John Lilly, the guy who says he can talk to dolphins, said he was in an aquarium and he was talking to a big whale who was swimming around and around in his tank. And the whale kept asking him questions telepathically. And one of the questions the whale kept asking was: Do all oceans have walls? —Laurie Anderson
Summer haunts Sumar, the Orca who died at the tender age of twelve this September in a SeaWorld tank. Sumar means ‘summer" in Icelandic and in bitter irony, the young Orca spent his days in lands of endless summer, Orlando, Florida, and San Diego, California. His short life ended in late summer, that time of year when golden days begin their slide into the melancholia of fall. His story is a tragic page in a history of violence.
Sumar was born to another captive-bred Orca, Taima. However, while birthed in the confines of an aquarium, Taima was Gudrunsdottir, daughter of the wild caught Orca, Gudrun. This Icelandic matriarch was rounded up and captured from frigid northern waters in the 1970's. Her first destination was a tank in the Netherlands at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk entertainment park. In 1987, Gudrun was moved to SeaWorld where she gave birth to Taima in 1989 and a few years later to Nyar, both daughters.
Nyar was described as psychologically and physically weak. Gudrun reportedly assaulted her on multiple occasions. The mother tried to drown her own daughter. Nyar succumbed to her illnesses at the age of two and one half. Her sister, Taima, matured and was bred with the wild caught Orca Tillikum. In 1998, Taima gave birth to young Sumar.
Tillikum also made news this year when he killed his SeaWorld trainer. His files reveal a history of violent episodes as do records of Taima. Similar to Gudrun, Taima abused her children- repeatedly throwing and biting the six-month young calf Sumar and attacking a second son, Tekoa. Both children were taken from their mother.
None of this behaviour is observed in the wild. Neuropsychologists wearily remind us that, similar to humans caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, Orcas are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous trauma. Children oftimes bear the sins of their fathers and mothers. But, in this case, the Orca parents committed no crime. Gudrun, Taima, Tillikum, Sumar, and Nyar are members of an ill-fated dynasty of victims condemned to the violence of captivity and the grotesquery of life as an entertainment show.
Sumar was not even two years old when his Icelandic grandmother died. Only three months before Sumar's own death, his mother, Taima, died at twenty years of age, after giving birth to a stillborn baby.
Gudrun passed to Orca Valhalla before Sumar could hear songs of ancestral depths and whale legends, of icebergs, polar bears, and seals made silver swimming through ice-green waters, of winds and whistling whales who herald the coming of the great marine civilization, Orcinus orca.
Did Gudrun teach her daughter Orca lore in hope that she might one day escape home, or did madness spawned from the rupture of capture consume her mind and render wisdom into rage? Were Gudrun and Taima abusive or were they desperate bewildered mothers, themselves mortally wounded psychologically by the anguish of aquaria life? Before he died, did Sumar ask his mother, Do all oceans have walls?
Gay Bradshaw is executive director of The Kerulos Center.