Corky's Story

Fife, Corky's brother who she has never met.
Fife, Corky's brother who she has never met.
When humans are sentenced, there is often the hope of parole. Corky, who has commited no crime, is now the longest serving inmate of the US captive display industry. It's time for her to retire.

Corky is a record-holder, the longest held captive orca in all history. It is now 47 years since she was forcibly removed from her family and the ocean environment and taken to the harsh reality of a concrete tank. WDC, along with other orca experts, is supporting plans to retire Corky to an ocean sanctuary in the same waters where her family swims wild and free.

Corky is a female orca (killer whale). She was captured on 11th December 1969, when she was about four years old. From photos taken at the capture scene and from knowledge about the composition and behaviour of orca families, researchers have been able to work out which group of whales Corky belongs to and, most importantly, who her mother is. Unfortunately her mother Stripe died in 2000 before they could be reunited; however, Corky has a sister and a brother that she has never met.

Corky the captive orca
Corky held in captivity

Until 1987, she was held at Marineland Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles and was then transferred to Sea World, San Diego, where she still remains today. December 2016 marked the 47th anniversary of Corky’s capture and imprisonment in captivity for the entertainment industry.

In 1969, Corky's world suddenly changed. Concrete walls replaced the cliffs, rocks, sand, and caves of the vast and almost limitless ocean. Suddenly, the four walls of her tank represented the new boundary of her world. There were no longer any passageways, nooks and crannies to explore. Choices were limited. Gone were the familiar sounds of the sea. Instead, there was the constant drone of filtration pumps, and, when any of the whales called, their sounds reverberated off the barren walls. There were no waves, no currents, no fish to chase and hunt, no porpoises to play with - everything had changed forever.

At about 11 years of age, Corky began to mature sexually. On 28th February 1977, Corky delivered her first calf, a male. This was the first live orca to be born in captivity. Orky, Corky's cousin and also the father of all her calves, helped the calf to the surface after the difficult birth. The situation grew tense when the calf failed to nurse. The staff intervened, drained the pool, and force fed the calf several times a day. Despite these efforts, the calf continued to lose weight, and eventually died of pneumonia. He lived for just 16 days. Corky has now been pregnant seven times. The longest any of her calves lived was 46 days. Finally, at the youthful age of 21, Corky stopped ovulating.

In the wild, Corky would probably have had several calves and by now be a grandmother. A female orca in the wild might look forward to about 25 reproductive years and have perhaps four to six offspring.

In December, 1986, 17 years after Corky's arrival, Marineland and its surrounding lands were purchased by Sea World's corporate owner, the U.S. publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, for a rumoured $23 million. Corky was then transferred to Sea World in San Diego where she became Sea World's main performer, "Shamu".

Shamu is the SeaWorld trade name for its orcas. The name is passed from performer to performer. Corky's physical condition has fluctuated over the years. At one point, Sea World listed her condition as "poor", perhaps because her kidneys were not functioning well. Her lower teeth are worn and she is almost blind in one eye. Sea World considers Corky as an "old" animal and tells visitors that orcas only live to about 35 years. They used to say 30 years. For a while, Sea World even decreased the number of shows Corky did, but now she is back doing a full schedule. When she is not performing, Corky is held in one of the back pools with the other orcas. She spends most of her time simply circling her tank.

During her time in captivity, Corky has experienced some social difficulties, most notably with an Icelandic orca named Kandu V who appeared to be jealous of Corky. Over the years, there had been a lot of tension between the two females. Then, in August 1989, just as their public show was beginning, Kandu rushed out from the back pool and charged at Corky. In the attack, Kandu fractured her jaw, a bone fragment severed an artery and she bled to death.

No one had ever seen or heard of an orca attacking another orca before. Kandu's daughter, Orkid, was just one year old at the time and, in an odd twist of fate, Corky became her surrogate mother.

Back in the wild, Corky's family lives on. The pod once had 18 members but six were removed in another capture in 1968. These six are now all dead. Of the six taken in 1969, only Corky survives.

Currently, the A5 pod consists of just 13 orcas (including Corky), the youngest born in 2014. The group still loves to hunt the big spring salmon and they still continue to travel the waters of Johnstone Strait, Blackfish Sound and the rest of the Inside Passage. But they have never been seen near Pender Harbour since the orca captures that occurred there in 1969. It seems that orcas, like elephants, have long memories. Corky still remembers her family. She visibly shook and vocalised poignantly when a tape recording of her family's calls were played to her in 1993.

Corky still 'speaks' the same dialect as her family, the so-called A5 pod. Please support our work by adopting Fife, Corky's brother.