A mother orca living in captivity at SeaWorld San Diego is so depressed that she’s unable to nurse her calf, according to two whale experts who recently visited the ocean park.
Marine biologist Ingrid Visser and former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove were accompanied by the film crew of "Superpod," an upcoming orca documentary project, during their visit. The pair say they spotted a mother orca named Kasatka behaving strangely.
In footage that captured the mother’s interaction with her calf, 2-year-old Makani can be seen bumping repeatedly into Kasatka’s belly. This head-bumping, Hargrove explains in the clip, is a "precursor to nursing." Kasatka, however, seems to ignore Makani’s prompts.
The mother orca has even developed a bruise on her stomach from her baby’s persistent bumping, Visser said.
"That's just because the calf is constantly trying to get food, so desperately hungry, so bored," she said. "It’s a stereotypic behavior now."
Naomi Rose, a leading orca researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute, confirmed to The Dodo that Kasatka does appear to be behaving abnormally in the clip.
"If I saw a calf head-bumping its mother over and over and nothing coming of it (no nursing observed), then I would definitely consider that abnormal," Rose said. "Normally when a calf solicits nursing that way, the mother nurses!"
"The calf is probably not getting the milk it needs," she added.
According to Hargrove, who worked as a senior orca trainer at SeaWorld for years before becoming an anti-captivity advocate, Kasatka is "so depressed, [she’s] incapable of taking care of her calf."
SeaWorld, however, has issued a rebuttal to this claim.
"Makani 'bumping' Kasatka is a commonly observed bonding behavior, and there is no bruising present," the company told HuffPost in a statement. "[Visser and Hargrove] have confused a fully weaned killer whale with a nursing baby. Makani is fully weaned and eats about 65 pounds of fish a day." (Read SeaWorld's entire rebuttal here.)
Animal rights activists maintain that the stress of captivity can greatly harm orcas, and may even provoke violence.
Earlier this month, the California Coastal Commission voted to ban orca breeding at SeaWorld San Diego after the ocean park submitted plans requesting an expansion of its killer whale tank.
The commission okayed the plan, but said the approval came "with conditions."
"[Orcas] don't belong in captivity," Dayna Bochno, one of the commissioners, said.
SeaWorld said it will challenge the commission’s ruling.
This post has been updated to include SeaWorld's comments.
Earlier on HuffPost: