Herman Melville is the author of the 19th century novel Moby-Dick, or The Whale.
During the time of its publication, Melville’s friend, fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, rebuffed the ideas of Transcendentalist writers Emerson and Thoreau, who advocated a simple lifestyle and a mindset that people are a part of nature, not above it.
Hawthorne happened to like the urbane lifestyle, complete with its detachment from the harshness of winter.
Melville’s novel, famous for its monomaniacal madman Captain Ahab’s quest to kill the white Sperm Whale that severed his leg, explores the idea that nature can inspire one to find inner calm, to achieve a zen-like state, in step with Emerson and Thoreau. Like his friend Hawthorne, though, Melville cautions that nature is not servile to man-it has its own pecking order and agenda, and it is to be treated as equally benign and dangerous as any man may potentially be.
Thus, to cut a seven hundred-something book short, Ahab’s quest to slay the White Whale at all costs is misguided as the creature disfigured him not out of malice, but in self-defense.
Remarkably, Melville’s work is loosely based off of a true story, that of the whaleship Essex, sunk in the middle of the Pacific by a large white Sperm Whale that rammed the ship after being attacked.
I raise the subject because of the shocking events today in SeaWorld Orlando, which I was going to plan a trip to in the coming weeks.
Orcas rarely attack humans in the wild, but like any housepet, if you harass them while they are irritable, they can be fatally aggressive.
As the second article I’ve attached a link to (and the full text should it no longer work) indicates, this is a very rare circumstance as Orcas (AKA Killer Whales) do not attack people in the wild. Yes, you’ve heard about shark attacks. Yes, you’ve heard sharks eat seals, as do Orcas, and that sharks likely mistake swimmers for seals. Orcas, for whatever reason, don’t do this. I’ve seen video of them launching themselves out of the ocean, grabbing a seal, and shimmying back into the water with it. I know they’re pack hunters, and will go after anything they please, including Great White sharks, and win handily… Sperm Whales are one of the few things scientists believe that Orcas will not mess with. Even if an adult Sperm Whale is outnumbered by a pack of Orcas, as a larger (but toothless) Blue Whale has been that a pack of Orcas have killed and eaten, Sperm Whales seem to be the king of the ocean. They do eat Giant Squid, miles under the ocean.
If the links do not work:
Whale Kills Trainer As Horrified Spectators Watch
Worker Dragged From Platform, Killed By Whale
MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press Writer
POSTED: 3:34 pm EST February 24, 2010
UPDATED: 10:46 pm EST February 24, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. — A SeaWorld killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform Wednesday in its jaws and thrashed the woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.
Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium immediately, and the park was closed.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park’s most experienced. Her sister said Brancheau wouldn’t want anything done to the whale that killed her because she loved the animals like children.
Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum after a noontime show when the 12,000-pound whale grabbed her and pulled her in, said Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks. It was not clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park’s 29 trainers worked with him. Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most.
“We recognized he was different,” Tompkins said. He said no decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tilikum, such as transferring him to another facility.
A retired couple from Michigan told The Associated Press that they were among some stragglers in the audience who had stayed to watch the animals and trainers.
Eldon Skaggs, 72, said Brancheau’s interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the whale “pulled her under and started swimming around with her,” he said.
Skaggs said an alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets.
Skaggs said he heard that during an earlier show the whale was not responding to directions. Others who attended the earlier show said the whale was behaving like an ornery child.
The couple left and didn’t find out until later that the trainer had died.
“We were just a little bit stunned,” said Skaggs’ wife, Sue Nichols, 67.
Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV the whale “took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off.”
Two other witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale grabbed the woman by the upper arm and tossed her around in its mouth while swimming rapidly around the tank. Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho and his girlfriend were at an underwater viewing area when they suddenly saw a whale with a person in its mouth.
The couple said they watched the whale show at the park two days earlier and came back to take pictures. But on Wednesday the whales appeared agitated.
“It was terrible. It’s very difficult to see the image,” Sobrinho said.
A SeaWorld spokesman said Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia.
Steve Huxter, who was head of Sealand’s animal care and training department then, said Wednesday he’s surprised it happened again. He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.
Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.
Later Wednesday, SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show. It was not clear if the killer whale show has been suspended at SeaWorld’s San Antonio location, which is closed until the weekend.
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando’s leading trainers. It was a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path. Dawn was the youngest of six children who grew up near Cedar Lake, Ind.
“I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, ‘This is what I want to do,'” she said in the article.
Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending 10 years working with killer whales, the newspaper said.
She also addressed the dangers of the job.
“You can’t put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you,” Brancheau said.
Brancheau’s older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer “would not want anything done to that whale.”
The trainer was married and didn’t have children.
“She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them,” said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. “They all had personalities, good days and bad days.”
Gross said the family viewed her sister’s death as an unfortunate accident, adding: “It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager at the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida Atlantic University, said the whale may have been playing, but it is too early to tell.
“I wouldn’t jump to conclusions,” he said. “These are very large powerful marine mammals. They exhibit this type of behavior in the wild.
Tompkins, the SeaWorld head trainer, said of the whale: “We have no idea what was going through his head.”
Mike Wald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency had dispatched an investigator from Tampa.
Wednesday’s death was not the first attack on whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld’s San Diego park.
The trainer, Kenneth Peters, escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot orca that attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld San Diego’s seven killer whales. She had attacked Peters two other times, in 1993 and 1999.
In 2004, another whale at the company’s San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also escaped.
Wednesday’s attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a whale and crushed his ribcage at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Park officials said the whale, a 14-year-old named Keto, made an unusual move as the two practiced a trick in which the whale lifts the trainer and leaps into the air.
Associated Press writers Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Laura Wides-Munoz and David Fischer in Miami, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg and Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to this report
LiveScience Managing Editor
LiveScience.com jeanna Bryner
livescience Managing Editor
livescience.com – Wed Feb 24, 5:45 pm ET
News of a trainer being killed by a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando today doesn’t change the fact that these giants, while deadly predators, do not kill humans at sea.
“They have never killed a human in the wild,” said Nancy Black, a marine biologist with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. That’s mostly because, unlike sharks, killer whales don’t frequent near-shore areas where people swim. (Even shark attacks on humans are generally accidental, experts say, with sharks mistaking humans for seals or other typical food.)
Details of the event today were sketchy, and SeaWorld officials contacted by LiveScience said they could not comment on the incident yet. According to news reports, the orca drowned its female trainer as tourists watched in horror.
But this killer whale at SeaWorld probably didn’t intentionally kill the trainer.
“I just think the killer whale may have wanted a social companion and just held her under too long,” Black told LiveScience. “I would think the killer whale didn’t do it intentionally but more as a play thing. They’re so powerful.” She added killer whales don’t have to come up for air as often as a human might and could reasonably hold someone underwater for 15 to 20 minutes.
Possibly the killer whale just got bored, she said, since their lives in captivity are more confined than at sea where they spend time swimming hundreds of miles while hunting or playing.
“I’ve seen them toss seals 20 feet in the air with their flukes. They could mistake you for another mammal,” Black said of the transients.
In general, killer whales, or Orcinus orca, are very intelligent and playful animals, amusing themselves anything from kelp to seals, Black said. But even though they are shown off at aquaria with fuzzy stuffed animals to boot, they are still wild animals.
And they are big, growing to 32 feet (nearly 10 meters) and weigh a whopping 18,000 pounds (8,164 kg), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As apex predators, killer whales have few enemies, vulnerable only to large sharks.
Their fierce reputation comes from interactions with whales, not humans. In fact, sailors who witnessed killer whale attacks on larger cetaceans referred to the animals as “whale killers.” That name changed to killer whales. The Spanish sometimes refer to the orca as Ballena asesina, meaning “assassin whale,” according to the MarineBio Conservation Society.
Not all orcas dine on mammals. Those living in Norway prefer fish. But the so-called transients, which occur throughout the eastern North Pacific, eat other marine mammals, such as dolphins, sea lions and seals.