SeaWorld killer whale’s severe injury: accident or battle wound?

News of the gruesome injury suffered recently by Nakai, an 11-year-old male killer whale at SeaWorld in San Diego, was kept quiet for a week, until reports surfaced that a large portion of the mammal’s chin area had been sheared off. Nearly two weeks later, it remains unclear exactly what occurred during a private after-hours show, but a leading researcher has suggested that Nakai’s injury may have been caused by another killer whale.

Nakai suffered his injury during a nighttime show on Sept. 20. Four puncture marks near the trainer’s right foot may represent bite marks from another killer whale, or orca. All images are courtesy of Ingrid Visser and protected by copyright laws

A SeaWorld statement issued last week reads: “It is believed Nakai’s injury occurred when he came in contact with a portion of the pool environment. He was quickly treated by park veterinarians. Nakai is currently receiving antibiotics and the veterinarians are pleased with the healing progress of his wound. He is swimming comfortably and interacting with the other killer whales at the Shamu Stadium pool complex.”

On Sunday, however, images captured by Ingrid Visser, who runs the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand, show what she says appear to be puncture wounds consistent with killer whale bite marks (see top image).

Visser is quoted on Tim Zimmermann’s website as saying, “Of note is that in [the top photo], at the bottom right of the wound, near the trainer’s shoe in the photo, there are four puncture marks — and the spacing matches that for orca teeth — as you can see from Nakai’s teeth in this same photo.”

SeaWorld has denied that the injury was caused by an orca bite, and Visser said Monday, via email, that Nakai was “hidden from view” after she was seen taking photographs of the mammal.

Zimmermann was first to write about the injury, last week, and to obtain images showing the extent of the injury.

Nakai, the first orca conceived and successfully born through artificial insemination, was performing with Keet and Ike. The three were at the stage together “when all three killer whales suddenly took off without warning and started fighting one another,” wrote Zimmermann, who has discussed details regarding the incident with SeaWorld insiders.

“SeaWorld’s review of the tapes could not identify an instigator or an aggressor,” Zimmermann added.

After this, Nakai fled to the back of the pool and the show continued, with Keet and Ike. Trainers did not realize until later that Nakai had been seriously injured. The missing portion of lower jaw was recovered at the bottom of the pool, but could not be reattached.

Nakai has been treated extensively with antibiotics and his wound spread with honey as a soothing agent.

In light of the severity of Nakai’s wound, Zimmermann wrote, “SeaWorld San Diego will henceforth adopt the practice of immediately checking any killer whales involved in similar, high-intensity, melees to try and make sure that injuries are identified right away.”

The facility has nine killer whales, and understanding all the complexities of their relationships, even for veteran trainers and veterinarians, simply is not possible.

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