Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The numbers grow smaller.......

"The baby is gone," stated Ken Balcomb.

In early September 2014, a baby killer whale, L-120 was born into the "L" pod of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound in Washington state.  It was the first known calf to be born into one of the three closely followed pods since 2012 and it brought much needed hope to the dwindling numbers of wild killer whales.

The pod moved out into open water over a week ago and when it returned, L-120 was missing.  The calf may have been lost during a storm last week.  Observers have spotted it's aunt, mother and big brother but there has been no sign of the baby since they have returned.  That leaves a total of 78 killer whales between the three pods.  Two other mature whales had disappeared earlier this year and they are presumed dead so the arrival of a new calf brought new hope to a slow renewal of the numbers.

This unique population of killer whales numbered over 140 whales several decades ago but the numbers dropped off to a low of 71 in the 1970's.  Quite a few of the babies were captured for aquariums and marine parks and they were finally listed as endangered in 2005.  The members of each pod have been identified by variations in their dorsal fin and the colored patches they have so scientists can track their family groups.  Killer whales primarily eat fish rather than other mammals and the young tend to stay with their mothers for life.

Probably the most famous killer whale is Keiko, who starred in three Free Willy movies and resided in a Mexican marine park.  He had been captured off the coast of Iceland in 1979 because the United States had banned the capture of killer whales in their waters by that time.  It was revealed after the release of the films that Keiko was not living a carefree and healthy life.  He was underweight, had developed skin lesions from a virus, could not hold his breath for more than two minutes and was very weak.  He was reported to have not more than months to live if he stayed in that park.

Unofficially there began a drive to collect and donate money to not only save Keiko from the marine park where he was kept but to set him free like Willy in the movies.  Warner Bros, the Humane Society, cell phone billionaire Craig McCaw and children nationwide donated funds to help Keiko.  A rehab tank was built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium that was four times the size of the entire marine park in Mexico and cost $7.3 million dollars.

Keiko was then transferred to Oregon to begin the recovery and rehabilitation to become a wild killer whale.  He had to be taught to hunt for his own food as well as build up his strength in order to be able to swim in the rough ocean waters.  Humans now had to try and teach a formally wild animal how to be a wild animal again.  Keiko was airlifted to Iceland in 1998 to continue his lessons and rehabilitation at the cost of $500,000 a month but McCaw stated that the project to reconnect Keiko with his original pod would be spared no expense until it's conclusion.

There was worldwide debate as to whether it was actually the brightest of ideas......... to take a wild animal that had been captured very young and knew nothing about being wild and release it back into the wild.  It seems to be a very noble idea on the surface but it proved to not be the best choice possibly for Keiko.  In Iceland, Keiko had another larger pen in which to swim and learn to function on his own with very little help from humans.

Researchers had felt that they identified the pod that Keiko had been taken from and they hoped to convince him to rejoin that pod when it came back into the area.  Others felt that they were placing a death sentence on an animal who had lived 27 years with humans and would not be able to successfully survive in the wild.  McCaw then lost most of his money in the dot com crash and funding for the Keiko project dried up.  They continued to work with Keiko and he improved enough that in July 2002 he was released for the final time to swim out on his own.

Keiko evidently had ideas of his own and immediately lost his trackers and swam 870 miles to Norway where he took up residence in Taknes bay near the village of Halsa.  He sought out the company of humans and spent so much time close to people that the local animal protection authorities placed a ban on touching or approaching him.  Keepers there continued to feed him fish but he was free to come and go as he chose.  They also took him for swims in which he followed their boat for miles so that he could continue to build up his strength.

In December 2003, Keiko began to show signs of being lethargic and antibiotics were given to him in hopes of snapping him out of whatever ailed him.  Tragically, Keiko died the second week of December, they believe from pneumonia.  The entire rehabilitation to release of Keiko cost approximately $20 million dollars and while he was set free to die free, he never made any attempt to rejoin any wild killer whales.  There have been no further attempts to release a captured, tamed killer whale to the wild since then but efforts have been underway to dramatically improve the living conditions of those that are still living in parks.!member-orca-id-l-pod/cuhk

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