Corky is the longest surviving captive orca whale in the world - 49 years in a concrete tank.  She was captured along with other members of her A5 pod family in 1969 in Pender Harbour, British Columbia.  The A5 pod, part of the northern resident orca, was devastated, as 13 members were taken into captivity in two captures in 1968-69.  In addition, 63 orca of the northern and southern resident orca of the Pacific Northwest were captured in a 13 year period in the 1960-70’s.  The southern residents of the Puget Sound area have still not recovered, are down to only 75 whales, and are listed as highly endangered. The northern residents of British Columbia have recovered well, numbering 309 whales in 2017, and Corky’s A5 pod has grown to 13 whales.  

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All 12 of Corky’s other captured family members died long ago in captivity.  Sonny Reid, one of the fishermen who was on the capture team, now has serious regrets about the capture, saying, “If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t do it.”



Corky with her Mother Stripe after capture at Pender Harbor in December, 1969.

Corky with her Mother Stripe after capture at Pender Harbor in December, 1969.

Corky was only 4 years old when she was taken from her mother, and transported to Marineland in Los Angeles to be forced to perform Killer Whale shows. That she has survived a life surrounded by death and deprivation is a testament to the amazing “being” she is!  Three others of her pod that were taken with her to Marineland soon died, leaving her alone with Orky, a male cousin she then mated with. Corky delivered the first ever live birth of an orca in captivity, but the calf failed to nurse and died of pneumonia at 11 days old.  Corky had six more babies, some stillborn, and the longest lived was only for 46 days. Corky stopped ovulating at 21 years. In the wild, female orca would have about 25 years of reproductive life.

In 1987, Corky was moved with Orky to SeaWorld San Diego, where Orky fathered two calves with Icelandic orcas, but he died after 18 months there.  Corky was now without family. She became the main performer of the “Shamu” show.

Blood spurting from Kandu’s broken jaw after ramming Corky

Blood spurting from Kandu’s broken jaw after ramming Corky

More tragedy hit when tension developed between Corky and one of the Icelandic females Kandu, who had her baby Orkid with her. Kandu rammed Corky during a show.  

Kandu broke her jaw, with blood spurting out, and died in front of the audience. Such aggression never happens in the wild; it was clearly a result of the stress of confinement in un-natural groupings in captivity.

In a twist of fate, Corky became Orkid’s surrogate mother. Corky is a very large and powerful female orca, bigger than some of the males, but she is known to be very sweet and gentle.  

Because of her nature, new trainers often start working with Corky first.

Former trainer John Hargrove featured in the documentary BLACKFISH, speaks of his great affection for Corky, her tolerant and forgiving nature, and her amazing sensitivity to trainers.  


Dr. Paul Spong with the Corky Banner in London, England in 1997.

Dr. Paul Spong with the Corky Banner in London, England in 1997.


Dr. Paul Spong was one of the first to study orca in captivity.   He was hired by the Vancouver Aquarium in 1967-69, but soon realized the inherent cruelty of confining these large-brained, highly evolved, sentient beings in concrete tanks.  He spoke out against captivity, and was fired from his job at the aquarium.

In 1970, he founded Orca Lab on Hanson Island in the heart of the home waters of the northern resident orca, where ever since, he has studied the orca with a philosophy of non-intrusive, land-based, respectful observation.  An array of underwater hydrophones records orca vocalizations, which enable identifying each of the 16 pods by their distinct dialect., including Corky’s A5 pod,

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In 1991, Dr. Spong launched a worldwide campaign to FREE CORKY with a private request to SeaWorld to allow her to return to her family, but was repeatedly refused.  

He then organized the creation of CORKY’S FREEDOM BANNER – made up of thousands of patches of children’s artwork from around the world expressing their hopes for Corky to be free and rejoin her mother A23 Stripe.  

Corky Banner circling SeaWorld on Mother’s Day 1996.

Corky Banner circling SeaWorld on Mother’s Day 1996.

 The banner grew to almost two miles long, and on Mother’s Day 1996, the banner was displayed around SeaWorld.

The next year, the banner made a tour of Europe and was draped on many famous monuments and statues. David Howitt then took the banner on tour around the Pacific Northwest and to California on a school bus named FREEDOM.  Despite all these efforts, SeaWorld was unmoved.

Michael Reppy joined the Corky campaign and began flying a “Free Corky” spinnaker on his famous racing sailboat, Thursday’s Child. He did a tour of west coast ports displaying the banner from the rigging.  

Michael Reppy in Pender Harbour, flying “Free Corky” Banner on  Thursday’s Child.

Michael Reppy in Pender Harbour, flying “Free Corky” Banner on Thursday’s Child.

In 2001, Michael went to San Diego and organized three public events displaying the banner, and made appeals on TV for Corky to be retired into a rehab and release program in her home waters of British Columbia.  SeaWorld continued defiant and replied on TV that it would be like returning your pet dog or cat into the wild, ignoring the carefully laid out plan of placing Corky in a netted off bay sanctuary for rehab, with re-learning to catch live fish and survival skills before any release back to her family.

The Free Corky campaign continued on, and in 2006 the entire banner was laid out on San Juan Island with the help of local children.  SeaWorld continued resisting pleas for Corky’s retirement, and Corky continued swimming endless circles in her tank and playing Shamu.  Wild captures had been stopped after being exposed for their cruel and violent nature, so SeaWorld turned to artificial insemination captive breeding to replace their orcas that continued to die at a young age.

The entire Corky Freedom Banner laid out at San Juan County Park, San Juan Island, Washington State.

The entire Corky Freedom Banner laid out at San Juan County Park, San Juan Island, Washington State.



There had been reports from SeaWorld of incidents of orca aggression against each other and against trainers, but then tragedy struck when two trainers were killed by orca:  1) Alexis Martinez was killed in December 2009 by SeaWorld orca Keto at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands 2) Dawn Brancheau was killed in February 2010 by orca Tillicum at SeaWorld, Orlando.

The 2013 documentary BLACKFISH told the tragic story of Tillicum, and the true condition of orca in captivity: high stress with decreased immune systems, high levels of bacterial and fungal infections, frustration and boredom leading to chewing on pool sides and metal bars with wearing down of their teeth requiring drilling out and daily irrigation, aggression against trainers and each other that would never occur in the wild, collapsed dorsal fins of all the males which is extremely rare in the wild, and shortened life-spans.  Orca are given regular doses of antibiotics, antidepressants, tranquilizers, and antacids. The “Blackfish Effect” has led to a change in public attitude to captivity, with decreases in attendance, revenue, and the stock price of SeaWorld.


In 2014, Seattle kindergarten school-teacher Christine Caruso, with her own initiative and money, brought the Corky Banner out of storage on San Juan Island, and shipped it to San Diego, and began displaying the banner around SeaWorld.   

The “Blackfish Effect” led to political action in California, including a bill by Richard Bloom in the legislature, AB2140, Orca Welfare and Safety Act, to outlaw orca captivity.  In the summer of 2015, Christine, Michael Reppy and others took the banner to Sacramento and laid it all out in front of the state capitol in support of AB2140. Many were impressed by the banner, which led to a request for them to bring a piece of the banner to the upcoming California Coastal Commission’s hearing on SeaWorld’s application to build larger tanks for their orca.

Mark Palmer addresses California Coastal Commission with Corky Banner, October 2015.

Mark Palmer addresses California Coastal Commission with Corky Banner, October 2015.

The Coastal Commission hearing in Long Beach in October 2015 featured an overflow room of SeaWorld and opposition groups, with presentations and statements by both sides.  As Earth Island’s Mark Palmer began his remarks in opposition to larger tanks, a piece of the Corky Banner was brought up behind him to great effect! The commission ruled against larger tanks unless SeaWorld agreed to end all captive breeding.  SeaWorld realized public opinion had changed, and pledged to end their captive breeding program. Later, the orca bill was reintroduced which outlawed captive breeding, but unfortunately an outright ban on captivity of orca was removed. SeaWorld continues to refuse any retirement of their orca, saying this group of orca will be the last generation of orcas in captivity.  Thus, Corky remains stuck in a tank in San Diego swimming endless circles.


There is a growing movement for the retirement of captive marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries – netted off enclosures in protected, clean bays where they would be cared for by a staff for the rest of their lives.  Retirement of zoo and circus animals to sanctuaries is growing, but to date there are no sanctuaries of marine mammals. This is soon to change, as the National Aquarium in Baltimore has committed to building a sanctuary in the Caribbean for their 7 dolphins, and the Whale Sanctuary Project is in the final stages of choosing a site to build a cold water sanctuary for orcas and belugas to be ready by 2020.

Double Bay, Hanson Island. Photo: Megan Hockin Bennett

Double Bay, Hanson Island. Photo: Megan Hockin Bennett


The perfect seaside sanctuary for Corky has been located at Double Bay, British Columbia, by Dr. Paul Spong.  It is on Hanson Island only a few miles from Orca Lab; is a deep protected bay opening to Blackfish Sound, where Corky’s A5 pod often passes in the summer months.  Megan Hockin-Bennett, a volunteer at Orca Lab, recently filmed Corky’s A5 family near Orca Lab, showing the pod swimming closely bonded together.  

Imagine Corky living in her natural home waters, safe, protected, and cared for by a SeaWorld staff.  She would have room to swim and dive, and relearn feeding on live fish, and reconnect with her pod, including her brother A60 Fife and her sister A43 Ripple.  This retirement plan does not include a release to her family as in the past. The focus will be on Corky’s health and welfare and providing for her needs for the rest of her.  A visitation program could be set up to view Corky at a respectful distance, and a live video feed to SeaWorld could be a valuable educational exhibit, and be a huge boost to SeaWorld’s image.


Corky’s A5 Family in Johnston Strait, near Orca Lab. Photo by Megan Hockin Bennett

Corky’s A5 Family in Johnston Strait, near Orca Lab. Photo by Megan Hockin Bennett

A growing movement is building to convince SeaWorld that it would be of mutual benefit to retire Corky to a seaside sanctuary such as Double Bay.  PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has recently taken up Corky’s cause, and in May 2017 laid out the entire Corky Banner on Santa Monica Beach.  PETA has also made a Corky video, had demonstrations at SeaWorld, and sponsored a petition for Corky to be retired to a seaside sanctuary.

Christine Caruso is producing a documentary on Corky’s life story: including Corky’s Freedom Banner, the long history to free Corky, and ending with a plea for Corky to be retired to a sanctuary at Double Bay.



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