Who is orca Morgan?
Introduction: Orcas in captivity
Orcas or killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the largest species of the dolphin family. Unmistakable in size and appearance, the orca is a public favorite among many people. It is a large but agile species of marine mammal with a unique black and white pattern. Located above the eye is a characteristic white marking called “the eyepatch” that is often mistaken by people for the eye of the animal. Scientists believe that this is actually the purpose of the eyepatch in nature as well where any predator or rival will mistake it for the eye and therefore the actual eye is protected from harm. In males the dorsal and pectoral fins are of an incredibly large size with some males growing a dorsal fin which is over 2 meters in length! Orcas are ruthless hunters with the largest variety in diet of all marine mammals and a position in the top of the food chain which they achieve by coordinated hunting in groups. Orcas are one of the most widely spread animals in the world. They have been recorded in every ocean and sea except for the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. They inhabit waters of different temperatures and climates with each their own ecosystem and therefore different types of prey. On different parts of the world among different populations there are certain things like diet, hunting techniques and even different dialects that are only known for that specific population. These also seem to be passed on from generation to generation. Some people have even gone so far in calling this a form of culture. It is well-known that orcas are very intelligent beings with a very advanced social structure and hierarchy.
Orcas are relatively new in captivity compared to other more common zoo animals (such as elephants, tigers and bears) which we have been keeping and displaying for centuries. The first captive orcas appeared in the late 60’s. Little was known about the orca back then and it was actually thought they were very aggressive animals as well as harmful to humans. Thank s to the early captive specimens it was discovered they are actually intelligent socials animals that are not particularly aggressive. Their intelligence also made them able to be trained and orcas soon became a popular attraction in many early marineparks, zoos and dolphinaria. Ever since the 80’s there have been successful breeding results making the keeping of orcas sustainable throughout the years. Around 167 orcas have been previously kept in captivity in the last 50 years with 60 individuals being kept worldwide today. This is however a very small number compared to for example elephants of which their captive number are estimated between 15.000 and 20.000 in captivity. Although popular in captivity with one of the leading zoos in the USA being the “Seaworld” parks who are known for their orcas and orca shows, the keeping of captive orcas has not been without controversy. Already in the early beginning there have been people opposed to keeping these large marine mammals in an artificial environment. Especially since the last decade people have expressed criticism upon parks who keep orcas and have questioned the wellbeing of the animals. Two sides seem to have developed over time. One who support the keeping of orca’s and or other dolphins in captivity and a side who heavily opposes this. This controversy peaked in 2010 when orca trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in an incident between her and a male orca named Tilikum at Seaworld Orlando. In that same year an orca named Morgan was also causing an uproar in the country of the Netherlands. We will elaborate on her story a bit more in this report.
Who is orca Morgan?
Morgan is a female killer whale or orca (Orcinus orca) that currently resides at Loro Parque, Tenerife located at the Canary Islands. She was rescued by “Dolfinarium Harderwijk', a Dutch Marine park on June 23 2010 after being found alone and extremely malnourished in the waters of the Wadden Sea. About a week before her rescue the first reports came in of “a large cetacean” spotted in the waters around Lauwersoog in the Netherlands. Sightings of orcas in Dutch waters are not unheard of but quite a rare occasion as opposed to the more native species of marine mammal found in that specific area. Not long after that the first footage of Morgan appeared, recorded by a boat of the Dutch state. Finally she was confirmed to be an orca and the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk was contacted to set up a rescue plan for the animal as they had the experience and facilities suited for such an operation. She was completely emaciated weighing just 430 kg while measuring 3,57 meters in length when she came to Dolfinarium Harderwijk. (a normal healthy weight for an orca of that length lays at a minimum of around 660 kg according to the vet at that time!) Her age was estimated to be around 2 or 3 years old. Body fat was almost completely absent and she suffered from pneumonia. It was clear this animal was on the verge of death and many experts believed she would not make it through her first week.
The protocol for rescued marine mammals is to attend to their health problems, then to start the rehabilitation process and the ultimate goal is to release the animal back into it’s natural habitat. This however is not always possible. This can have a number of reasons, for example: persistent health problems, disability of the animal or lack of experience to survive in the wild due to young age. In Morgan’s case it was decided by independent experts that she could impossibly survive on her own in the wild as orcas live in complicated social structures and especially for young animals this is essential for their survival. Integrating her into a random group of wild orcas was deemed too high of a risk and an also unrealistic procedure. Efforts were made to locate the exact population she was from. Some of the methods used were taking DNA samples, sound samples and pictures of her dorsal fin to match these with the existing database of studied populations. Sadly all efforts failed. The next step was to find a new permanent facility for her where she could live among others of her species. The intention to keep her in captivity caused a lot of controversy around the world and is currently still a very sensitive topic to many. Several animal rights groups stood up and questioned the marine park’s intention, “The Free Morgan Foundation” being one of the main groups playing a part in this. Soon after she was deemed non-releasable, Loro Parque was chosen as her new location. This is when the protests began to rise to a bigger extend. Animal activists stood outside the park with banners and megaphone and handed out flyers to park visitors. Even threats were made to the park and its employees as they were accused of being animal abusers and murderers. Despite this they gained a lot of followers and eventually even took to court. The outcome of this (and several other court cases filed after that) was again that Morgan would not be able to survive in the wild. The move to Loro Parque took place on November 29, 2011. It was a very smooth integration; As of January 19 2012 she had contact with the entire group and socialized with all animals To this day Morgan resides at Loro Parque, where she participates in research as well as shows and education. The Free Morgan Foundation continues their efforts to get Morgan away from Loro Parque’s care and eventually released into the wild.
Already before she came to Loro Parque her caretakers suspected Morgan might have had hearing problems as she was unresponsive to sounds. Several different occasions of hearing tests and acoustic research have been done since she arrived in Loro Parque which confirmed Morgan is actually deaf. This turned out to be an even bigger argument that she would be unable to survive in the wild as well as a possible reason why she might have lost her original pod in the first place. Ever since her hearing impairment was discovered different training methods were implemented for Morgan using lights rather than sounds. The other orcas have actually learned to respond to these as well.
Above: Pictures I made of Morgan in 2010 and 2011
What is Loro Parque?
Loro Parque is a zoological facility located at Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife, at the Canary Islands. Loro Parque was founded in 1972 by Wolfgang Kiessling who remains to this day as the acting president of the park. The park was originally intended to be a refuge for parrots, but today it is a world reference for endangered species and environmental awareness. Loro Parque is one of the leading zoos when it comes so conservation and nature protection. Located at the park is the “Animal Embassy” the headquarters of the “Loro Parque Fundación” which is a foundation of which Loro Parque itself covers all the operating costs. In 2017 Loro Parque became the first European facility to receive the “humane certificate” given out by the American Humane Association. This is the world’s largest certifier for the humane treatment of animals. The park has been housing orcas since 2006, when four animals (two males and two females) arrived from two of the three Seaworld parks in the United States of America. The orcas are housed at a facility named “Orca Ocean” which is 120 meters long, 12,5 meters deep and houses 22 million liters of sea water which is obtained directly from the Atlantic Ocean. Currently six orcas live at this enclosure. Among them are the original four animals named Keto, Kohana, Skyla and Tekoa. There is Adán, a calf born to Kohana and Keto in 2010 and the first baby orca in Spain. The final animal being Morgan who joined to group in 2011
The Loro Parque Fundación
The Loro Parque Fundación is a non-governmental organization founded in 1994 by Wolfgang Kiessling. It operates on an international level on conservation and the protection of wildlife. 100% of the donations that the foundation receives goes to the protection and conservation of wildlife and natural habitats. Over the years they have carried out 109 initiatives in over 30 countries with an investment of over 18 million dollars . Parrots and cetaceans are the main subjects of the foundation. Including several projects on the research, conservation and protection of wild orcas. Examples of these projects are the conservation of orcas in the Straits of Gibraltar by reducing orca-fisherman conflicts, analysis of the call sequence of orcas, toxicity in wild killer whales and the effect of contaminant cocktails on orcas and other marine mammals as well as the first non-invasive tagging method for cetaceans. In all these examples the resident orcas at Loro Parque play a very important role, making these research studies and conservation efforts possible. Thanks to the efforts of the Loro Parque Fundación 9 species of parrots were actually saved from extinction in the last few decades. With some species growing from only 22or 87 remaining animals in the wild to several thousand individuals.
The five principles of Loro Parque
Because of constant attacks and accusations of animal right extremists as well as to guarantee a better understanding within society Loro Parque operates under the “five principles of Loro Parque”. These include:
- 1. Care for the animals with absolute love and respect to guarantee their welfare and dignity.
- 2. Allowing the animals under our care the five freedoms (Animal Welfare Council 1979) which are freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from fear and distress and freedom to express normal natural behaviors (which includes reproduction).
- 3. All animals residing at Loro Parque are considered ambassadors for the conservation of their own kind within their natural habitats.
- 4. Loro Parque supports activities to research and conserve threatened species under human care and in natural ecosystems.
- 5. Loro Parque considers itself a sanctuary for wild animals that are in need of help.
The conservation projects of the Loro Parque Fundación. Currently they invested more than 18 milion dollars directly to these causes. Among these are several projects dedicated to wild orcas and other marine mammals.