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Remembering Moana the Killer Whale

This is not a blog post I ever thought I would be writing. Today, 18/10/2023, Moana was found dead by his beloved trainers.

Moana was born at Marineland, Antibes on the 16th March 2011. At only twelve years of age, he was far from his average life expectancy of 35, but this post is not going to be about pointing fingers, or placing blame. Instead, I am here to tell you all about the goofiest, weirdest killer whale I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Because he deserves to be remembered for who he was - not as a statistic.

While I was not his primary trainer, I worked closely with Moana for three years and was blessed to watch him grow up around the trainers he loved so fiercely. Yes, I say loved. Because Moana never did anything by halves. He loved big, and he failed big. This was never more apparent than in training sessions where you could see the wheels turning in his brain while he put his keen mind to the task, overthought everything, and came to the spectacularly wrong conclusion. But, with the right help from the trainers who knew him best, he would shine.

It was no secret that Moana was a bit quirky, or that he learned a bit differently than others. As a trainer he presented a unique challenge in that you really had to work to understand how his brain functioned, unlock the secrets within his psyche and discover how he viewed the world. Often he would need his trainer to provide whatever confidence he lacked - whether this was in training sessions or with novel enrichment devices. I was lucky enough to get to witness my best friend's relationship with Moana and when watching the two of them together, you would swear that words were not necessary to have deep understanding. They just clicked.

I have so many wonderful memories of days spent with Moana. One of my favourites being the day we made frozen jello 'Easter Eggs' for the whales for Easter Sunday and let them do an egg hunt. The other whales ate theirs straight away, but not Moana. No, Moana swam around with that blue jello egg, squirting it out of his mouth and grabbing it again like he was playing catch with himself. Then he brought it over to us so that we could play with him until he had had enough and finally ate it. Another memorable moment was the day my best friend turned 30 and we did a mini photoshoot for her with Moana. She had made extra jello for him in the shape of the number 30 and for whatever reason, Moana decided to forget how to eat jello properly. Whether he was intent on simply destroying the whole thing in the most adorable way possible, or he just really enjoyed making us laugh - I don't know. This was classic Moana - always full of surprises and wholly unexpected, right to the end.

Moana was often the reason for smiles around the whale pool. Granted, it was mostly because he was doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing, but just the thought of his big, goofy face is enough to bring a smile to my face even now. His mother, Wikie, was my whale. I say that even though we know none of the whales are truly 'ours' but who else can claim to know them half as well? Because I spent most of my time with Wikie, I also spent a lot of my time working alongside Moana. Whether sending behaviours together in shows, working on research projects, or simply playing with the whales together - Moana was always right there. Images that I am now sifting through in my mind that I hope I will never forget. The first time he completed his 'tornade' approximation after only a few sessions. His big fat rostrum nudging the black bucket to try and get some more ice cubes, or the way he would clamber all over Wikie like he had forgotten he wasn't a calf anymore.

We cannot forget the legacy that Moana has left behind in his contribution to research and conservation. Most notably, he was a huge part of the 'copy' research project conducted by Abramson et al. Providing scientists with greater insight into killer whale vocal imitation. He also helped to prove that killer whales are able to be innovative with their behaviours in a more recent study by Hill et al. Moana was one of the first of the Marineland whales to offer an innovative behaviour which we affectionately named the 'dorsal wiggle'. These creativity sessions were another amazing opportunity for us to catch a glimpse into the way Moana's mind worked. Where Keijo would fire off a hundred different behaviours at a thousand miles an hour, Moana would think it through. Taking his time before making a decision. One particular session where he floated with his 'head on deck' staring through us before offering suckling as a behaviour will forever

be a highlight of mine. It was quite possibly the most adorable thing I have ever seen.

Moana touched so many lives in his twelve years. The trainers who have known him from his birth, as well as those like myself who have come and gone, but also the wider public. Every person who visited Marineland and saw Moana was inspired by him, and developed a greater connection to the ocean because of it. A very special group of girls deserve a mention for the times they spent in our stadium and for how hard they loved Moana too. I know some facilities don't look favorably on who they have affectionately named 'groupies' but the killer whale team at Marineland were always grateful to ours. For their continued support, for their unwavering loyalty, and for how they loved our animals. Like our fearless leader Taylor Swift once said - 'The worst type of person is someone who makes another person feel stupid for being excited about something'.

So if you are reading this, please do not let Moana's life become another statistic, or another way to twist the argument about the keeping of killer whales in human care. Please remember him as we do.

Mimo, Mimoche, Mimolette, Moana...

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