An Analysis Of Nakai’s Wound: Ingrid Visser

Ingrid Visser of the Orca Reasearch Trust, has spent twenty years studying and observing orcas in the wild.

Ingrid Visser

And she was responsible for taking this highly detailed picture of Nakai’s wound:

Nakai Wound

Perhaps the most important detail in this picture is the puncture marks which appear on the lower right margin of the wound, opening up the possibility that Nakai’s wound was caused by a bite from another orca, and not a collision with some part of the pool, as SeaWorld has suggested.

Now Visser has sent me a more detailed analysis of Nakai’s wound. Here it is:

The recent wound on the captive orca Nakai remains an enigma as to how it occurred.  When I first viewed (unreleased) photographs taken a week after the graphic injury, I was of the opinion that it was unlikely to have been inflicted by other orca, based on the fact that no orca teeth marks were clearly visible in the photos and the very ‘clean’ edges to the wound. 

Regardless of the source of the wound, I didn’t buy the story from SeaWorld that Nakai had ‘come into contact with the pool’ (AP, Sept 28th 2012, press release), as to me such wording implied a light brush past, or perhaps at worst a bump into the side of the tank.  Clearly such a striking wound wasn’t from a light brush or even a ‘bump’.

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Was Nakai Bitten? A Different Take

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

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Nakai made the Today Show, too.

Just to be clear: SeaWorld’s statement that Nakai was engaged in “normal social behavior” with two other whales immediately prior to the injury is SeaWorld’s way of saying Nakai was in a fight.

Nakai Featured On Good Morning America

I doubt that it was ever one of his life ambitions, and certainly not for the reason he is being featured. But at least tens of millions of Americans just got a glimpse of what can happen at a marine park:

Watch More News Videos at ABC | 2012 Presidential Election | Entertainment & Celebrity News

Nakai Photos And Backstory

Over the weekend I learned a little bit more about the incident that led to Nakai’s injury, and Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust visited SeaWorld in San Diego and took some more pictures of Nakai’s injury. Here is the most detailed photo Visser took (more photos after the jump; all photos are (c) Ingrid Visser): 

SeaWorld nakai

UPDATE: Regarding the question of whether the injury might come from a bite from another orca, Visser writes: "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."

And here is some additional detail on what happened that night when Nakai was injured. As a number of people have noted, the injury occurred after Sea World San Diego closed to the general public for the evening. Sometimes SeaWorld puts on special shows for corporate groups, and the evening show on the 20th was such a show.

During the show Nakai, Keet and Ike were all at stage when all three killer whales suddenly took off without warning and and started fighting with one another. SeaWorld’s review of the tapes could not identify an instigator or an aggressor. As I wrote last week, Nakai split into the back pool. Ike and Keet, however, returned to the stage and control, so the trainers continued the show.

When trainers finally called Nakai over later that evening for the final feeding and saw that he was injured they were shocked be the severity of the wound. In fact, it is about as bad a wound as most trainers have ever seen. In response, 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.

Apart from the death of Kandu V at SeaWorld San Diego in 1989, the only injury many trainers can remember that was even close in severity to Nakai’s was a 1990s injury to Splash, who lost part of his jaw when he was thrown by Takara against a gate while they were messing around. The gate had a chain and latching hook that was normally covered by a safety box. But, I am told, the box cover had not been put in place over the hook and the hook ripped part of Splash’s jaw away. SeaWorld staff tried to staple the severed piece back to Splash’s jaw, but, partly due to the constant water pressure on the jaw, it never healed properly leaving Splash with a disfigured, though still functioning, jaw.

Splash’s injury was perhaps over a wider area of the jaw, but Nakai’s wound is apparently much deeper.

Another aspect of the incident that has been puzzling is Keet’s involvement. Keet is a sub-dominant male who was moved to SeaWorld San Diego from Texas earlier this year, in hopes of finding a better social environment for him. Normally, Keet avoids conflict, so it was strange that he was in the middle of the action along with Nakai and Ike (who also moved to SeaWorld San Diego in the past year).

However, there is a backstory to Keet’s relationship with Nakai that may or may not be relevant. Keet is well-trained in the semen donation procedure for SeaWorld’s Artificial Insemination (AI) program, and is a regular and prolific donor. Earlier this year, Keet was on his back during an AI session to extract semen. Nakai was also in the pool, and suddenly split from his trainer. He swam over to Keet and bit him hard on his erect penis. The bite caused a lengthy period of extensive bleeding, and Nakai is no longer allowed to be in the pool with Keet during AI sessions.

It’s impossible to say how an incident like that might connect to the incident in which Nakai was injured. But it is a reminder of how complex the relationship between killer whales at marine parks is, and how there are daily interactions that affect the social structure and stability. If you throw in the fact that there are now nine killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego (which is rare), with three having arrived in the past year and a baby from Kasatka on the way, and you have a situation in which it must be very difficult for trainers to stay completely on top of all the interactions and incidents that daily affect the relationships between the killer whales.

Here are a few more pictures of Nakai:

These are photos of Nakai’s wound.
As you can see it is very deep and exposes both underlying tissue and bone.
SeaWorld finally released a statement about the injury:

A killer whale at Sea World was injured while swimming with two other whales during a night performance last week, park officials said Thursday.
The injury to Nakai, an 11-year-old whale, is believed to have occurred when he came into contact with a portion of the pool on Sept. 20, said Sea World spokesman Dave Koontz.
The whale was treated by veterinarians. Park officials did not disclose details of the injury.
“Nakai is currently receiving antibiotics and the veterinarians are pleased with the healing progress of his wound,” Koontz said.
Nakai is “swimming comfortably and interacting with other killer whales” at the park, Koontz said.

It’s hard to look at that wound and be confident that all is as well as Koontz suggests. The big challenge with an injury like this is infection. And Nakai, as Koontz indicates, is being pumped full of antibiotics in the hopes of staving off any bacteria.
Knowing that the chunk of Nakai’s chin that was sheared off was retrieved from the bottom of the pool, I wondered whether there might be some way to try and reattach it, or graft it back on. I was told, by someone who knows, that it is very difficult to sew or staple killer whale parts back on due to the force of water constantly rushing past the skin. Apparently, something like that was tried (and failed) with Splash after he injured his jaw.
Instead, I was told, SeaWorld sometimes uses an interesting and surprising remedy to try and protect open wounds: honey, which is used as a topical wound treatment.
Sounds a little nutty, but give SeaWorld points for creativity. Honey, apparently, is a well-known traditional topical agent:

Honey is an ancient remedy for the treatment of infected wounds, which has recently been ‘rediscovered’ by the medical profession, particularly where conventional modern therapeutic agents are failing. There are now many published reports describing the effectiveness of honey in rapidly clearing infection from wounds, with no adverse effects to slow the healing process; there is also some evidence to suggest that honey may actively promote healing. In laboratory studies, it has been shown to have an antimicrobial action against a broad spectrum of bacteria and fungi. However, further research is needed to optimise the effective use of this agent in clinical practice.

I was told that honey is sometimes used on abrasions on Tilikum’s flukes.
So there you have it: antibiotics and honey. Hope that works. Judging from these photos, Nakai is going to need all the help he can get.

These are photos of Nakai’s wound.

As you can see it is very deep and exposes both underlying tissue and bone.

SeaWorld finally released a statement about the injury:

A killer whale at Sea World was injured while swimming with two other whales during a night performance last week, park officials said Thursday.

The injury to Nakai, an 11-year-old whale, is believed to have occurred when he came into contact with a portion of the pool on Sept. 20, said Sea World spokesman Dave Koontz.

The whale was treated by veterinarians. Park officials did not disclose details of the injury.

“Nakai is currently receiving antibiotics and the veterinarians are pleased with the healing progress of his wound,” Koontz said.

Nakai is “swimming comfortably and interacting with other killer whales” at the park, Koontz said.

It’s hard to look at that wound and be confident that all is as well as Koontz suggests. The big challenge with an injury like this is infection. And Nakai, as Koontz indicates, is being pumped full of antibiotics in the hopes of staving off any bacteria.

Knowing that the chunk of Nakai’s chin that was sheared off was retrieved from the bottom of the pool, I wondered whether there might be some way to try and reattach it, or graft it back on. I was told, by someone who knows, that it is very difficult to sew or staple killer whale parts back on due to the force of water constantly rushing past the skin. Apparently, something like that was tried (and failed) with Splash after he injured his jaw.

Instead, I was told, SeaWorld sometimes uses an interesting and surprising remedy to try and protect open wounds: honey, which is used as a topical wound treatment.

Sounds a little nutty, but give SeaWorld points for creativity. Honey, apparently, is a well-known traditional topical agent:

Honey is an ancient remedy for the treatment of infected wounds, which has recently been ‘rediscovered’ by the medical profession, particularly where conventional modern therapeutic agents are failing. There are now many published reports describing the effectiveness of honey in rapidly clearing infection from wounds, with no adverse effects to slow the healing process; there is also some evidence to suggest that honey may actively promote healing. In laboratory studies, it has been shown to have an antimicrobial action against a broad spectrum of bacteria and fungi. However, further research is needed to optimise the effective use of this agent in clinical practice.

I was told that honey is sometimes used on abrasions on Tilikum’s flukes.

So there you have it: antibiotics and honey. Hope that works. Judging from these photos, Nakai is going to need all the help he can get.

Nakai Update

Okay, here’s what I have been told about Nakai’s injury at SeaWorld California.

First: it is a serious injury, with a dinner plate-sized chunk of his lower mandible sheared off, exposing underlying tissues, and bone. The most serious concern, I think, is the possibility of a bad, possibly even life-threatening, infection.

Second: It happened last week during a night show, seemingly during a major altercation involving Nakai, Keet, and Ike. It’s not clear if there was an aggressor or instigator, or if they all suddenly went after each other. In response to the altercation, Nakai split to the back pool. The onstage trainers, not realizing how badly injured he was, continued the show with the other whales. It was only when they called Nakai over later that night that they realized he was seriously hurt.

Third: SW is not sure how the injury happened. Right now they believe it was due to blunt force trauma, but I’m not sure how that squares with the description of the injury in which a sizable piece of flesh on Nakai’s lower jaw was, in essence, sliced off. The piece was big enough and intact enough for SeaWorld to retrieve it from the bottom of the pool.

After Ike was brought into SeaWorld California from Marineland in Ontario, many people felt—particularly with Kasatka due to produce a calf—that SeaWorld would be wise to move Nakai elsewhere. Obviously, in retrospect that looks like it would have been a smart move. But the fact is, controlling the social aggression between the killer whales in SeaWorld’s pools appears to be a very delicate and difficult challenge no matter what SeaWorld facility you are talking about, and what whales you are trying to mix together (see here, and here).

Nakai’s injury is just the latest reminder of that difficult fact.

If I get more details I will post them over on my Facebook page.

Nakai Injured?

Two of a Kind

Just received the following report that Nakai (photo above via) might have been injured:

"We’ve just heard a rumour that Nakai (male , captive born at SeaWorld 1 Sept 2001 – mother Kasatka, father Tilikum by AI), currently held at San Diego SeaWorld, today hurt himself badly on his lower jaw. I’ve seen on a TINY thumb nail (as the original photo on ‘photobucket’ has been pulled).

The rumour suggests that he may have been trying to get over the chains that SeaWorld has erected and has ripped the tissue down to the bone – it appears from the thumbnail that the lower edge of both mandibles has been stripped back to the bone. It seems that a chunk of tissue the size of a dinner plate is gone – from a side profile it looks like the orca has a bottlenose dolphin profile on the lower jaw.”

Trying to get more info, and will post if I do. Anyone else out there know anything about this, or have any pictures?
UPDATE: Have seen additional details that indicate that Nakai did, indeed, injure himself and that it is an extremely serious injury. I’ll post any updates I get on my Facebook Page.