L’Chaim! To the Pilot Whales of the Indian River Lagoon Region!

Calf short finned pilot whale that stranded with pod of 22, September 2012.
Calf short finned pilot whale that stranded with pod of 22, September 1, 2012. (Photo JTL)
Juvenile pilot whale being cared for on Avalon Beach, Ft Pierce. (Photo JTL)
Juvenile pilot whale being put on a stretcher, Avalon Beach, Ft Pierce, Fl. (Photo JTL)
The public and multiple state agencies trying to save the beached pilot whales, September 1,2012.
The public and multiple state agencies trying to save the beached pilot whales, September 1,2012. (Photo JTL)

“L’chaim!”

I have been told, that this Yiddish expression, used usually during a toast, means “to life!” I can’t say that I really understand the full essence of the word, as I am not Jewish, but I like the saying very much, and find myself exclaiming  it all the time.

After all, life is good, isn’t it?

The story I am going to write about today, is one I have been wanting to write about for a very long time….it is the story of my struggle with the ethics of keeping marine mammals in captivity.

Off the bat, I must say I am “not for such”…and the movie “Blackfish” was horrifying, but due to one very personal experience I have had, for me, there are exceptions….

First, I must go back…

In 2008, my husband Ed and I had only been married three years. After talking to friends who had had a good time at Sea World, we decided to visit Discovery Cove in Orlando. We were the typical clueless “tourists” and we looked forward to “swimming with the dolphins.” At the time, I did struggle a bit with the idea of marine mammals in captivity, but it was years before I became so wrapped up in the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon movement all all that comes with it, and honestly, at the time, I did not give it enough thought. I was just happy that I finally had a husband….

Natasha "our" dolphin, 2008.
Natasha “our” dolphin, 2008.

Once at Discovery Cove, Ed and I dressed in wet suits, and along with about twelve others, including young children, were introduced to our dolphin; she was just beautiful;  her name was “Natasha.” She seemed happy and did what her trainers asked her to do.  She kissed each one of us, “talked” to us, and took us for a short “ride.” The time was short, but indeed, we all felt as though we had bonded with her…

Ed riding Natasaha, 2008.
Ed riding Natasaha, 2008.
Kissing Natasha, Discovery Cove, 2008.
Kissing Natasha, Discovery Cove, 2008.

About half way through the show, Natasha was told to jump simultaneously with another dolphin. She jumped high and her body arched over the pool. Then I heard the slam of two bodies hitting hard and knew something had gone very wrong…Natasha and another dolphin had collided!

Natasha died there in the water as the Discovery Cove crew scrambled to get children and adults out of the pool. There was no explanation. They were trying to keep things in order. We went home. I was numb, and felt a sense of guilt and of anger…..

The next day, I pulled my “elected official card,” calling Sea World to get information; I  got nothing. I was furious. I swore to myself that “never again” would I attend such a show, and “never again” would I support Sea World’s “Discovery Cove.”

Fast forward four years…

I had matured as an elected official and wife;  I had become very involved in the river  movement through the River Kidz of the Town of Sewall’s Point; and,  I had become a volunteer in the marine mammal department with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Then came  September 1st, 2012.

On September 1st,  a call came in to all volunteers.  22 short finned pilot whales had stranded at Avalon Beach, in Ft Pierce, just across from the east side of the Indian River Lagoon.  It was a weekend. Ed and and I sped up there meeting throngs of people from the public that had gathered. The state agencies of NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and FAU/Harbor Branch all came,  but it was the public that was there first,and it was the public that shone that day— carrying bucket after bucket of water to cool the ailing whales’ skin, and covering them with towels to abate the hot, hot sun…

22 pilot whales stranded along Avalon Beach in September of 2002. (Photo JTL)
22 pilot whales stranded along Avalon Beach in September of 2002. (Photo JTL)

It was a scene I will never forget, as the huge mammals lost their lives to the elements in great writhing agony, with the public watching on in a dreadful sadness…many of the whales expired naturally while others had to euthanized —-these whales, once beached do not return to sea, beaching again, and again, and again, if they are returned….

The social bonds of pilot whales are one of the strongest in nature, and they stay together at all costs, even if it costs them their lives…strandings are thought to be caused by sickness  or disorientation,  but no one really knows. Families die together, never apart.

The most touching of all was that there were five calves that day. Four were juveniles and one was probably only a few days old. Their parents did not live and the whales had not the skills to be released…

Smallest of the calves, said to be only a few days old. (Phot JTL.)
Smallest of the calves, said to be only a few days old. (Phot JTL.)
The 5 pilot whale in a pool with sunscreen to protect their sensitive skin, 2008. (Photo JTL)
The 5 pilot whale in a pool with sunscreen to protect their sensitive skin, 2008. (Photo JTL)
4 of the 5. (Photo JTL.)
4 of the 5. (Photo JTL.)

After great thought, NOAA (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/made the decision to place the four calfs in the Harbor Branch ambulance and take them to the institution’s facility. The small whales were carefully nursed and cared for day and night, one died but the rest made it. They were later officially deemed “unreleasable,” by NOAA and then transported to Sea World— the only facility fitted to care for the animals.

Raw footage on You Tube from Sept 1, 2012: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgemjXCoTbQ)

Brevard Times, Footage of whales being cared for and stranding: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta9dni_O3eA)

 

I have to admit I was happy for them when the took them away to Sea World. I was happy that they didn’t die. I was happy that they had each other no matter how horrible the past few days had been. I was happy that human beings have a heart and that I had witnessed it on the beach that day with strangers that suddenly were working together for a common cause…..

I did think about Natasha that died at Discovery Cove—but…..

 

Fast forward to 2015….

I receive a phone call. “The pilot whales are performing at Sea World. ” I am sent pictures.  Their names are the same are as they were when named by the public that day…. I am happy for them. I am proud of them. I am a hypocrite. I can’t help myself. I choose life—I do.  With all its complications, with all its imperfections….

“L’chaim!”

 

Piper the pilot whale.
Piper the pilot whale.
Ace the pilot whale.
Ace the pilot whale.
Ave the pilot whale.
Ave the pilot whale.

Sea World’s recent  video featuring the rescued pilot whales. (http://m.clickorlando.com/entertainment/seaworld/sea-world-50-years-of-caring/30925646) (7:52)

_________________________________________

*There are 4 whales; I am missing one photo.

NOAA/Marine Mammals: (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/)

Florida Fish and Wildlife/Marine Mammals: (http://www.fws.gov/habitatconservation/marine_mammals.html)

FAU/Harbor Branch/Marine Mammals: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/)

Orlando Sentinel/article on Sea World’s building of a marine mammal hospital in 2011: (http://www.dolphin-way.com/2011/07/seaworld-orlando-builds-hospital-for-wild-dolphins/#axzz3TVgOTPcy)
_________________________________________
I am posting this video 8-13-15. It is about the new show at Sea World called Dolphin Days that features relationship building shows with dolphins and pilot whales. I wonder if it is those mentioned in this blog?! (http://www.cbs8.com/story/29784600/dolphin-days-debuts-permanently-at-seaworld)

12 thoughts on “L’Chaim! To the Pilot Whales of the Indian River Lagoon Region!

  1. As a young adventurer living in the Keys after my service, I once tried to ride a loggerhead turtle. He must have been sleeping to let me slide up on him.
    Ya know. Not as friendly when you wake them up as they are at every other experience I’ve had.
    But at that moment, I was really in a bad place. Now awake he too understood… He had me, I could think of no easy way to get away with all my parts.
    My life long love for creatures began there when the turtle let me go. I swore right there, I would get rid of my speargun and use my skills for good and my need to ride everything I found.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As Gages Grandparents… We took Gage to sea world when he was FOUR. It was very important to us to do so. Like Me (Gram) Gage was more than 6 hours from the ocean. As a child I sat on the shore of our Columbia River and dreamed of the sea. I always felt a strong connection between the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains and the Ocean. We are one earth. Gage touched a dolphin at sea world. He touched ocean life. He touched LIFE for all of us. Although I do not support animals in captivity….I do support animals saved who could not live in the wild. I support animals who teach FOUR year olds how important our sea and the creatures in it are. From that day forward my Grandson has consumed EVERYTHING Ocean. His generation and those that follow are our future survival. I cannot fault Sea World for helping me teach an inland boy. My request would be… Please keep only those sea creatures who cannot be released into the wild. Please teach those who do not touch the Ocean that Life is from the Ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. After I finished a job in Memphis I loaded my truck with a bunch of kids from Shilo Tenn. and we headed to sea world. None had ever seen the ocean much less any sea creatures. Now the ocean has real meaning to them. We rented a room on Panama city beach on the way back. Dolphins and killer whales have very strong family bonds. Could you not feel the joy and the bond when you were with the dolphins. Be carefull captain when you ride any sea creatures. A treble hook or fishing lure could take you on the ride of your life.

    Like

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