For almost three years, the last captive false killer whale (pseudorca) in the United States has been kept off exhibit in a half-century old park. This park is located in Oahu, Hawaii, where during the year, the locals have made their disapproval known.
The uproar began in September 2015. Earlier in the year, University of Hawaii at Manoa had run out of funding for their Marine Mammal Research Program. The university had to foot a $90,000 bill per year to provide food, veterinary care and training for Kina and her bottlenose companions, Boris and BJ. All three had been kept in sea pens in Kaneʻohe Bay, southeast Oahu since 2003, participating in an array of hearing and echolocation studies.
The University quietly placed them up for bidding. Sea Life Park snapped them up for an undisclosed amount, and transferred them to the park – without a permit – in early August, without a heads up to the state’s Department of Agriculture (DOA), let alone to the public. According to Honolulu Civil Beat, the DOA retroactively granted the permit on April 26, 2016.
As of July 2018, all three dolphins have been kept in the interconnected Back Stage pools since their arrival. Park officials have been mum for the most part, only telling the Associated Press (the only news organization granted permission to view the animals) in August 2017 that it was planned to move Kina out for public display this year into “an even bigger pool with more animals.” (Brandon Rivera of Ho’a O’ahu wrote that as of last December, she was in the process of being introduced to “individual dolphins from the Dolphin Lagoon.”)
Sea Life Park curator Jeff Pawloski assured inquiring minds that Kina would not be involved for the swim-with program or to perform. A former MarineWorld and US Navy dolphin trainer himself, he once worked with 40-year-old Kina at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in the early to mid 1990’s. Pawloski remarked: “Kina’s done some phenomenal things over her career, and we intend to keep that going on as long as possible.” According to the park’s own press release, as part of the agreement between Sea Life Park and University of Hawaii, researchers have been granted access and are allowed to continue their echolocation research on the former University animals.
Paul Natchigall, founder of the UH’s Marine Mammal Research Program, has stated the dolphins are still being used in echolocation research, and is hoping such “findings could lead to fishing gear that is more ‘visible’ for whales and dolphins” in the wild. He is confident that Kina’s new retirement home is a perfect match, adding, “You want her with the person [Pawloski] who has cared for her most of her life, who knows her best, and is in a situation with very good care.”
Kina’s origins, however, aren’t discussed with such relish: they are the epicenter of the controversy. Where she came from is the very reason she has been not been public display. As per Pawloski:
We knew that Kina was going to be a controversy, if we were to include her and bring her out to Sea Life Park, because of her history and how it would be perceived by the general public.
Mentioned briefly in a 1994 Asian Marine Biology report on the survivorship of dolphins and small whales at Ocean Park in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, she, along with ten other psuedorcas, were captured in a drive fishery off Iki Island in the spring of 1987. Those animals were sent to Ocean Park. There, she and a male, dubbed LUA, were donated to the United States Navy Marine Mammal program, and were transferred to the Naval Oceans System Center (NOSC) at Hawai’i later that November. LUA died a year later from enteritis, leaving Kina alone until NOSC was shut down sometime in 1993. She was then was absorbed into the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology.
Kina’s participation at HIMB was quite extensive, with the majority of research focused on her hearing sensitivity and how they utilized her echolocation. However, some local activists aren’t buying the “extended” research claim.
Natalie Parra of Hawaii-based Keiko Conservation chides that Kina has already put in her time as a research subject. “Continuing their research with her isn’t a solution because no amount of stimulus she could gain from her continued participation in their research will justify it being unnecessarily conducted in a small, shallow tank… she’s provided us with a lot of insight into how her species handles man-made noise. She is owed a proper retirement.”
Indeed, there are questions to be answered about how Sea Life Park will care for her, given their track record. In 1964, Sea Life Park was founded by Taylor Pryor and Karen Pryor, made for the very purpose of educating the public about Hawai’i’s flora and marine fauna, and gave mainland researchers the chance to study the unusual cetacean species – pygmy killer whales, rough-toothed dolphins, spinner dolphins and pseudorcas. Karen experimented with operant conditioning, studying each cetacean species’ intelligence, memory and creativity.After being in operation for six years, the Pyrors declared bankruptcy; Tap’s grandiose aquaculture and ocean technology side projects racked up debts and had little to show for it. They placed the park up for sale. Sea Life Park’s scientific vision would not last: with each new owner, its rank as a hub for marine biology research diminished. Since December 21, 1972, when the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect, a total of 65 animals have perished at the park (not counting stillborns and rescues). The demise of some of the dolphins were also questionable: causes of death ranged from foreign object ingestion, birthing complications, to falling out of the tank – on more than one occasion.
Sea Life Park is also no stranger to the dolphin drives. In 1990, four pseudorcas were held at SeaWorld Kamogawa, Japan, destined as replacement animals when the Park’s oldest pseudorca, Makapuu, was left alone after her companion, I’anui Hahai, had died in 1987. A month prior to leaving the country in September 1991, one of the four whales died of pneumonia, scuttling Sea Life Park’s plans. Only two, Sirius and Arc, would arrive to Oahu in April 1992.
Renamed as Pono and Maluhia, the two new whales were described to the press and public as “gifts” from SeaWorld Kamogawa. This was a grossly disingenuous announcement, given that both whales’ location of capture was recorded as no other than Taiji, Japan, as seen in their 1995 Marine Mammal Data Sheets. Unfortunately, their stay at Sea Life park was not long: both whales were dead before the end of the decade.
Currently, the facility participates in some conservation work. The marine park releases several green sea turtles (locally known as ‘honu’) from their captive breeding program in a much anticipated annual event. The park also has a permit to keep and display Hawaiian Monk Seals, an endangered pinniped indigenous to the islands, for both rehabilitation and educational purposes.
The upkeep of the park and the unequal requirements for the animals there have to be called into question. The foundation of the Ocean Theater show pool was corroding in some areas when a local visited the park on Halloween 2015. To their credit, the corroding metal appears to have been replaced and other issues at Ocean Theater the have been resolved during a May 2018 visit.
However, during the most recent visit – while shade structures were available for the dolphins not readily involved in the swim-with program, the same could not be said for the last remaining Hawaiian Monk Seal at the facility. Structural and shade issues have been an ongoing problem at the park, and have been recorded frequently in APHIS Inspection reports (click here to read them). Other examples included damaged fences and “animals subjected to excessive numbers of human participants” during swim-with programs.
Whether Kina is finally getting comfortable in her new abode is dubious. Video shot at the park in late 2016 and drone footage taken in January 2017 appear to paint a bleak portrait: separated from BJ and Boris, she spends most of her days listing at the water’s surface. In some instances, zinc cream appears to have been lathered on her head in an effort to prevent her skin from drying out.
Video provided by Keiko Conservation.
In October 2017, some guests were given behind-the-scenes access to see her:
Considering how Kina has spent most of her life to dedicated to research that is used to protect her wild kin, is this the best we have to offer to the last drive-caught dolphin in the West?
Many thanks to C. Whiting, L. Garnier, K. Ramirez, Animal Rights Hawai’i and Keiko Conservation for their assistance.
Featured Image: Kina at her seapen in Kāneʻohe Bay, belonging to Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, 2013. © Deb McGuire, used with written permission.
- Survivorship of odontocete cetaceans at Ocean Park, Hong Kong, 1974-1994. Asian Marine Biology 11: 107-24. Randall R. Reeves, Douglas P. DeMaster, Cynthia L. Hill, Stephen Leatherwood. 1994.
- Sea Life Park Inventory. Cetabase.
- UH Sold Thee Marine Mammals To Sea Life Park Without a Permit. Courtney Teague, Honolulu Civil Beat. May 3, 2016.
- Lads Before the Wind: Adventures of Porpoise Training. Karen Pryor (1975).
- The Behavior and Training of Cetaceans in Captivity. R. H. DeFran and Karen Pryor. 1980. In Cetacean Behavior: Mechanisms and Functions, ed. Louis Herman. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
- Historical Perspectives: A Dolphin Journey. Karen Pryor, Aquatic Mammals Journal, Vol 40 (1), (2014).