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Eye to Eye With Orky and Corky

August 09, 1987|NINA EASTON

MANKIND'S fear of and fascination with killer whales dates back centuries before marine parks dropped them in among their trained seal shows and souvenir shops. Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest--where much of the world's killer whale population lives--believed that the animals ruled the seas, sometimes taking lost Indians as their slaves. Sailors' legends tell of man-eating killer whales.

Only over the last two decades, as whales were taken into captivity, have researchers dispelled the myth that killer whales, which are actually a type of dolphin, hunt and kill humans. In fact, the experience of watching killer whales in captivity reveals a much different story: Despite their name, the creatures are often affectionate with trainers and usually seem to know how to assert their strength without endangering their human companions.

Orky and Corky, captured in the Pacific, have lived a remarkable 19 and 18 years, respectively, in captivity. Trainers and veterinarians who have worked with the pair are impressed not only by their sleek grace, but also by their intelligence and uncanny memories. Unlike more dull-witted species, a killer will look its trainer in the eye--sometimes with affection, other times with anger or a challenge. "They are cunning and smart. You can see that brain churning," says Jay Sweeney, former Marineland veterinarian.

Orky, the bull, has the more imposing personality of the two. He is proud and moody, not given to displays of playfulness. Gruff is the word used by Timothy J. Desmond, Marineland's former assistant curator, who worked with the whales for 12 years.

A few times, Orky's temper flared into violence. Ten years ago, he nearly drowned a trainer whom he pinned to the bottom of the tank; other times he has warned trainers with angry shoves. But his outbursts are preceded by warnings--eyes that turn bloodshot-red, or a quick flip of his head.

Corky, who is half her mate's size, is more lighthearted, but can be just as testy. With a new trainer, she will at first be shy and standoffish. She requires a lot of attention, and once she gets it she becomes playful. Desmond used to play hide-and-seek with her; he would stand outside the windows of the tank and lightly tap the glass, sending her racing toward the sound.

Over the years, Orky and Corky have given birth to six calves. Two were stillborn. The other four lived only a short time. Marineland almost became the home of the first killer whale born and raised in captivity when Corky had her fourth calf, a female, in 1982. As with earlier births, Corky had trouble nursing, so the Marineland staff tube-fed the calf with man-made formula four times a day. It was an impressive success, and the calf flourished in the tank for nearly a month. Unfortunately, Marineland's animal specialists didn't have a ready answer for the next problem they encountered.

When the calf was a month old and began to show signs of independence, Corky became increasingly rough with her, bruising the calf by pinning her against the sides of the tank. Fearing for the calf's safety, the Marineland staff put her in a tank separate from her mother. The calf died a couple of days later.

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