Editorial Reviews. Review. “Kirby makes a passionate case for captivity as the reason orcas become killers (and) tells the story like a thriller We probably can't . Several accounts of violent incidents with humans have appeared in books and news clips, . There was on official report which was sent to SeaWorld and all. on the death of former SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca, Tilikum, held captive .. content/uploads//09/Building-Belief_Executive-Summary. pdf.
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Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. Death at SeaWorld centers on the battle with the multimillion-dollar marine park industry over the controversial and even lethal ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. The orca Takara gave birth. Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. The best-selling author of Evidence of Harm explores the controversial ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity through the story of marine biologist and animal advocate Naomi Rose, whose battle against SeaWorld. The first SeaWorld park opened in in San. Diego of Agriculture (USDA) has cited SeaWorld for drain covers, resulting in the death of a sea lion;.
The Tulalip Tribes of Washington State have sagas about blackfish helping Tulalip people during famines, and they selected the orca as their tribal logo. A matrilineal group usually consists of a reproductive female the matriarch , her dependent calves, her juvenile and adolescent offspring and her known or presumed adult son s , she said. Naomi had always been more confident than most people, even as a young girl telling her older friends what to do. It was snail-paced compared to bottlenose dolphins, which dash about like frenetic teenagers on speed in a flash of quicksilver. After all, they had been to SeaWorld before; they had seen for themselves that people can swim with, surf on, and launch into the air from the heads of these gentle pandas of the sea. Her mother must have taught her, Naomi surmised.
Kirby puts that horrific animal-on-human attack in context. Brancheau's death was the most publicized among several brutal attacks that have occurred at Sea World and other marine mammal theme parks. Death at SeaWorld introduces real people taking part in this debate, from former trainers turned animal rights activists to the men and women that champion SeaWorld and the captivity of whales. In section two the orcas act out.
And as the story progresses and orca attacks on trainers become increasingly violent, the warnings of Naomi Rose and other scientists fall on deaf ears, only to be realized with the death of Dawn Brancheau. Finally he covers the media backlash, the eyewitnesses who come forward to challenge SeaWorld's glossy image, and the groundbreaking OSHA case that challenges the very idea of keeping killer whales in captivity and may spell the end of having trainers in the water with the ocean's top predators.
It might be their force and power, their awesome ability to rocket into the air, or travel a hundred miles a day. It could be their masterful design, their hydrodynamic submarine-like forms, or those elegant black-and-white patterns, as if outfitted in tuxedos made of wet suits.
For many people, it is all of the above. They are, quite simply, mesmerized by Orcinus orca. Killer whales are the most amazing animals that currently live on this planet, wrote Robert Pitman, a leading US government marine ecologist not given to hyperbole, in the spring Journal of the American Cetacean Society. They are probably the most universally recognizable animals that live in the sea, or perhaps anywhere on the planet.
They are among the smartest animals in the world. Unlike us, they fear nothing in the natural world. They call the orcas blackfish, and the animal is a common motif in totems and other Native sculpture and drawings.
The Haida and Nootka tribes of British Columbia created legends about orcas living under the sea in homes and towns, taking human form beneath the waves. People who drown go to join them there. The Tulalip Tribes of Washington State have sagas about blackfish helping Tulalip people during famines, and they selected the orca as their tribal logo.
Scientifically, the animal is known by its genus Orcinus —from the Latin kingdom of the dead, or belonging to Orcus, Roman god of the underworld—and its species orca, from the Latin and Greek for large whale or fish. Killer whale evolved from the term given to orcas by eighteenth-century sailors— whale killer —because some types of orcas feed upon other whales and dolphins.
It is difficult to find a satisfactory explanation for why whale killer got reversed into killer whale. Indeed, SeaWorld has chided reporters in the past for using the term orca, rightly pointing out that we do not call any other animal by its Latin species name alone.
A human is sometimes referred to as Homo sapiens our genus and species , but never just as sapiens. The term orca began gaining popularity in the s and s, when people started realizing how intelligent the creatures are and how gentle they can be.
Before orcas were first held captive, they were widely regarded as bloodthirsty monsters and brutal, shark-like killing machines. In whatever quarter of the world [killer whales] are found, they seem always intent upon seeking something to destroy or devour, wrote nineteenth-century whaler Charles Scammon.
Swimmers feared them, fishermen hated them, many people fired weapons at them. Nearly one-quarter of all orcas captured for display during the late sixties and early seventies showed signs of bullet wounds. Royal Canadian fighter pilots used to bomb orcas during practice runs, and in , private fishing lodges on Vancouver Island persuaded the Canadian government to install a machine gun at Campbell River to cull the orca population.
In the end, it was never fired. Even as recently as , US Navy diving manuals warned that these extremely ferocious predators will attack human beings at every opportunity. In the second half of the twentieth century, killer whales were targeted by the commercial whaling industry, which was running out of larger species to pursue. Between and , Japanese whalers captured and slaughtered 1, orcas, while the Norwegians took The former Soviet Union was responsible for taking more than 3, killer whales, many of them from antarctic waters.
Despite their name, teeth, and reputation, killer whales in nature are generally mild-mannered with people and with each other, aside from the occasional spat.
Not until the captive marine mammal industry began to display orcas did we improve our understanding of their nature.
The public display industry should be credited for changing our attitude toward killer whales from contempt to admiration and even affection. There is little evidence of wild killer whales attacking people.
An early expedition to Antarctica reported that orcas had unsuccessfully attempted to flip over an ice floe bearing a terrified group of men and their dog team, though the whales may have thought the barking dogs were some strange species of seal. Decades later, in , an orca bit down on the leg of a surfer in Big Sur, California. Nonetheless, the victim required a hundred stitches. It was the only human injury ever recorded.
In , a twelve-year-old boy was bumped in the shoulder by a Transient orca while swimming in shallow water in Helm Bay, Alaska, home to many harbor seals. The whale presumably mistook the boy, who left the water uninjured, for prey. So wild killer whales rarely, if ever, cause deliberate harm to humans. Captive killer whales, however, are another animal altogether.
All cetaceans—which comprise whales, dolphins, and porpoises—have forelimbs modified into flippers pectoral fins , a tail fluke that has been flattened horizontally, as opposed to the vertically arranged tails of fish, and one or two nostrils on the top of the head blowhole , which provide the only air passage to the lungs.
Cetaceans cannot breathe through their mouth. There are three suborders of cetaceans: The male of the species can grow up to sixty feet in length and weigh ninety thousand pounds females are much smaller. One-third of his body is taken up by his head and its seventeen-pound brain, the largest on earth. Other toothed whales include beaked whales, beluga whales, narwhals, and six species of porpoises. Many people think that porpoises and dolphins are the same animals, but they are not even in the same family.
Porpoises tend to be shorter and stouter, with rounded rather than beaked or bottlenose rostrums. They are actually more closely related to belugas than dolphins. The largest family of toothed whales, the Delphinidae, or oceanic dolphins, has some thirty-six species, including such popular theme park draws as the bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, short-finned pilot whale, false killer whale, and of course the killer whale, the second-largest toothed whale after the sperm whale.
The terminology gets a bit confused here. The word whale is an English common term, not a scientific one. It basically means large cetacean. So even though killer whales, false killer whales, and pilot whales are all in the dolphin family, they are also relatively large cetaceans, and therefore called whales. The distinct black-and-white pattern of a killer whale helps camouflage the animal from prey swimming underwater, or perched above the sea on ice floes, beaches, and shoals.
Orcas communicate through a complex and poorly understood system of vocalizations that are divided into two main types. They are, according to the Vancouver Aquarium web page:. Killer whale whistles are used for communication and sound a lot like human whistles.
They are continuous sounds and are referred to as pure tones. Referred to technically as burst pulse calls. Killer whale calls are very rapid streams of sound pulses that sound continuous to our ears. Most sound somewhat like human cries or screams, some sound a bit like a squeaky door or creaking floorboard. Many of the calls used by killer whales are stereotyped or produced repeatedly by a given group of killer whales. Certain killer whales even use sound as a kind of family badge, and researchers have discovered much about their family relationships by simply listening to the sound of their calls.
The vast majority of data available on wild orcas was collected from the Northern and Southern Resident whale communities of British Columbia and Washington State. These venues not only offer easy access to the whales, they are scenic and pleasant places to live: Researchers who study orcas tend to gravitate more toward this region than, say, Iceland. While it is tempting to ascribe Resident and Transient attributes to killer whales in Norway, Iceland, Antarctica, and elsewhere, scientists say there are just not enough data to support such comparisons, with the exception of New Zealand and possibly Alaskan orcas.
For the past forty years, field scientists have exhaustively documented these Pacific Northwest animals, which they break down into three distinct ecotypes: The most highly studied whales of all, these orcas are divided into two groups: The two generally do not mix.
These whales live in extremely stable and large groups, or pods, marked by tightly knit family units dominated by females. They communicate at a highly sophisticated level and eat mostly fish. These whales differ from Residents primarily by what they eat: Transients have been known to bat their prey around before finally consuming it. They travel in small groups three to twelve whales , and their range is far greater than that of Resident orcas, though it does overlap.
Transients do not mix with Residents, having split from their cousins, genetically speaking, tens of thousands of years ago. Little is known about this population, which tends to stay about thirty miles off the mainland coast, though they have been spotted in inland waterways on rare occasions. Offshores can travel in huge pods numbering up to seventy to a hundred orcas. Scientists believe they mostly forage on Pacific sleeper sharks and schooling fish.
There are several other ecotypes, and perhaps even separate species entirely, besides the Northwest American whales. Orcas can be found in all oceans of the planet, even in the tropics. Various studies have estimated their total population at anywhere between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand, perhaps half of them around Antarctica.
Part of the reason is a reduction in fish stocks, which environmentalists say is due to pollution, salmon farming, and the damming of rivers that wild salmon must navigate to spawn upstream. New Zealand orcas are also in peril.
Then there are the captive killer whales; minuscule in number when compared to their wild counterparts, each is a political and emotional lightning rod. As of this writing, forty-two captive orcas are at theme parks and aquariums in Canada, France, Spain, Japan, Argentina, and the United States, which has twenty-two whales—twenty of them at the SeaWorld chain of attractions in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego.
This book illuminates the intensifying debate over keeping killer whales for public display, and whether captivity is too stressful on some animals, leading to health problems such as impaired immunity, increased infections, and other serious issues, as well as behavioral problems such as aggression toward one another, and violence—at times deadly, as we shall see—against humans.
Is captivity in an amusement park good for orcas: Is this the appropriate venue for killer whales to be held, and does it somehow benefit wild orcas and their ocean habitat, as the industry claims? Is orca captivity good for society: Is it safe for trainers and truly educational for a public that pays to watch the whales perform what critics say are animal tricks akin to circus acts?
Not surprisingly, people who support SeaWorld and other marine-themed entertainment parks pro-caps in the lingo of this particular argument answer affirmatively to both questions, while anti-caps insist the answers are resounding noes. People opposed to captivity include some scientists, academics, veterinarians, and environmentalists, nearly all animal activists, a handful of former orca trainers, and a worldwide network of people who say that killer whales are too big, smart, sentient, mobile, and close to their families to be kept in tanks and trained to perform for tourists.
They assert that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel and unusual, dangerous for animals and people, and should be phased out. On the other side are aquarium and amusement park owners, managers, and investors, current and former trainers and staff, industry trade associations, some scientists and veterinarians, and most government officials, especially those whose constituents benefit from having a large oceanarium in the area.
They argue that captive whales educate the public about wild whales, that the quality of life for captive orcas is superior to that in the ocean, and that whales in these collections receive world-class care, dine on restaurant-quality fish, and are free from the worries of pollution and dwindling food supplies found in the wild.
Captive orcas, they imply, are simply better off. They are supported by millions of fans who spend billions of dollars each year on ticket sales, food, beer, and merchandise at the parks. One faction views SeaWorld as a Garden Hilton for killer whales, and the other views it as a Hanoi Hilton for killer whales. Those divisions aside, people on both sides of this battle sincerely care about these animals, and many of them truly love orcas. The notorious whale had already been involved in two other deaths.
Now he had claimed his third victim. Tilly brutally rammed, dunked, bruised, and lacerated his adoring trainer. Tilikum was not just playing. This was a killing. Four people have died in a pool with killer whales. Dozens more have been attacked, some left with lifelong injuries. SeaWorld calls these events rare accidents; critics call them preventable tragedies, the inevitable outcome of what they claim is the stress of captivity. Killer whale shows are not going to be closed down anytime soon, but opponents are pushing hard to convince the public that they are as outdated and inhumane as the circus dancing bears that still perform in parts of Russia and China.
Brancheau woke up a previously inattentive media to a gripping story and a bruising national debate—one that would soon drag the courts, Congress, and even the Obama administration into the roiling conflict. Is captivity for orcas, on balance, a good thing? Readers must make up their own minds. But regardless of whether one is pro-cap, anti-cap, or somewhere in the ambivalent middle, one thing is abundantly clear: The young orca trainer, an attractive woman with a bright smile, enchanted the tourists who came to gawk at the killer whales on this cool and gloomy February day.
They gasped in awe as the trainer, an athletic, hometown celebrity, sent the orcas flying into the air with a few discreet flicks of her hand. For now, the obedient animals pumped their powerful flukes and hurtled themselves upward from the depths of their cold-water confinement, rocketing through the surface into elegant arabesques and water-pounding breaches.
The killer whales leapt forward around the small pool in tight unified arcs—repetitive airborne maneuvers not typically seen in nature, but theatrically referred to as bows in marine-park parlance. The whales swam with military-style precision. The two older, dominant females who rule orca society , easily distinguished by their smaller size and more diminutive dorsal fins that curved rearward into a point, flanked the large adolescent male in the middle.
His dorsal fin had once grown straight, on its way to a natural elevation of five or six feet above sea level. But captivity had caused the erect, triangular fin to topple over, the force of gravity having pulled the mighty appendage downward, folding it onto his back like a giant slab of black taffy cooling on the sill of a seaside candy factory.
The trainer went through her well-rehearsed paces, and so did the whales. They returned each time to the low-lying stage to collect fistfuls of thawed smelt scooped from a metal bucket—a reward for each properly executed behavior, the industry name for an animal trick. The audience cheered its approval, mesmerized by the black behemoths with the beguiling white patches next to those unknowable dark eyes, yards of glistening porcelain skin lining their enormous underbellies.
Each time they surged from the water, people held their breath. There is nothing quite like seeing a live orca show. Nadine Kallen, visiting from Calgary, asked her friend Corinne Cowell and sister Silvia, a student at a nearby university. Me, too," Silvia sighed. The trainer was now offering some well-earned treats to the big male with the collapsed fin.
The play session was a trust-building gesture, an incentive after each show, like a tip given to a favorite waitress in anticipation of good service tomorrow. The trainer held fifteen-inch-long herring over the water, and the hungry male popped up vertically through the surface to grab them. But the women believed there was nothing dangerous about the move.
They knew the term killer whale was an anachronistic misnomer from a less enlightened era of human misunderstanding about wildlife. After all, they had been to SeaWorld before; they had seen for themselves that people can swim with, surf on, and launch into the air from the heads of these gentle pandas of the sea.
Orcas were docile as dalmatians. The pretty trainer began walking along a narrow ledge between the pool and a safety railing that kept the public from stumbling into the chilly salt water. The ledge, slippery from the show, was two feet above the surface.
Suddenly, the trainer lost her balance and stumbled. One foot dipped into the brine as the opposite leg kept her body perched on the ledge. Oh, no! She slipped! Nadine cried. The instant he saw a foot break the surface, the male was riveted. He was not accustomed to seeing trainers in the water. This was an exciting development, and eight thousand pounds of curiosity got the best of him. Just as the trainer hauled herself up and pulled her foot from the brink, he grabbed it.
The whale pulled her into the water. She cried out, more in surprise than pain. But it was too late. The orca had decided to deny access to the narrow ledge to safety. A new and amusing game had just presented itself, right there in his watery living room.
He was determined to win it. The trainer freed herself and swam toward the edge of the pool, but it was no use.
There was no way to climb from the tank: Before she could cry out for help, the male grabbed her again and pulled her into the middle of the water. Now the game had drawn the attention of the two females, who circled the skirmish with rascally delight, screeching in high-pitched bursts of clicks, crackles, and calls. But the big male had no interest in sharing this new toy with his bossy tankmates. He dragged the panicking trainer down to the bottom of the forty-eight-degree water and held her there.
The three women held their breath as the trainer disappeared beneath the surface, which was dark and mottled under the gloomy winter sky. Maybe this is part of the performance: Soon they got their answer. The trainer pierced the dark surface and emitted a heart-rending scream. Help me! Help me. My god, help me! They also kept her from a life ring tossed into the pool.
Some staff tried hand signals in a vain attempt to command the orcas to return to the stage. But their obedience was only momentary.
The staff also tried luring the whales into their overnight holding pen a dark metal tank inside an enclosure called the module with a proffering of filleted salmon, but the orcas had clearly decided that they and they alone would dictate the endgame of this electrifying new sport.
The orca grabbed his trainer again and yanked her back under. Many seconds went by. The victim continued to cry out. The two chittering females circled the water with intensifying interest. Now all three whales joined in, handing off their screeching plaything like a human rugby ball. The rescue team members, who seemed unequipped to deal with such an emergency and were now shouting in panic, made a last-ditch and futile effort at deploying a large net across the pool to separate the rampaging orcas from the victim, who was losing strength by the minute.
Instead, the male grabbed the woman once again and dove to the bottom, chased by the two females. They stayed under a long time. Nadine, Sylvia, and Corrine craned their necks to see. A heavy quiet fell on the arena. Nothing was left but stunned silence, broken by heavy breathing and someone sobbing softly in the distance. The whole drama lasted maybe fifteen minutes, but it seemed like a lot longer.
Security staff finally escorted the dozen or so guests left away from the horror in the pool. It seemed to take forever to retrieve the corpse: The male had refused to relinquish his trophy. Finally, a weighted net dragged the trainer up from the depths. Her clothes had been ripped from her body, which was peppered with ten lacerations from the teeth of killer whales.
There was no attempt at resuscitation. Nadine had never seen anyone die before. She was only eighteen. As the three women prepared to leave the park in shock and sadness, TV news crews had already arrived. One woman was trying to hawk her home video of the killing to local TV crews.
Another approached grief-stricken staffers to ask if the gift shop would still be open. The victim was Keltie Lee Byrne, twenty-four, a champion swimmer and seasoned athlete. The leading perpetrator, the big male orca with the collapsed fin, was named Tilikum, a word from the Chinook language meaning friend or friendly people.
It was the first time that anyone had been killed by a killer whale in captivity or anywhere else , but it would certainly not be the last. Three more people would die over the next two decades; Tilikum would be responsible for two of them, twenty-six hundred miles away in SeaWorld Orlando. Nineteen years later, almost to the date, he would savagely attack and dismember beloved orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Back in , the northern half of the island was relatively undeveloped, with an eerie end-of-the-earth feel deepened by the wisps of gray mist that swirl around the lonely granite peaks and filter through the thick stands of cedar and western fir that rise along the lower slopes.
At the time, the north island was a destination almost exclusively for those who wished to flee the world, fish for salmon, log timber, commune with Native people, or observe wildlife up close—especially killer whales. There was, quite literally, little else to do. Naomi was lodge-sitting.
She had agreed to guard the place—a contemporary wooden-beam-and-glass inn with a cathedral-ceilinged great room that peers out over the chilly cove—against vandals and teenagers throughout the lonely winter.
Naomi had isolated herself in this remote corner of Canada to complete the number crunching required for her dissertation, "The Social Dynamics of Male Killer Whales, Orcinus orca, in Johnstone Strait," which she was preparing for her PhD in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Naomi was utterly alone. At this time of year, two dozen people, maximum, might be staying within a twenty-minute boat ride of the lodge.
Someday, she promised herself, she would work on a boat and swim in the open sea, observing the dolphins, just like Capitaine Cousteau. Naomi Anne Rose was born in Hastings, Michigan, a typical small town far from the ocean. But her family soon moved to the tidy suburbs of Milwaukee, where she spent her formative years. Her father was a chemist by training and worked as a medical technologist, testing blood, urine, and other samples in commercial labs.
Her mother, who did not finish her college degree until she was fifty-three, worked with her husband in the medical-testing field. The couple moved frequently to take new jobs. Naomi's mother, Reiko Kim, was born in Tokyo and lived there through the Pacific war. Her family moved to Okinawa soon after the fighting ended. Her Korean father was a translator for the US government, and all of her friends were American military brats.
The Kim family emigrated to Hawaii when Reiko was eighteen, and a few years later that's where she met Naomi's father, Raymond Rose, who was stationed there during his stint in the army.
The two were married in , and Naomi's oldest brother, Greg, was born in the territory of Hawaii, in Her other brother, Lawrence, was born in the state, in Naomi's mother is, as Naomi has put it, "very Asian—inscrutable, quite reserved. She was a good cook and knew how to make terrific Halloween costumes and kept her sons busy with judo lessons and her daughter enrolled in dance class. Naomi's father, Raymond, never really understood Naomi, though he made it abundantly clear that he was proud of her.
To a young Naomi, he was a distant dad, often away on business trips. Raymond moved his family around a lot because his ambitions sometimes got the better of him. It made for an unstable childhood. Then there were the arguments between husband and wife. They weren't violent, but the conflict and bickering often made life at home uncomfortable. When Naomi was eleven, the precocious girl flatly suggested that her parents seek a divorce. Naomi's brothers were fond of their kid sister, but often gave her a hard time.
The bullying was typical sibling rivalry, but Naomi had no intention of putting up with it. The boys might win the physical fights, but Naomi got them back by finding ways to get them in trouble with their mom. Did that make her a tattletale? Perhaps, but it also kept Naomi from growing up as their personal doormat. Naomi was always the good girl, and quite a little square: Naomi had always been more confident than most people, even as a young girl telling her older friends what to do.
When she was fifteen, they moved to Southern California. Though she was wary of yet another relocation, at least her new home offered access to two major marine entertainment parks. She could not wait to visit them: Marineland had two famous killer whales: Naomi loved seeing all the shows at both places.
Now that she knew she wanted to become a marine biologist, she wanted to experience cetaceans up close. At this young age, Naomi saw only the excitement and spectacle of Corky, Orky, and Shamu leaping from the water, without giving any thought to what might be going on behind the scenes of the marvelous display. Not until years later, when she saw orcas in the wild, did she begin to think about what life must be like for them in captivity. That summer before her junior year, the short, scrappy Asian-American teenager with wavy, dark hair, brown eyes, and steely self-confidence went on a scientific field trip up the coast of California.
It was part of a summer school course she took on intertidal organisms and marine biology offered by the LA County Unified School District. After a few weeks in a classroom learning to identify tide-pool species, Naomi and several other students chaperoned by two adults drove a large RV up to Big Sur for a few days of seaside study. To her, it was the ultimate in student field trips. The students were divided into small groups and assigned a tide pool to observe over time.
They took measurements of salinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH. They created graphs and tables and did field drawings showing where all the organisms were located in each pool. They sketched individual organisms and conducted censuses by species. They did sediment analyses, took weather readings, and compiled other scientific measurements with an impressive arsenal of equipment.
All the while, just offshore, Pacific sea otters played and foraged in the kelp, carefree as monkeys. Naomi loved every minute of it. But Naomi wasn't like the other, wilder LA kids.
They liked to procure illicit bottles of Boone's Farm white zinfandel and get rather buzzed and giggly while writing their field reports. Not so Miss Rose. When offered some wine from one of the boys, she politely declined.
The boy thought that was pretty cool. At sixteen, Naomi asked if she could go away to study at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School—mostly because she wanted to stay in one place for the rest of high school. That the boarding school was near Aspen, John Denver's home, was an added benefit. Naomi was so square that she still liked the singer and admired his environmental work. She didn't think she'd run into the star, and she never did.
But the secret hope remained. School was easy for Naomi and she excelled in all her classes, earning straight A's without much effort. She loved science most, especially animal behavior and ecology. Mostly Naomi just liked knowing things. She possessed an extraordinary memory to store them in: In selecting a college, Naomi made a counterintuitive choice, given her desire to study marine creatures. She planned to attend school away from the coast and wanted to get a good, solid biology degree before she specialized, she explained to her friends.
She selected Mount Holyoke, the Massachusetts liberal arts college for women, and fled her warring California household. During spring break of her first year, she traveled to the outer elbow of Cape Cod to Woods Hole, the largest nonprofit oceanographic institution in the world and a mecca for aspiring marine biologists.
She wanted to check the upcoming cruise schedule for student opportunities on research ships. Naomi contacted the scientists about coming along. There are always tasks for a college student to do. The team members hadn't expected her to show. Naomi ended up spending more time with the burly merchant marines than the scientists because she stayed on board for the whole three months, while the research team turned over at the end of each one-month leg.
The ship was to study the physical oceanography water temperature, salinity, etc. Naomi was assigned menial tasks—pulling filters out of the seawater, keeping track of depth recordings, washing flasks.
It was hard to say that she "liked" the cruise, though she would never forget the experience: A young female college student at sea with a crew of beer-swilling merchant marines, many of whom had signed up to escape their questionable pasts. It was rumored that one guy did time for second-degree murder. Naomi did not yet drink, but she learned to tolerate people who do, watching her shipmates get blisteringly drunk and then pass out. From them, she learned how to swear, quite literally like a sailor.
It didn't take long for her to win their respect. Impressed by her endurance for the hardships of being at sea, the crew rewarded Naomi with ever more comfortable quarters—from the bilge, to the second deck, and finally the top deck.
Naomi also found herself in her first serious romantic relationship on the trip, with the ship's medic, who lived near Mount Holyoke.
She stayed with him for almost two years. The wayfarer returned to school even more hooked on the ocean and its inhabitants. The first semester of her junior year, Naomi journeyed to Hawaii to attend the University of Hawaii—Manoa the school where Barack Obama's parents met in , near downtown Honolulu.
She spent the waning days of the summer with her mother's family before renting a modest apartment with another student from Mount Holyoke and starting classes full-time at the university. The lab housed two captive bottlenose dolphins, and its scientists were studying the animals' language acquisition abilities through hand and audio signals. When Naomi learned that the pair of female dolphins—Phoenix and Akeakemai, or Ake pronounced ah-KAY for short—knew some five hundred signals based on American Sign Language, she immediately signed up to work at Kewalo.
Naomi would ride a moped, on loan from her aunt, down to the lab about twice a week after school. Student volunteers were not given a lot of responsibility—or initially much access to the dolphins. It was grunt work mostly: The water level would be lowered to just a few feet, leaving Phoenix and Ake to skim around in the shallows at the bottom while students scrubbed algae from the sides of the concrete tank.
Not until the last few weeks of her semester was Naomi allowed to interact with the dolphins. She began by giving fish to Ake and also started learning some of the hand signals the researchers used to study the animal's aptitude for language acquisition. She also worked with Phoenix, who was learning computer-generated sounds instead of hand signals.
Each time Phoenix performed as requested by the tones, Naomi would offer her fish or praise.