Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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Not grousing about grouse

grouse
verb: to complain; to grumble

Yesterday I returned from a 17-day trip to Namibia and South Africa and after a string of special sightings, grousing is exactly what I wasn’t doing. One particular highlight was sightings of an order of birds I have never been lucky enough to encounter before.

Sandgrouse belong to the bird order Pterocliformes. This came about after they had previously been placed in two other orders. Firstly, they were included in the Galliformes, where the true grouse reside. They were placed here due to their anatomical similarities to the true grouse, although later on there was the realisation that this was not a result of genetic similarity but of convergent evolution (where two or more unrelated taxa evolve similar features, for example echolocation in the case of dolphins and bats). The next order they were included in was the Columbiformes which also contains pigeons and doves. This was because it was thought that they employed peristalsis in the oesophagus to suck up water – a pumping action which can draw liquid into the gullet – which is unusual in birds. Although now it is thought that this is incorrect, which stimulated the choice to place them in their own order.

There are sixteen species of sandgrouse species, found mostly in Asia and Africa. There are also some species in Europe such as Pin-tailed and Black-bellied which are found around the western Mediterranean. One has even made it to the UK: while most sandgrouse species are sedentary or make seasonal altitudinal movements at most, the Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which is usually found in central Asia, can be irruptive. Large irruptions have not been experienced in Europe for decades although they did occur regularly in the late 19th century. One irruption lead to thousands flooding into the UK and even breeding in a few locations.

As an order, they are well known for their drinking habits. Many species travel for miles to visit waterholes daily, where they can drink enough water in just few seconds to last them the 24 hours until the next visit. They are also famous for how they supply water to their young before they are able to fly to waterholes. The adult’s downy breast feathers are able to soak up lots of water, from which the chicks drink.

To avoid competition, different species visit waterholes at different times. This regularity makes waterholes ideal places to see many sandgrouse species with ease. During our stay at the Okaukuejo Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia, we noticed that there was a poster by the reception which mentioned that Double-banded Sandgrouse visit the waterhole 40 minutes before sunrise and Namaqua Sandgrouse visit between 9am and 10am. We were lucky enough to have a chalet right next to the floodlit waterhole which is the main attraction at the camp. I was not going to refuse an opportunity to see my first sandgrouse species, so the next morning at 6.10 am I sat on a bench overlooking the waterhole. It wasn’t long before the first Double-banded arrived on the edge of the waterhole; at first it was only one or two at any time but before long there were at least thirty at once. Considering it was pitch-black everywhere around the floodlit waterhole, I was impressed.

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Due to the light my camera was set to a shutterspeed of 1/4, fortunately when they first landed the sandgrouse had a habit of staying stock still for a few seconds to check for danger before proceeding to drink.

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A female Double-banded Sandgrouse.

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Some sandgrouse smudges and a couple of less-blurry males.

After breakfast we headed out on a game drive on the semi-arid plains of the park. It was the dry season so waterholes were in low supply, so much so that individual ones are marked out on the map. At 9.45 am we arrived at the first waterhole of the day, on the edge of the Etosha Pan. This pan, when it wasn’t a pan, would have been the third largest lake in the world after the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior. It is not entirely known how the lake dried up however tectonic movements changing the course of the river that fed it seems to be the most plausible explanation. Nowadays, its dry, salt-encrusted state causes a few small water-bodies to draw in animals from a very wide radius.

Among the springbok, gemsbok and other mammals that this particular waterhole had attracted, I noticed a good number of what I originally thought were Cape Turtle Doves. Although after a closer inspection I realised that they definitely were not these but Namaqua Sandgrouse, at exactly the right time in the morning!

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The light was better for our sighting of the Namaqua Sandgrouse than for the Double-banded Sandgrouse, however the distance was compromised. This image shows a male on the left and a female on the right.

After having never previously laid eyes on these fascinating birds, seeing two species in just one day was certainly more than I expected. Although a few days later, it became evident that the trip was about to become even better for sandgrouse. We were at our final destination of the Namibia leg of our travels, a lodge named Ondekaremba near to the Windhoek Airport. We had dropped our bags off at the lodge before then returning the rental car at the airport (then subsequently hailing a taxi for our return to the lodge and a hotel transfer to the airport the following morning). We were beginning to think this was not a good idea as the access road to the lodge was a four-mile dirt track weaving through the bushveld and a dry riverbed which was unforeseen. However, it certainly became worthwhile when my mum spotted some movement on the side of the road. My dad, seated on the nearest side of the car to the birds, proclaimed that they were sandgrouse which lead to my panicked scramble across the backseats. By the time the car had come to a stop they were so close that I had to lean right out of the window to get a view of them below us. There were two, presumably a male and a female. The female was hard to see in the roadside grass although the male was walking slowly unobscured along the road itself. Compared to the poor light for the Double-bandeds and the distance involved with the Namaquas, I had no excuses with these birds. Luckily, in my opinion I don’t need any! What made this encounter even more memorable was the fact that they were a third species: Burchell’s! I couldn’t help feeling that my luck was well and truly in. Three out of the four species inhabiting Southern Africa in less than a week is not bad going.

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The male Burchell’s Sandgrouse.

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This species is known for travelling around 100 miles each day to its favourite waterhole.

 

 

 

 

 

The Conservationist’s Battleground

It’s just past midday and in the 35 degree heat, we drive along the National Highway-29 with an expanse of wild floodplain to our north and forested highlands to our south. As we pass a small, one-man roadside fortification, a shooting post, we are told about this area’s ever-present war. This is not just a deterrent where untrained local militia shoot at an intruder’s feet to ward them off. Someone was fatally shot here the previous night, as they are every few weeks.

‘The Pride of Assam’ roams the Kaziranga National Park we had just exited. With an alleged higher potency than the horns of its African counterpart, it is in particularly high demand in Asian countries, especially Vietnam, where it is used as a supposed cure for cancer. Its value is highlighted by the risks the poachers will take to harvest it. Approximately the same number of people are killed by the anti-poaching force each year as their quarry are by poachers: the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros.

The Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, is one of five rhino species worldwide, with three being found in Asia. Every species has experienced declines.

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Adult female Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park

The Javan Rhinoceros is one of the rarest large mammals in the world. It used to be widespread in south-east Asia, with its range stretching from the Sunderbans in east India, east to the Vietnam coast and south to Central Java. Now, only around 120 years  since it first became locally extinct in India, the sole remaining population inhabits the Ujung Kulon National Park. The park has an area of 1200 square kilometres, of which about a third is marine and supports as few as 60 Javan Rhinos.

The Sumatran Rhinoceros is only slightly less rare. It once had a similar range to the Javan Rhinoceros, and although it didn’t inhabit Vietnam, it was found in Borneo, where one of the four or five populations is located. Although there are more individual populations than the Javan Rhinoceros, these are tiny and probably add up to fewer than 100 individuals.

Fortunately, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros is approaching 4000 individuals having almost doubled over the past couple of decades. Despite this, as with the other two species we have looked at, the distribution has decreased from a wide band ranging from Pakistan to the easternmost point of India to several scattered pockets in south Nepal, West Bengal and along the Brahmaputra River in Assam; and there is a chance there is a population in the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.

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One of the first rhinos we saw in Kaziranga National Park

The increase in the population of this species is at least partly due to the work of anti-poachers around the populations of this rhino, particularly around the national parks where many of the rhinos live. Nepal is an excellent example where the holy grail of zero-poaching has actually been achieved, where several very popular species in the markets of Vietnam and other East Asian countries such as Tiger, Asian Elephant and Rhinos live. With almost a quarter of the country assigned as national parks and other protected areas such as Bardiya NP and Chitwan NP, where I was lucky enough to see both Tiger and Rhino several years ago, and a huge commitment from the authorities, it has illustrated that the war against poaching doesn’t have to be an insurmountable battle.

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Inhabitants of the many river sandbanks along the Brahmaputra River. In some places such as near Chitwan National Park, children are being educated about conservation with projects such as Eco Clubs in schools.

In my opinion Kaziranga National Park and other areas in India which support the Greater One-horned Rhino may soon realise the abolition of poaching. If the anti-poaching rangers continue risking their lives to save this magnificent animal, and other approaches such as monitoring and education continue to be implemented, then this rhino may just survive and perhaps even prosper.

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Mother and calf on the misty plains of elephant-grass.

 

 

Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

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The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch

Britain’s Rarest Fish

Yesterday I arrived back from a week-long trip to the Lake District, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The landscape of the Lake District, with all the fells and lakes, is absolutely stunning, but so is the wildlife. In this post I will be writing about 2 of the fish that we saw on our trip, out of the 4 new species I have so far added to my Pan-species list. I am very pleased with the addition of these new species as it raises my fish list from only 7 to 11. Despite this still meagre total, I am very proud to say that following my trip I now have the 2 rarest fish in the British Isles on my list, the Schelly and the Vendace!

Schelly

The Schelly is a very rare fish , being endemic to the United Kingdom and even Cumbria. In fact it is only found in four lakes worldwide, Red Tarn, Haweswater, Brotherswater and Ullswater, and is classified as endangered. The combined area of those lakes forms the species’ area of occupancy, which is a tiny total of 20 km². That’s equivalent to half the size of Portsmouth!

During our trip to the Lake District we visited two of the lakes where the fish lives, Haweswater and Ullswater. In Haweswater, the population has been in decline unlike the other 3 lakes where the population is stable. According to the website of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Redlist, which assesses species trends etc. and assigns them a category such as endangered or vulnerable, the two main reasons for the decline of the Schelly from the reservoir is water abstraction and predation from the humble cormorant. Water abstraction is the taking of water, permanently or temporarily, from a water body. The fact that Haweswater is a reservoir means that water abstraction is often practised, and this process can harm the environment. The good news is that conservation actions are taking place to conserve the Schelly, namely reducing water abstraction in Haweswater and taking control measures on Cormorants, according to the IUCN website.

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Clouds looming over Ullswater

Vendace

Now, the Vendace is the rarest fish in Britain. As a native species, confined to only two lakes globally, both in the Lake District, and introduced to one more in Scotland. The combined area of the two lakes where it is found in the Lake District is just 9.9 square km, making its native distribution area 10 times smaller than Paris! The Vendace used to be found in two further lakes, both in Scotland, however both populations were extirpated due to eutrophication. Eutrophication is the excessive abundance of nutrients in the water of a lake which causes very dense growth of plants. Eutrophication is often due to run-off from the surrounding land.

The main threats to the population of Vendace is the Ruffe, an introduced fish which feeds on the eggs of the Vendace. However, the Ruffe has only been introduced to Lake Bassenthwaite, not Derwentwater, the other lake in which it inhabits. Luckily there aren’t any clear threats to the population in Derwentwater, and fishing of this species has been banned. The Bassenthwaite population of this species even seems to be increasing. The species was declared locally extinct in Bassenthwaite in 2008 after the last fish had been recorded in 2001, but had been rediscovered a few years ago. It is possible that the fish found in Bassenthwaite come from the Derwentwater population and had travelled down the river from Derwentwater to Bassenthwaite.

The introduced population in Scotland, in Loch Skene, is doing very well, with a larger population than Derwentwater. The precise figure is nearly 10 times more Vendace per hectare than in Derwentwater, which is excellent! The species was introduced to Loch Skene when the population in Bassenthwaite Lake was seen to be very unstable due to the severe decrease in the habitat quality in the lake. This is a very good example of a successful conservation action.

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Looking across Derwentwater

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The gravel shores where I saw the young Vendace

I’m very pleased to have had the privilege to have seen these two fish as they are both in danger of extinction. Before I visited the lakes where these two fish are found I had no idea either of them even existed. Rare species like this are usually extremely poorly known by the general public and they don’t get the publicity that they deserve as they aren’t all that impressive, like tigers or pandas. However, just because they aren’t impressive it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be saved from extinction. I think we should raise more awareness for these not very well known species in order to conserve them for future generations to cherish and enjoy.

One of the Rarest Cats in the World: The Iberian Lynx

On Boxing Day, I was lucky enough to be heading out to Sierra de Andújar in Southern Spain to look for the extremely rare Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus), of which there are only a few hundred left in only a handful of sites.

Sierra de Andújar is a natural park, which can’t be called a national park as most of it is privately owned by deer and boar hunters. However, there is a road running through it and across the sides of sandy, shrubby mountains that gives the Lynx watcher an excellent view of the surrounding area. I have nicknamed the road the ‘Lynx road’.

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The view from the Lynx Road (there’s a Lynx there somewhere!)

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Our excellent guide, Pau Lucio, on the Lynx Road

We had an excellent guide: the Tour Manager of Birdwatching Spain, Pau Lucio. As well as having great knowledge about the Lynx and other wildlife, he also knew the best spots to find each species.

As well as a few distant views of the Lynx, we had one amazing sighting. We had just returned from a trip to explore one of the dams in the park and we stopped at Pau’s favourite spot along the Lynx road to see if anything would show up. We noticed that there were a lot of people (50 or so) hurrying around the corner with their telescopes. Pau asked them in Spanish if they had seen anything and they said that a Lynx was coming around the mountain corner about 70m from the road, which was closer than one had come to me before. We stood waiting for the Lynx to appear for quite a long time. I spotted it first when it came around the corner, but typically, as soon as I took my eye off it to show the other people where it was, I lost it. They have such good camouflage! I only saw it again once it had walked 50m further away from us and reached a firebreak.

But then it started to walk along the firebreak towards a stretch of the Lynx road, so a few of the Lynx watchers and I went to that stretch of road hoping that it was going to cross there. Inevitably we couldn’t see the Lynx when we got there, but it definitely hadn’t crossed the road. Suddenly I heard some noise from a group behind us and I turned to see them frantically gesturing for me to come. It must be the Lynx. It was, and it wasn’t even walking away from us! It was actually walking towards us and looked set to cross the road in front of us! It was on relatively open ground so I got a few nice photos of it walking towards the road, but no good ones of it crossing the road. This was because it bounded across, which surprised us as it was so calm before. Pau said that the moment it touches the road, it knows it must run. Good Lynx. The biggest reason for the Lynx’s decline is road accidents.

Walking...

Walking…

A quick look back

A quick look back

It caught me by surprise!

It caught me by surprise!

At the end of the trip, we watched a slideshow compiled by some of the guests of the villa in which we were staying, who visited the area two years ago. I learnt quite a lot, even though it was in French. One of the points that was very powerful was that in thousands of years no cat has gone extinct but there is a real danger of the Iberian Lynx being the first. However, the population is increasing. When at its lowest point there were only around 100 individuals, compared to today’s 300. Hopefully the Iberian Lynx population continues to increase.

Blackfish

I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit the lovely country of Canada over the summer holidays. We visited both Toronto and Vancouver during our stay, but most of it was spent at Knight Inlet lodge just north of Vancouver. This lodge is excellent for Grizzly Bear viewing, especially in autumn when they are actively fishing for salmon. However, definitely one of the highlights of the trip was the day we went whale watching in Johnstone Strait with a special focus on Orcas.

It was a long boat ride to the spot where the Orcas were last seen, but it was worth it when we got there. It took a while to actually locate the Orcas though, they are surprisingly hard to spot. Every breaking wave looked like an Orca to me! Even when we did finally catch sight of them they were easy to lose track of as they can hold their breath for as long as 12 minutes! They also move quickly; the synonym ‘Killer Whale’ is a misnomer as they are actually members of the dolphin family rather than the much slower moving whales. To give you an indication of size, the largest male we saw had a dorsal fin that measured around 6 feet! That’s more than 1.8 metres!

Our guide, Paul, seemed to have predicted where the Orcas would be and had no hesitation when zooming at full speed towards the spot where they were. However, he was actually heading towards a position relayed to him from an Orca watch team, which watch an area of the strait for quite a lot of the year. You must be patient for that job! There is also a team which act as a sort of ‘Orca police’, which go around in a speedboat making sure everyone is sticking to the rule that you can’t be within 100 metres of an Orca unless it comes to you.

Once we were into the groove of Orca watching, they seemed to be everywhere. They kept on surfacing around the boat and it seemed like there were hundreds of them! There turned out to be only thirty or so, but due to their ability to hold their breath so long they kept on appearing at completely different positions from when they were last seen.

You may be wondering why the title of the post is ‘Blackfish’. Well, coincidentally the lodge had a talk on Orcas the following evening and I learnt a lot. I found out that there was a movie called Blackfish made about a particular Orca that was held captive at SeaWorld for a long time called Tilikum. He was caught near Iceland in 1983 measuring 13 feet, but he now measures 22 feet and is the largest Orca in captivity. He was taken away from his home and family at only 2 years old and was kept in a tiny holding tank where all an Orca could do is float and swim in small circles. He was eventually transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a rundown park in British Columbia where his pool was only 100 by 50 feet and was just 35 feet deep. He relentlessly performed every hour, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and when the park closed he was crammed into a tiny round module with 2 other female Orcas until the next morning.

The rundown park closed after Tilikum and the two other female Orcas dragged a trainer down to the bottom of the pool and tossed her around until she drowned. Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld for a captive breeding programme. For 21 years Tilikum lived in SeaWorld, in a tank that contained only 0.0001 percent of the amount of water that he would travel through in only a day in the wild. This was clearly stressful for the Orca, and he started chewing on the edges of the tank, which wore down his teeth substantially. He also had a collapsed dorsal fin, which is very common in captivity but rare in the wild. He even killed 2 more people! After the last death he was put in isolation in such a small tank that he couldn’t swim. He would float aimlessly for hours at a time. In the wild, even when an Orca is sleeping it never stops moving!

We watched the Orcas for around 2 and a half hours and I never got bored. If the Orcas weren’t showing (which was rare), we still had Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals and even a group of male Steller’s Sealions to entertain us! Birds were amazing too, the highlight being a lone Cassin’s Auklet among hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes combing the water’s surface.

Orcas

Orcas

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes

Steller's Sealions

Steller’s Sealions