Shouka, The World’s Loneliest Whale: Send This Orca Back to France

Shouka has lived a lonely life since her tankmate—a dolphin named Merlin—was removed in November 2011.
Life for 19-year-old Shouka is decidedly upside down these days. (Photo: Creative Commons / Jerry Frausto)
Aug 14, 2012· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Much attention has been paid to killer whales at SeaWorld lately—especially when it comes to chilling, high-profile attacks against trainers at “Shamu Stadium.” Those incidents, in particular the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum, raised new questions about the ethics of keeping such large, intelligent predators sentenced to life in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Shouka was shipped to this country ten years ago from Marineland Antibes, in France, where she still has family members. If Six Flags cannot obey U.S. law and find her a companion animal immediately, they should agree to send her back.

But while SeaWorld’s unnaturally violent whales—wild orcas have never been known to seriously attack people—continue to make dramatic headlines, a much quieter but equally sad drama is being played out at an amusement park north of San Francisco called Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, home to Shouka, the world’s loneliest whale.

Set amid the scrubby hills of Vallejo, Shouka’s small pool is surrounded by a stadium where she performs several times a day for gawking visitors. But unlike her distant cousins at SeaWorld and other theme parks, Shouka lives completely and utterly alone.

MORE: Judge Says: Sea World Must Protect Trainers from Killer Whales

Keeping such a social, complex, canny creature as an orca by herself is not only crushingly distressing for the animal, it is patently in violation of federal laws and regulations.

Captive marine mammals at U.S. facilities are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act, which outlaws the captivity of whales and dolphins without at least one “suitable companion animal” of the same family. Because orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, parks can get away with having a sole whale, as long as another dolphin (a bottlenose, say) is in the tank too.

Shouka is one of two solitary orcas in U.S. captivity. Lolita—who has been performing in the miniscule pool at the Miami Seaquarium practically her entire life—is the other. Taken from Puget Sound in 1970, Lolita could be returned to her pod, some scientists and activists argue, because we know precisely who those animals are.

For many years Lolita had another orca with her, Hugo, who died in 1980 after smashing his head into the tank glass. And though the Seaquarium replaced Hugo with a dolphin, a 1986 exam showed Lolita had developed abnormal sleep patterns and displayed what appeared to be signs of bereavement.

In other words, orcas need orcas.

But if that is not possible, they should at least have another member of the dolphin family in the pool with them. Which leads us back to Shouka: nearly a year ago her companion of seven years, a male bottlenose named Merlin, was removed from her tank, “due to recent compatibility issues,” according to Six Flags, which insisted it would seek another “suitable companion” for the now illegally-isolated Shouka.

But that hasn’t happened yet, and Six Flags remains in flagrant violation of the Animal Welfare Act. Meanwhile, Shouka has begun to act out against her trainers, a potential sign of stress-induced aggression. According to the website Without-Me-There-Is-No-You, Shouka recently lunged from the water in an aggressive act toward her trainers, who now remain at least temporarily behind protective barriers.

“There is no contact with Shouka during the show,” the website says, “no hugging, no kisses, no touching, just fish thrown at her.”

Shouka was shipped to this country ten years ago from Marineland Antibes, in France, where she still has family members. If Six Flags cannot obey U.S. law and find her a companion animal immediately, they should agree to send her back.

Eventually Shouka, like all captive orcas, should be retired to a coastal sea sanctuary to live out her remaining years in a more natural habitat, free from the demands of doing backflips for tourists, and perhaps more content in the companionship of others like her.

For now, however, why not commute her illegal and immoral sentence of solitary confinement and send her back to France?

UPDATE: On Monday, August 13, Wendy Cooke, a whale and dolphin activist from Vallejo, California visited Shouka’s tank and emailed David Kirby with an update on the sad, lonely orca. “It was heartbreaking. Not once in five hours did I see her trainers interact with her except during the show," said Cooke. "They are still behind bars and have no contact with Shouka during the show. She seemed to play a bit with some kids, opening her mouth like she was going to eat them and making the kids chase her from window to window like a game. Other than that, she floated listlessly in the middle of the tank or laid at the bottom.”

Should Shouka be freed and reuinted with her family off the coast of France? Tell us why in the comments below.