Twice we experienced brief periods when Corky first refused to surrender the calf to us for feeding, and subsequently disrupted the feedings.  Next, Corky and the calf developed a game in which they chased each other around the tank.  When Corky caught up with the calf it would go limp and allow Corky to gently push it about the tank or lift it out of the water.  This game escalated in roughness, with Corky pinning her baby against the side or bottom of the tank.  Although the calf never attempted to escape her mother's hold, and Corky never appeared angry or stressed, we bacame deeply concerned when the calf began to receive bruises and abrasions.  We reduced the number of daily feedings and increased their volume to enable us to keep the water level higher.  We also increased our tactile contact with Corky, something she had lost with the birth of her calf, but the rough handling didn't stop. 

Finally, concerned for the calf's safety, we moved her to a tank with a very docile common dolphin female.  We knew that separating the calf from her mother was a profound risk, but we felt that several factors were in our favor: at 45 days the calf seemed in good control of her faculties; she was physiologically accepting the formula, had been handled by humans, and was in good health and body weight, 526 pounds at this point - up 60 to 80 pounds from birth); furthermore, she was showing some independence from her mother.   The calf was fine for the first 30 hours in her new tank, responding well to the divers who swam with her.  Shortly after noon on the second day, however, her respiration shot from three or four breaths per minute to twelve to fourteen.  Despite our efforts, she died at about 4:00pm on August 3.  The gross necropsy revealed a colic which had lethally impaired her breathing. 

As I watch the public and the media flock to see these incredible creatures, I appreciate how lucky I am to know them as I do.  Through the strength of their personalities, Orky and Corky forced me to change the way I looked at them and their species.  They demanded a relationship with me that went far beyond a training regimen.  Their truly great physical dimensions and prowess are overshadowed by their intelligence and individuality.  In the future, if I'm fortunate enough to cross paths with a killer whale, I won't be thinking "Wow, it's a killer whale!"  I'll be thinking..."I wonder what this one is like?" 


"Newport Specimen" November, 1961

Very little information has been readily available regarding a specific female orca captured in 1961 that lived for only two days in Marineland's large, oval tank.  The Research Department was able to secure a document prepared by Marineland's Marine Mammal Curator David H. Brown entitled: Tooth Wear as a Correlate of Described Feeding Behavior by the Killer Whale, with Notes on a Captive Specimenpublished in the Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, Vol. 63, Pt 3, 1964.   The paper was written in collaboration with David K. Caldwell of the Los Angeles County Museum. 

The Research Department is pleased to provide you with some additional text and photo image of the "Newport Specimen", as the female orca has since become known. 

Behavioral, Antatomical and Pathological Data on the "Newport Specimen"

On 17 November 1961, Brown was notified by officials of the Harbor Department, Newport Beach, California, that a killer whale had been seen in the yacht turning basin of Newport Harbor.  This animal had been observed swimming in the general area for several days prior to the call.  On the same day, a party from Marineland of the Pacific drove to Newport, and upon sighting the animal's dorsal fin as it surfaced to breathe, it became immediately apparent that the animal was a female.

The following morning, 18 November, Frank Brocato, Marineland's Director of Collections, together with his crew, arrived at Newport at 6:30 AM aboard the fishing vessel Geronimo and made an attempt to capture the animal.  The techniques usually employed to capture cetaceans failed, owing mainly to the turbidity of the harbor water and the whale's refusal to run the bow of the vessel.  It was therefore decided to attempt to capture the animal by using a large net.  The net, 1200 feet long by 75 feet deep, was successfully set in a large circle around the whale.  However, after the collectors had bunched the floats and had restricted the whale's movements to a circle approximately 100 feet in diameter, the animal broke through the meshes.  Shortly before her escape, she was seen to lie on the surface and emit a number of loud eructations through the pursed blow-hole, after which the animal was observed to lie on her back in the water and smack her flukes upon the surface with great force.

Upon breaking the net she resumed her normal swimming pattern.  After recovering the net and effecting repairs, another attempt was made.  The animal appeared to anticipate the intentions of the men and evaded the net, surfacing to breathe some 50 feet outside the encircled area.  The final attempt to capture the animal was made at 3:00 PM, and Captain Brocato and his crew were successful at this time in netting and finally securing the whale alongside Geronimo's hull.   A deflated rubber raft was pulled in position beneath the whale.  This, after inflation, was towed ashore and the animal was lifted onto a truck and successfully transported to Marineland.

Upon being placed into the 100 by 50 by 19 foot oval fish tank at approximately 10:00 PM, the whale initially struck her snout a glancing blow on one of the walls.  She then commenced to swim slowly around the confines of the tank, her behavior being similar to that of newly-introduced smaller delphinids.  The following morning, the whale was observed holding a newly-killed ocean sunfish in her mouth.  This fish was not consumed, however, and during the remainder of the day many attempts were made to induce feeding.  Marineland divers attached lines to bonita, and "worried" the killer whale with these as she slowly encircled the enclosure.  The animal made several attempts to bite the food and it was at this time that the worn condition of her teeth was first observed.  At 8:30 AM on 20 November, the whale became violent and after encircling the tank at great speed and striking her body on several occasions, she finally swam into a flume way, convulsed and expired. 

Upon her removal from the tank, the following measurements were obtained.  The measurements were made over the curve of the body, from point to point, on the left side.

Weight                                                            9007 kilograms
Total length (tip of snout to fluke notch)                 521 centimeters
Tip of snout to middle of eye                                   55
Tip of snout to inside corner of mouth crease             41
Tip of snout to anterior origin of flipper                     115
Tip of snout to apex of cephalic melon                       15
Tip of snout to center of blowhole                             73
Tip of snout to center of anus                                 364
Tip of snout to center of dorsal fin                           239
Anterior origin to tip of left flipper                              73
Anterior origin to tip of right flipper                            74
Axilla to tip of left flipper                                          59
Greatest width of left flipper                                     45
Depth of median notch of flukes                                  9
Width of spread flukes, tip to tip                              135
Median notch in flukes to closest portion of the
   posterior curve of dorsal fin                                  262
Length of dorsal fin base                                           64
Height of dorsal fin                                                   53
Blowhole width                                                        11
Projection of upper jaw beyond lower jaw                     14
Length of genital slit                                                 47
Girth at blowhole                                                     116
Girth at origin of flippers                                           134
Girth at origin of dorsal fin                                         159
Girth at anus                                                            88
Girth at origin of flukes                                               40
Tip of snout to eye patch                                           55
Length of eye patch (patch gray in color)                  50-55
Profile of caudal stock                                 slightly falcate

Pathologists from the Los Angeles County Livestock Department performed a necropsy the same morning.  Death was due to acute gastroenteritis and pneumonia.  The former condition was no doubt secondary to a massive nematode infestation of the first and second stomach compartments.  Also it was felt that the great stress experienced by the animal during capture and confinement contributed to the pathological condition. 

Of particular interest was the discovery of an advanced athrosclerosis.  Both the heart and the major blood vessels showed considerable disease. 

The animal's brain weighed 4500 grams, and showed remarkably high development. 

During the dissection of the head and jaws, a fracture of the right ramus of the mandible was found.  This was comminuted, and numerous sequestra were found encapsulated in the affected area.  The lesion appeared to be of long standing and probably caused the animal great discomfort during life.  It should be repeated, however, that the fracture apparently had not displaced the jaw to suggest that the excessive tooth wear was a result of the such an injury. 

This concludes the section of the paper with respect to the "Newport Specimen."  Visitors interested in acquiring a copy of the entire paper may do so by contacting us at [email protected] and a copy will be sent to you for a nominal fee. 

Additional updates in the Killer Whale section will be coming soon.  Thank you for your interest.