The Russian Dolphinarium Part I – Wait 20 to 30 Years and You’ll Be Ready for an Orca


For over thirty years, I thought one thing to be true: that it all started with Shamu.  To place it another way, the global dolphinarium industry spread so rapidly during the 70’s and 80’s because of the success of Shamu and Sea World’s killer whales, that because they saw the huge attendance and profit these animals could bring, every dolphinarium owner wanted to place one in their dolphin tank – often a tank far too small.

While studying the industry that operates in Russia and China, I came to a much different conclusion.  In the Communist East, it was not Shamu that led to the rise of the dolphinarium and the Russian orca market.  It was rather societal progress.  When a society reaches a certain level of sustainability in zoological exhibits or shows, it begins to look for the next big challenge – something bigger, something more exciting, something more exotic, something more profitable.  In the Communist East, there were no captive orcas on display prior to this Century*.

The modern Western dolphinarium can trace its roots back to 1938 (Marine Studios, later Marineland of Florida).  The Soviet Union would not have its first dolphinarium until 1975, when one opened in Batumi,  a Black Sea resort town in modern day Georgia.  23 years after the opening of Marine Studios, Wanda would become the first orca to be held alive in modern captivity – at Marineland of the Pacific.  She lasted two full days.   Three years later, it was Moby Doll.  The year after that, Namu, then Shamu.

Russia’s orca revolution began at the place in the photo above – at Utrish, also on the Black Sea.   In 2003, 28 years after the first Soviet dolphinarium, a female orca was captured and placed in a sea pen at the Ultrish Dolphinarium.  Here is the account of what transpired, from the official report of the Marine Mammal Council, dated December 9, 2003:

 LM Mukhametov, Ph.D. (IEE RAS, Utrish Dolphinarium) reported the circumstances of the capture and death of a killer whale in the Utrish Dolphinarium.

Attempts to capture orcas with seine nets were few, and most were unfortunate. Animals left over the top, or by diving under the lower net. This managed to happen even with calves.

Not even Rapporteur has placed a successful capture.  It is roughly 45-50 miles (his words “four o’clock fly”) from Avacha Bay. (In fact, according to our data, the capture was actually in the Bay of Sabotage, which is located about 15 kilometers from the entrance of Avacha Bay).  They encountered a group of 9 – 10 animals (which is a violation of the rules of capture, according to which based on the number of cetaceans, cast nets shall not exceed 5 layers). Most of them had gone over the upper part of the net, just jumping and floating. In the end, inside the net remained five animals.

Two swimmers were released from inside the net. One whale died because it did not see, did not even know that it was in the net, jerking was heard. Another orca was still captivated.

The age of the animals was determined by the ratio tables for ages and sizes of animals.

Unfortunately, I could not ask for some populations from composed tables (Pacific killer whales are much larger than the Atlantic, such as a newborn in the Atlantic has dimensions of 220-230 cm and 250-270 cm in the Pacific).

The dimensions of killer whale: 435 cm in length and weigh ~ 1100 kg. For several days, the orca was kept in a fenced off area in the Gulf of Kamchatka, but muddy water did not allow us to establish precisely whether or not feeding occurred. The fish was thrown into a pond, it was observed that the whale took it into its mouth. However, if it was ingested, it is unknown.  Therefore, the killer whale was transported to Utrish in a complete water bath. During transportation, it emitted so much feces that comrades thought it was a sign of a successful feeding.

There is something I do not understand here, to be frank. Bottlenose eat with difficulty, against the backdrop of the relevant drugs. I personally saw how powerful eaters belugas are. What I recounted to [Leo] Mukhametov, saying that there was a likelihood that the wild orca just threw the fish, and it is the very beginning of it there?

We used Antistress drugs: When asked, Rapporteur mentioned only one – relanium or Valium (another name). A blood test showed the presence of inflammation in the body.
The killer whale had died after 13 days.

The autopsy revealed a large number of worms. Also was found morbillivirus. The blame lay for the death of the animal on the morbillivirus, because it can cause the lung lesion that was detected. On the basis of what Rapporteur has repeatedly claimed, the entire population is infected, and is on the verge of epizootic diseases.

The findings of the scientific meeting:

Krokhin: let’s say thanks to Mukhametov that this moves forward Russian science, not only to catch up with the Americans. By the way, I’ve developed a patent for catching whales, let me in, and’s let’s go.

Goskomrybolovstvo: estimate of the number of killer whales in the Sea of Okhotsk – 2500.

K.b.n YD Starodubtsev (Moscow State University): think how many thousands of people will be brought joy by one single killer whale.

K. Alexander Zharikov (VNIRO): catching ten whales will not affect the population.

DSc, acad. AV Yablokov: a proposal to reduce the TAC include, development of methods of catching, feeding and content specifically for killer whales.

LM Mukhametov, Ph.D.: We should prohibit the fishing network, because it leads to an increased likelihood of mortality and loss of corpses, which are also valuable. By the way, the bodies are also a great value for science. Now they are exploring killer whale brains and viscera and blood sent for analysis to Novosibirsk.

He argues that the preservation of killer whales as a species is only possible in the aquarium, referring to his own experience reintroducing bottlenose dolphins in the Black Sea.

Prof. VA Zemsky previously concluded: Mukhametova congratulates this beginning, and offers to develop special techniques for catching whales.

A decade later, the killer whale capture industry in Russia would be well under way.  And Ultrish would be threatened by new players out of Moscow and the Ukraine moving in on its turf.  It would bring forth allegations in its attempt to survive of criminal activity by the newcomers, organized crime connections, and government corruption.

Next time: Ultrish, NEMO, White Whale, Moskvarium, TINRO Center, FEBRAS and the web connecting them all.

*Ocean Park in Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony at the time it held orcas


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