It may be that we never really know how Nakai injured his jaw (though we do know—and SeaWorld has confirmed with their euphemistic language about him having a “normal social interaction” with two other whales immediately prior to the injury—that a fight was involved).
For what it is worth, I am told that even SeaWorld San Diego can’t determine exactly how the injury occurred, even though they have reviewed all the video they have of the show. So we are left trying to pull a CSI-style forensic analysis on the injury photos, like this photo taken by Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust:
As I noted yesterday, Visser said of this photo: “Of note is that in [this photo], at the bottom right of the wound, near the trainers 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.”
I don’t think this is definitive, but because I posted it a number of readers complained that I was drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence. I agree that there is no conclusive proof one way or another how the injury occurred, and remain agnostic on the question pending any additional information or evidence (if it ever emerges).
But to balance the scales I thought I would post this counter-analysis of the photo (as well as some other photo evidence I shared but have not posted) from someone who knows a lot about orcas and who is reliably insightful about orca matters:
“There is no way this is a bite. An orca’s jaws just aren’t precise enough to make such a clean cut in such a specific area without leaving trails (rake marks basically) somewhere around the wound where the teeth were clamping down or running against the skin. That small of an area with such a specific piece of flesh removed—leaving the area around it completely unharmed—points in every way to what other experts are saying: that he ran into something that had some kind of edge to it. If he would have run into something blunt he would have been badly bruised and a layer of skin might have been tore off (think road rash) but not sliced like this. I think it’s very obvious this was caused by him moving very fast (maybe pursued by Ikaika), and either he made a miscalculation or an attack by another orca made him change course in a way Nakai didn’t want, and he ran into something with some kind of edge.
At the point closest to the front of his rostrum, the wound is deep and symmetric, but about halfway down on the right side in the pic there is a gash there that looks like whatever he hit got lodged in but did not cut all the way through and he pulled back out away from it. That gash would be from the injury, as vets wouldn’t have cut in deeper like that to remove flesh. About halfway down you can tell the wound starts to become asymmetric, and the right side of it, where the gash is, starts to become shallower than the left side and there is some tearing of the skin at the bottom right in the pic (the road rash thing I was talking about) where it looks like he started to rub over the edge he hit.
To me this looks like he hit whatever it was head on but started to turn and slow down, so part of the edge got lodged in the flesh and the rest of the edge began to slice a more shallow wound to the right since you can see the wound grows more shallow as you move down and to the right in the picture, and at the bottom right you can see his white skin is rather torn (road rash). That gash on the right side really tells me he hit something with some kind of well-defined edge. It might not have been sharp but I imagine he hit it so fast (maybe running away in a fight) that it just cut it off.
The gates in the pools were modified to have smooth edges all around except the very top of them after Splash ran into one and tore his face up on it. The bars with the nuts would have made deep rake marks, and a chain, even if it was pulled tight, would make a nasty, very ragged wound that would not look like this no matter how much cleaning they did. Chains aren’t generally sharp, either. I think a chain would bruise and rip the skin, not slice it since there’s no edge. The top of the gates have something on them that looks like an I-beam with an edge but I don’t see how Nakai would try and go over that since there’s other bars on top of that blocking his path. The rest of the gates are rounded bars welded together and don’t have a long edge like that. The bottom of the channels that go between pools have edges of concrete which might be sharp enough to slice that cleanly if he hit them just right and was going very fast. But I think this was done by something with a thin prominent edge that was made of metal.
I think they may have cleaned and or cauterized the edges of the wound. The problem I see is that if it was a bite, somewhere around the edges there would have been trails from teeth raking the flesh. There’s no way Sea World vets are going to cut out a bigger wound to “hide” bite marks or rakes from teeth despite what conspiracy theorists might say. I can’t believe he ran into another whale either; that’s really stupid to be honest.
I think he was getting chased or attacked and accidentally ran into or got pushed into something while he was swimming really fast. There are several places in the pool that have some kind of edge, one of them being the corridors between pools. While it does look like he hit something with some kind of edge and it lodged in his chin it’s still possible he hit some part of the concrete with an edge. If Sea World really doesn’t know there’s no way we will know for sure either, but I would still believe that some kind of altercation was at the root of the injury.”
Regarding the puncture marks Visser refers to: “Those marks she thinks are puncture marks are the the marks where the skin has been rubbed and torn. The light is shining off of them just right to make them look deep but I don’t think those are puncture or rake marks. I think what those marks are is the light shining off of bits of the skin that have been peeled back and frayed, as well as the other marks in that area caused by something sliding over the skin with a lot of friction. The deeper marks that kinda do look like tooth marks seem to be indented into the skin with the deeper cup of the indentation further down the chin and shallower at the top, which to me indicates that they are just another injury from him running into something and whatever it was scraping over his skin with a lot of force.
The other thing is that those indentations don’t seem to be part of another pattern. They don’t seem to rake down into the wound (like someone was trying to take a bite out of him) They’re just little scrapes and indentations. The fact they are near where his skin is obviously frayed and in that area where it appears whatever he hit began to slide and scrape over his chin rather than cut through it to me still says he hit something.
Also, those marks seem too close together to be caused by any orca’s teeth there. Kalia is the smallest one there but those marks look too closely spaced to be caused by a large maturing bull like Ikaika. Nakai isn’t that big yet and those still seem very close together and rather dainty. So I still don’t think he was bitten. I do however wholly believe he got in some fight with Ikaika and was running away or was pushed into something.”
So there you have it. All the orca CSI anyone could want. That’s all I have on this unless and until something more definitive is learned.