12 min read

Orca At Infamous Marine Park Just Had A Baby — And People Are Worried

She was taken from her wild family too young to learn how to be a mom 💔

When a young wild orca named Morgan was captured from the wild and sold to a marine park, she lost everything natural in her life — and now people are worried her life just got even worse.

Last week, Loro Parque, a controversial zoo and marine park in the Canary Islands, announced that Morgan, one of its resident orcas, gave birth to a new calf. While supporters of the park celebrated the news, animal welfare advocates took a different view — they believe that Morgan shouldn’t have had a baby in the first place.

Mother orca and calf
Morgan and her newborn calf | Facebook/Loro Parque

Prior to 2010, Morgan was a wild orca who lived freely in the ocean with her family members. But when she was found emaciated and weak in the Wadden Sea, the team at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands captured Morgan and nursed her back to health.

But instead of returning her to the ocean once she was better, they shipped her to Loro Parque in 2011, an amusement park that makes money off its performing orcas — four of whom were borrowed from SeaWorld, although SeaWorld no longer lays claim to them.

Since then, Morgan has been forced to perform show after show at Loro Parque, and she’s often shown signs of distress. In 2016, Morgan was filmed intentionally beaching herself on two separate occasions, highly abnormal behavior.

Orca beaching herself after performance
Morgan beaching herself after a performance in 2016 | Georg Volk

It’s likely she did this to avoid aggression from her tankmates as she has been relentlessly bullied by her companions, Dr. Ingrid Visser, an orca biologist and cofounder of the Free Morgan Foundation, told The Dodo at the time. In fact, photos emerged of Morgan showing deep rake marks from other orcas’ teeth across her eye patch and belly.

Now Morgan is being faced with a new challenge — taking care of a baby she shouldn’t have had in the first place.

In the wild, female orcas have a lot of control over whom they mate with, according to Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). If they’re not keen on mating with a particular male, they can just swim away. But in a captive environment like Loro Parque, Morgan probably couldn’t freely choose — while it’s possible the park artificially inseminated her with outside sperm, it’s more likely the father is one of the park’s two older male orcas, Keto or Tekoa.

Captive orca with rake marks across her face
Morgan with rake marks across her face | Free Morgan Foundation

Rose doesn’t believe the park should have ever allowed this to happen, mainly due to Morgan’s young age and her inexperience as a mom.

“A young orca is taught how to be a mom during her juvenile and adolescent life stages,” Rose told The Dodo. “She even babysits siblings, other relatives, and sometimes the offspring of her mother’s friends in the years leading up to her first birth. She intensifies this babysitting behavior (technically called alloparental care) during her first pregnancy. Then, when she gives birth, she is attended by ‘aunties’ — her mother, her actual aunts, her sisters, her cousins, other female podmates. She is not alone — she is assisted.”

“In captivity, obviously this tried-and-true system is subverted,” Rose added. “Young orcas often have no mentors and no opportunities to babysit. They grow up ignorant. They do their best after birth, but may literally not know what to do. This is the downside of sophisticated cognition — even mothering is not instinctive. You have to learn and if you don’t have the opportunity, you might fail at it.”

Pregnant orca at marine park
A very pregnant Morgan in August 2018 | Facebook/Kathleen McGarr

There’s also the issue with Morgan’s milk production. Two days after giving birth, the park separated the baby from her mom, citing Morgan’s inability to produce enough milk. While it’s not clear if the park’s explanation is true, Rose points out that captivity makes it extremely difficult for an orca mom to nurse her baby, especially when she’s stuck in a smaller-than-usual tank.

“Physically, they need lots of space, because suckling in cetaceans is not a matter of an infant latching onto a teat,” Rose said. “Rather they position themselves next to their mother’s mammary glands ... and the mother pumps milk (very high in fat, so think squirting liquid-y cottage cheese!) into the calf’s mouth in the short space between the mammary opening and the calf’s mouth. So in nature, they glide together in this formation in a straight line long while the milk goes into the calf’s mouth — they might manage hundreds of feet of swimming this way before the ‘seal’ between calf’s mouth and mother’s skin is broken.”

“But in captivity, the mother has to bank and turn when she reaches the end of the tank and the seal is broken every time she does that,” Rose added. “So she gets a few squirts of milk into her calf up one side a tank and then banks and turns and does it again down the other. Not the most efficient way to nurse.”

Pregnant orca performing in a show
Morgan performing a show while pregnant | Facebook/Kathleen McGarr

The park has now returned the calf to Morgan and, in a recent blog post, wrote that staffers were supplementing Morgan’s milk with bottle-feeding. Yet Rose remains skeptical about what’s going on at the park.

“I don’t trust anything Loro Parque says, frankly,” Rose said. “They’ve already put them back together, so it’s unlikely that it was insufficient milk production, because removing the calf would have made that worse, not better — the presence of a suckling infant is part of what stimulates milk production! I wonder if it was more that Morgan was behaving in a way that made them fear rejection, as happened twice with Kohana [another female orca at the park], but then Morgan actually seemed interested in returning to the calf, so they put them back together.”

In 2010, Kohana, one of the two other resident female orcas at Loro Parque, gave birth to a male calf named Adan, whom the staff had to raise after Kohana rejected him. After Kohana’s failure at motherhood the first time, the park still allowed her to get pregnant again. In 2012, she gave birth to a female calf named Vicky, but Kohana rejected her as well. Once again, the park stepped in to raise the calf, but Vicky died the following year.

“Kohana rejected both her calves, not necessarily because she didn’t care, but because she was ignorant [of how to mother],” Rose said. “I suspect the same for Morgan and I do not trust Loro Parque’s characterization of her mothering skills. We’ll see what happens — they’ve already separated the two once and may have to again.”

Unfortunately, Rose thinks Morgan has been held in captivity for too long now to be safely returned to the wild, although she could be retired to a seaside sanctuary.

“Frankly, I could be wrong,” Rose said. “If she were returned to her natal pod, maybe someone would recognize her or she might recognize them and maybe they could work it out. But I am not confident of that.”

To help create a seaside sanctuary where orcas like Morgan could comfortably retire, you make a donation to the Whale Sanctuary Project.