Nestled within the hot spring resort town of Shirahama, Japan, the Adventure World theme park is located approximately 80.5 km/50 miles west of Taiji. Born as a hybrid of a safari tour with free-range animals, a theatrical ride section and a marine park, you can cruise in a jeep or modified tour bus to view African wildlife in a mock-Kenya landscape, catch a ferris wheel ride, and watch a dolphin show during a single outing.
The theme park’s flagship animal is the giant panda. Adventure World is heavily invested in this iconic mammal, and the facility serves as the Japanese branch for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The black-and-white animals are plastered everywhere – from souvenirs, to in-park novelty treats, to daily live-streams of their newest cubs.
A first-time visitor would not know it at first glance, but the park’s original draw for 25 years were orcas. They, too, were once touted as the “must-see” feature at the park. Their existence now lives on in memorabilia, vintage ephemera, and in Twitter posts, where users sometimes upload old photos of the whales and discuss their fondest memories.
The park, on the other hand, rarely reflects on their former park mascot, given how abruptly and tragically their killer whale program ended.
Adventure World opened its gates to the public on April 28, 1978 with a reported collection of over 2,700 animals, spread over three sections of the park: Safari World, Play Zone, and Marine World. Up until 2005, at least fourteen whales would be either sold to or captured for the park.
The first orca put on display at Adventure World was Kianu. As previously chronicled, she became increasingly aggressive due to pod dynamics, and caused strife back at MarineWorld Africa USA. Following an incident in early 1978, Kianu was forced to be rehomed. MarineWorld sold her to Adventure World for $227,000. She would endure a twenty-two-hour flight over the Pacific Ocean, and a four-hour drive from Osaka Airport to Shirahama, arriving at the park’s Marine stadium on April 17th.
Her performance on opening day was received with great enthusiasm and fanfare, albeit it was dicey behind the scenes. An American trainer (presumably Dan Cartright, who stayed to help Kianu’s transition to her new home) was demonstrating how to safely stick one’s head into a whale’s mouth to staff. Midway through, he began to squirm and panic. Kianu had lightly closed her jaws around his head and trapped him. Adventure World staff managed to get the American out of her mouth, but was left with his “head soaked with blood.”
While her temperament improved, she still had to be treated with caution due her limited patience. Once, Marine Stadium trainers thought it would be a good idea to introduce two bottlenose dolphins to her for companionship. They became rambunctious, circling and zipping around Kianu. Irritated, she showed her displeasure by flicking her flukes, which sent the one of the dolphins flying (it was unhurt after the ordeal).
For many Japanese citizens, Kianu was the first orca they had encountered. Soon her fame encouraged Adventure World to look for another. On February 26, 1979, a pod of five whales were caught in Taiji. Two were reserved Enoshima Aquarium, while the remaining three, two adult cows and an adolescent bull, were sold to Adventure World.
While they were kept at the Taiji Whale Museum to acclimate, the first cow suffered a miscarriage and later died on March 30th. The last orca cow and bull were delivered to Shirahama on April 7th. However, the female succumbed to “weakness” and a “nutritional disorder” on April 20th. The nine-year-old male was given the moniker “Benkei,” after the warrior monk of Japanese folklore. While he and Kianu shared the stadium for a little over a year, they appeared to be kept separate.
Starting on May 31, 1980, Kianu had stopped eating, endured vomiting spells and was unresponsive to her trainers for the next three days. A last-minute examination and medical therapy could not save her, as she slipped into a coma and drowned on June 4th. Her cause of death was acute gastroenteritis: her small and large intestines were found to be inflamed and hemorrhaging when a necropsy was performed.Benkei was also struck with the same exact ailment almost a year later. On April 29th, 1981, staff recognized the similar symptoms he was experiencing (refusing to eat, not responding to trainers, and becoming feverish) and mobilized. Aggressive measures were taken to keep him stable: a cocktail of antibiotics, fluids and anti-fungal medications were administered. Veterinarians had to inject ampicillin directly into his stomach while his body was supported in a transport stretcher and frame. Still refusing to eat, he was force-fed food and oral medications, with his mouth propped open with a thick rod. Benkei eventually regained his appetite, but he was not out of the woods until two weeks later.
Veterinary personnel would later discover the cause behind their catastrophic gastrointestinal episodes was due to their food supply being improperly stored and maintained. Mackerel was typically purchased at high quantities for a low cost to feed the park’s cetaceans, but it has a shelf life of less than four months. During the investigation, the mackerel had spoiled during long-term frozen storage, and had transformed into a “blubbery state.”
Benkei became a reliable performer: trainers did some minor waterworks with him at first, primarily riding on his back. He was featured in commercials and park marketing materials, and later starred in a brief cameo in the 1983 film Antarctica.
But as he matured, getting in the water with him was reconsidered. An unnamed trainer recounted to the authors of “Someday, Orca,” a book covering Adventure World’s orcas, about a close-call with Benkei. The whale’s usual feed was reduced after a show because he was, in their words, “slacking off.” This did not go unnoticed: when the trainer went to pat Benkei’s tongue not long after the show wrapped up, the orca bit down. The trainer described the moment:
“With a wrenching force, I couldn’t move…. the bones in my arms began to creak. I couldn’t take my eyes off Benkei’s, and I was terrified of what would happen if he sank [into the water]…”
The unnamed trainer was then released, who had notable bruises appearing where their arm had been pinned.
Benkei would not be the first, nor the last orca, that came from from Taiji. Adventure World had been heavily dependent on obtaining cetaceans from drive hunts, although they have never publicly admitted it. Former trainer Takako Takahara, who worked eleven years training dolphins and orcas at Adventure World, explained to Vice News,
“Since the opening of Shirahama Adventure World in 1978, executive staff went to Taiji every year to select and purchase bottlenose dolphins, and very rarely orcas too. Every season, some of the girls (female trainers) went over there whenever they made a catch.”
In 1982, Sea World Kamogawa conducted a survey that was sent to 28 zoos and aquariums regarding their dolphin inventories, and submitted their findings to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) in 1984. In this rare instance, Adventure World answered: eleven Pacific bottlenose and one pilot whale were sourced from Taiji, and four Pacific white-sided dolphins, plus two false killer whales came from Iki Island. The most recent drive-sourced animals that could be confirmed were their Risso’s dolphins (procured sometime between 2000-2007), and a false killer whale named Anzu, who was integrated into shows in the summer 2012. She was most likely from a October 2011 drive.
Adventure World set out to find a companion for Benkei. In October 1980, a yearling orca was plucked out of the waters of southern Iceland. He was joined by three other juveniles at a holding tank in Hafnarfjörður Zoo, near Reykjavik. Then they were flown by plane across the Atlantic and Canada on December 20th, and held for a month at Vancouver Aquarium. While one whale was sent to California and two stayed in Vancouver, the little male would be shuttled to Shirahama on January 26, 1981.
Outside of his capture and new name, Ushiwaka (to match the theme of Japanese folklore), nothing else is known about him except for his untimely death. Following intermittent bouts of vomiting, anorexia and tongue ulcers for six months, Ushiwaka died on July 2nd, 1983 at three years old. Samples of his tissues and blood were taken for analysis: in a research paper produced by the Journal of Comparative Pathology, his lymphatic system was “destroyed” by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Adventure World was forced to looked elsewhere for talent. This time, it came from Europe.
James Tiebor had assumed purchasing a young female killer whale (crudely named “Orca”) would be a good investment. For a few years, it was.
The American businessman ran a traveling dolphinarium and rent-a-dolphin business based in Munich, Germany. This was not the first time he owned a killer whale, either. He previously bought a juvenile from the Seattle Marine Aquarium in Washington in 1971. Wally, as she was called, was “exhibited in a small round tank in a tent at the ‘Largest Folk Festival’ in the world in Munich, beginning in September” of that year. Performing up to “a dozen shows daily during Oktoberfest,” it would do a number on her. Unable to cope with the constant performing and the noisy audiences, she died of a heart attack on October 4th, following a brief illness.
Shortly after buying and importing the then two-year-old whale from Iceland in November 1981, he loaned her out to Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg. The loan fee was “reputed to have been in the region of a quarter of a million Deutschmarks [~$152,000 USD].” Her arrival reportedly “caused a great rush of visitors,” and she performed alongside Tierpark’s resident bottlenose dolphins. Three years later, for reasons that were never publicly disclosed, she went up for sale.
Adventure World did not have to be told twice, and the killer whale was bought and shipped to Japan in February 1985. She now had more spacious living quarters, and was given a better name: Ruka.
Her personality began to blossom. She loved playing with toy floats and buoys, although she occasionally threw them out of the tank with such intensity, they would crack and break. She also made it a game to spook her trainers: if particular individuals walked by the pool, she would charge out of the depths to get a reaction out of them. Newcomer trainers were her favorite targets.
It was discovered by accident that she made a great baby sitter. The theme park’s first captive-born bottlenose dolphin, Susie, was not at her mother’s side one morning, sending the entire Marine Stadium staff into a panic. After combing outside and around the tank, they found her with Ruka. Both were swimming calmly together and eager for breakfast. Somehow, months-old Susie was small enough to pass through the gaps in the pool gates’ steel pipes.
There would be another addition to the park in 1985. In October, two young orcas were picked out of a pod of seven that were rounded up in Taiji. The Taiji Whale Museum kept the three-year-old female, later named Nami. A male, not quite a year old and “about the size of a bottlenose dolphin,” was picked out for Adventure World.
Goro, as the little calf would be called, became a favorite with trainers. He was described as gentle, bashful and submissive. Yoko Oide, former Adventure World trainer and co-author of “Someday, Orca” elaborated, “He has been in contact with people since he was a child, so in a sense, [the] trainers are like his parents. He is very trusting, but at the same time, he is very insightful and observant.”
He had his quirks: he preferred to only work with women and hated thunder, to point he would stay submerged for “more than 10 minutes” to wait it out. But, he was a fast learner. Former trainer Takako Takahara recounted, “He was the first orca I trained all the way from the beginning. From the base, up to the point where he could perform in front of a live audience. I taught him to shake hands when a person raises their hand. He learned it in one day. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.”
Ruka and Goro became the most experienced and dependable whales to do waterworks. Both could could muster the energy needed for high-power stunts, like rocket-hops. Ruka was known for not tolerating trainers’ nervousness. She would get particularly frustrated at anyone’s apprehensiveness when executing the more acrobatic numbers.
Goro, on the other hand, was much more easy-going. Having a trainer perform with Goro (who grew to be 6.5 m/21 ft long and tipped the scales at 1,245 kg/1.3 tons) made for a startling sight. Yet, he was incredibly patient and intuitive: Oide recalled one instance when she was preparing to do a foot push, she could feel herself slipping off of his rostrum. Goro “slowed down so that [she] could regain [her] hold on the tip of his mouth.” In another, when she had a sudden leg cramp, “he was aware of it and moved slowly,” preventing any further strain.
And so for the next few years Ruka, Goro and Benkei would do their shows, day-in and day-out. In April 1988, in celebration of Adventure World’s 10th anniversary, the brand new Orca Stadium was unveiled, and the three had more room to live in. Yet the optimism was short-lived, as Benkei would perish from acute pneumonia in January 1989.
Adventure World would soon start making calls to Iceland.
Featured Image: The Orca fountain, located before Adventure World’s front gates. The statue’s size is reportedly based off of measurements of Benkei, one the park’s first orcas. © Shinya Ichinohe/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
(Originally published April 27, 2021).
- Bulk of information on Adventure World’s orcas is sourced from “Someday, Orca: A Memoir of Love with Orca and Trainer” by Kazuhisa Taniguchi and Yoko Oide (2007).
- Ceta-Base, Adventure World inventory.
- “Performing Whale Dies in Germany.” United Press International, The Pittsburgh Press, October 6, 1971.
- Blood Properties of Killer Whales Captured off Taiji. Masao Yonezawa. The Journal of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums, Marine Animal Division, 6th Aquarium Technician’s Workshop. 1981.
- Investigation of Cetacea kept in Aquaria and Zoos of Japan in 1982. Kamogawa Sea World. The Journal of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums. Vol 16(1), 14-26. 1984.
- A Case of Acute Toxic Gastroenteritis in a Killer Whale, Orcinus orca. Masao Yonezawa, Teruaki Hayashi, Kouji Imazu and Toshihiko Maeda. The Journal of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums. Vol. 27(2), 50-54. 1985.
- Hodgkin’s disease in a Killer Whale (Orcinus orca). M. Yonezawa, H. Nakamine, T. Tanaka, T. Miyaji. Journal of Comparative Pathology. Vol. 100(2), 203-207. 1989
- The Rose-Tinted Menagerie. William M. Johnson, Iridescent Publishing. 1990.
- Schwertwale in Menschenobhut: 50 Jahre Orca-Haltung 1964 bis 2014 (Killer Whales in Captivity: 50 years of Orca Husbandry 1964 to 2014). Michael Amend. Arbeitsplatz Zoo. Zoos.media. February 2015.
- “Milestones to Date: History.” Adventure World’s 40th Anniversary. 2018.
- 42 Years of Gratitude: Adventure World History. Adventure World/Youtube. July 14, 2020.
- Interview with Takako Takahara. “Inside Japan’s Global Dolphin Trade.” Vice News/Youtube. February 28, 2021.