What Happened to Nakai? SeaWorld Whale Missing Huge Chunk of Chin

Nakai, an 11-year-old male orca at SeaWorld is missing a “dinner-plate sized chunk” of skin and flesh just under his mouth. The ghastly gash, first reported by journalist Tim Zimmermann, happened during a nighttime show at the Southern California park on September 20.

It is not clear what caused the horrendous wound. SeaWorld spokesman Dave Koontz told reporters that Nakai “came in contact with a portion of the pool,” but gave no other details.

SeaWorld staff reportedly retrieved the sliced-off piece of Nakai’s chin from the pool bottom.

This would not be the first time that a killer whale was hurt by the glass, steel and concrete confines of an artificial habitat: Three whales at the now-defunct SeaLand of the Pacific – Nootka, Haida and the three-time killer Tilikum – often cut and scraped themselves on the metal edges of their nighttime pen; one whale in San Diego, Ikaika (Ike), recently sustained a nasty gash under his mouth, believed to be caused by a railing; and Kotar, an orca in San Antonio, died when a metal gate crushed his skull. Other cases have been documented.

It is hard to understand, however, exactly what part of the tank at Shamu Stadium could have sliced such a large, clean, portion of flesh deep out of Nakai’s chin. SeaWorld may try to blame the metal safety railings it installed after Tilikum killed Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. But it doesn’t make sense that those bars, and the small bolts they contain, could have scalloped out such a large piece of flesh.

To many observers, this looks like a bite. According to Zimmerman:

It happened last week during a night show, seemingly during a major altercation involving Nakai, Keet, and Ike. It’s not clear if there was an aggressor or instigator, or if they all suddenly went after each other. In response to the altercation, Nakai split to the back pool. The onstage trainers, not realizing how badly injured he was, continued the show with the other whales. It was only when they called Nakai over later that night that they realized he was seriously hurt.

I have never heard of an orca taking a chunk of tissue from another orca, though I am certain they are capable of doing so. Killer whales have sharp teeth and they are extremely nimble at surgically extracting body parts from prey. Some orcas kill sharks only to excise and eat their livers; others prey on penguins and expertly remove their breast meat, leaving skin, feathers and bone to bob in the water.

Killer whales, like people, also get pissed off at each other. They frequently ram, block, and rake other whales with their teeth, in acts of brute aggression or repeated bouts over dominance. Sometimes these quarrels are deadly: In 1989, during a show witnessed by thousands in San Diego, the female orcas Kandu and Corky collided during an altercation. Kandu severed a major artery in her upper jaw and slowly bled to death in a back pool, spurting red jets of blood from her blowhole as helpless staff – and Kandu’s calf Orkid – looked on.

Orca society is female-dominated, and females at SeaWorld have been known to battle for supremacy of their little artificial hierarchies (where whales from different ecotypes, and even different oceans, are held – and bred).

But this supposed altercation involved three males. Among some orcas in the Pacific Northwest, testosterone-charged bulls burn off excess energy and aggression in periodic “male only social interactions,” or MOSI’s, which are staged apart from the females and calves of their pod.

These ritualized scrimmages help keep the peace among the males. But Nakai, Keet and Ike were all born in captivity (Nakai was the first successful orca birth at SeaWorld resulting from artificial insemination), and would thus know nothing about MOSI’s, because most whale social behavior is learned, and not instinctual.

In fact, these three whales are relatively new to each other. Nakai was born and raised in San Diego, but Keet and Ike were both transferred there earlier this year: Keet from San Antonio, and Ike from Marineland Ontario in Canada. Ike had been on loan to the Canadians but SeaWorld successfully sued to get him back, citing poor conditions at the Ontario park.

Also of note, though perhaps irrelevant, is Nakai’s rather notorious bloodline. His mother is Kasatka, who was involved in several incidents with trainers in San Diego, including the now-famous attack on Ken Peters in 2006 (see video here) and his father is Tilikum, who was involved in the death of a trainer in Canada in 1991, a trespasser in Florida in 1999, and Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

So what happened to Nakai? Was it “contact with a portion of the pool,” as SeaWorld contends? Or was it the pointed, precise teeth of Ike or Keet? We may never know – although a good forensics team could certainly determine the cause.

The truth is, SeaWorld simply does not have a good explanation – it was either the tank, or the tank-mates that wounded poor Nakai.

In the wild, orcas rarely, if ever seriously hurt themselves on “portions” of the ocean like rocks and reefs (their astounding echolocation abilities see to that) although boat propellers can cause awful cuts and gaping gashes.

Likewise, wild orcas rarely, if ever, take giant chunks of flesh from each other. Not only would it be taboo in killer whale society, altercations don’t typically lead to life-threatening injuries. For one, a whale under attack can easily get away from its aggressor in the open sea, but not so at enclosed SeaWorld and other entertainment parks.

Clearly, in either case, SeaWorld only has captivity to blame.

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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