The Faces of San Juan Island – Melisa Pinnow

Last week, dozens of researchers, scientists, former trainers and whale enthusiasts (Self-proclaimed “Orca-dorks”) joined together for the annual event – Superpod 3. Individuals traveled from near and far to join together for whale watching, nightly lectures and socialization in our own “pod” of sorts.

The whales were the celebrities of the week with daily sightings along the West side of San Juan Island. Their majesty is a sight to behold, leaving no doubt that this is the way they were intended to be viewed. Breaches, spy hops and fluke splashes were all part of the show…on THEIR terms.

Whether it was the first time seeing orcas in the wild or a return visit, the people of San Juan Island could not have been more accommodating. The locals on the island have a contagious enthusiasm for the island and it’s endless gifts.

One of those inspiring islanders is Melisa Pinnow. Melissa has lived along the coast of San Juan Island her entire life.  At only 20 years old, she is dedicated to spreading current news about cetaceans.

In 2010, she started working for San Juan Excursions aboard the Odyssey. In the beginning, she was the snack bar attendant, but as she formed a passion for the orcas, especially the Southern Resident orcas, she became a certified marine naturalist. When she is not out on the Odyssey, she’s watching the orcas from shore or other boats, hanging out with friends, or adding to her website:

Melisa finds it surprising that all these amazing marine animals were around her for her entire life but she never really showed much interest in them, until she started working on the Odyssey. It was when Ruffles J1, a fifty-nine-year-old male surfaced within a hundred yards of her on the Odyssey, that her now blazing fire of a passion was sparked. A little stream of water ran down the base of Ruffle’s wavy dorsal fin as he slowly surfaced. His thunderous exhale was the most amazing sound she had ever heard. After this encounter, she began to get to know Ruffles’ family, as well as the other matrilines that make of J, K, and L pod, and it wasn’t long before she could identify all of the Southern Resident orcas by sight.


A replica of Ruffles dorsal fin is located inside the gift shop at Lime Kiln State Park

Looking back, Melisa is amazed at how much her life has changed in such a short time. She does not know where she would be now if she had not gotten that job on the Odyssey and if Ruffles had not pulled her into his world. As a naturalist, she continues to teach guests all about the orcas and other wildlife, and how they can help save them. 

Melisa’s plan for the future is to help save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. At just 79 individuals in the entire Southern Resident community, they are ever so close to dying out. she will fight tooth and nail until they either recover, or the last member passes away. How can we help save the Southern Residents you may ask? It’s all about the salmon. These specific orcas only eat salmon (Chinook being their absolute favorite) and are experiencing food shortages. We must take down dams, restore salmon habitat, stop harvesting for a short time to let them recover, and stop supporting farmed salmon.

Melisa attends Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington studying Marine Biology and just finished her freshman year. She will be returning to campus in the fall, but will be back up on San Juan next summer.

You can find her on twitter @MelisaPinnow (SanJuanOrcas)


Will Virgin Holidays stop selling tickets to SeaWorld?

Whale and Dolphin Conservation(WDC) led a second campaign late last year, following the success of Blackfish, to ask Sir Richard Branson to sever ties with SeaWorld by not selling any more trips through Virgin Holidays.  For background information on the campaign, find the details here. In February, Sir Richard vowed not to promote any tourist attractions that will take marine animals from the sea.

“I’ve instructed Virgin Holidays not to deal with any organisation that does not pledge that they will never again take cetaceans from the sea,” says Sir Richard Branson. “We hope other holiday companies will follow suit. Since – I believe – animals bred in captivity cannot safely be released, we will examine what is best to do with this issue, and others, in the engagement process. As part of the process I will personally visit some of these facilities around the world.”

The engagement process was estimated to take about 6 months and include discussion on the following factors:

  • The role of captive cetaceans for education and raising awareness.
  • The issue of training captive cetaceans for entertainment.
  • The welfare of captive cetaceans, including the space given to them.
  • The breeding of cetaceans in captivity.
  • The reintroduction of captive cetaceans into the wild.

Sir Richard Branson called an unprecedented meeting to discuss the future of whale and dolphin captivity.  In the press release  WDC states:

WDC will be attending this important meeting in the USA on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June, along with other whale and dolphin experts and representatives from the travel industry and SeaWorld. When we handed our petition to Virgin Holidays their spokesperson said that Virgin Holidays is “committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders across the spectrum of this discussion”. This is an amazing opportunity to present hard evidence proving how unsuitable whales and dolphins are for a life in a tank. 

Speaking out against captive breeding and cetaceans for entertainment include Dr. Ingrid Visser (Orca Research Trust and Free Morgan Foundation), Dr. Naomi Rose (Animal Welfare Institute – AWI), Courtney Vail of WDC, Will Travers (Born Free Foundation) and Dylan Walker (World Cetacean Alliance – WCA). Let your voices be heard by signing the petition showing that captive breeding is just as bad as “collecting” from the wild.  Stillborn calves, inbreeding, maternal deaths and eventual separation of mother and calf are only a few of the results of SeaWorld’s breeding program.  Captivity will not end until SeaWorld’s breeding program ends.

Please sign and share to tell SeaWorld and Virgin Holidays that captive breeding is NOT acceptable.

SeaWorld: End Captive Orca Breeding Program

artinsem   Photo credit to Voice of the Orca‘s Jeff Ventre

Part 4: SeaWorld killer trainers would make great politicians

Originally posted on Educating people about killer whale captivity:

It is my last day in Orlando and I still don’t have any footage of me asking some forbidden questions to a SeaWorld killer whale trainer.

I cant come all this way and not leave without even trying to talk to a trainer. I decide to go back to SeaWorld one last time in the hope that I have the courage to get some footage.

I arrive at Shamu Stadium to watch the rehearsals for the ‘One Ocean’ show. For the first time I see Tilikum. He is in E pool with his grandson Trua. The size of him his heartbreaking. He is is 22.5 feet long and weighs 12,000 pounds and is in a pool which around 25 feet deep. What a horrific way to treat a magnificent animal like that. The main pool where the whales perform is only 36 feet deep.When the show starts he just watches through the…

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Part 2. My visit to SeaWorld Orlando – I come face to face with trainer Holly Byrd

Originally posted on Educating people about killer whale captivity:


My father and I arrive at SeaWorld Orlando a day after we land in Florida. We are tired, jetlagged and overwhelmed by SeaWorld’s appearance: The park is spotless, the trees and grounds are maintained to perfection. I feel intimidated: I am not a journalist and I already feel nervous and out of my depth at attempting to talk to the killer whale trainers.

There is fast ‘happy’ music playing – to get all of the family in the mood of having a great day of seeing animals up close and personal with some great rollercoasters and ‘educational’ shows thrown into the mix. As it is the parks’ 50th anniversary of being in business there is a lot of self promotion evident. The words ‘SeaWorld Cares’ logo is throughout the park on posters and even on trash cans. The propaganda is amazing.

As we enter the park there are beautiful flamingos…

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SeaWorld Bogus Critique Of Blackfish

Originally posted on Tim Zimmermann:

Despite insisting that Blackfish is having no impact on its business, SeaWorld continues to invest heavily in a PR counter-attack on Blackfish and the former trainers who appear in the film.

It’s latest minute-by-minute critique of Blackfish was perhaps the most detailed, and most tediously off-base, critique it has issued yet.

Below you will find the Blackfish production team’s rebuttal. What’s notable is that SeaWorld continues to massage and manipulate the facts even as it tries to accuse Blackfish of mis-representing the facts. What’s also notable is that SeaWorld continues to try and distract and divert from the core issues raised in Blackfish about the wisdom and morality of killer whale captivity, without ever directly addressing those issues.

I guess we can keep going round after round on this, but the facts simply are not on SeaWorld’s side. And it seems clear that the public is beginning to understand a…

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Some background history at how I got interested in killer whale captivity

Originally posted on Educating people about killer whale captivity:


I never considered myself to be an animal activist. Sure I love animals but I was never passionate about trying to protect or educate people about the mistreatment or neglect of animals. I have three cats whom rule the roost, come and go as they please and who are spoilt rotten but I never put my head above the parapet with regard to animal welfare, until I saw a documentary called ‘Blackfish’ at the London Sundance film festival in April 2013.
I had seen ‘The Cove’ back in the summer of 2010 and I got educated about the plight of dolphins in Taiji, Japan whom are killed or selected for a life in captivity.

I found ‘The Cove’ harrowing and started to think back to all of the times I had visited America and had visited marine parks like SeaWorld…

In 1991 I was 13 when I had my first encounter at SeaWorld. I remember…

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Meet Pixie the Manatee

I have heard about Blue Springs, winter home of manatees, for years.  Even though it is late in the season, on a whim, we decided to go visit last weekend.  I had seen the list of some of the tagged manatees, monitored by Sea to Shore Alliance, before we went.  I was hoping for a sighting, but was not getting my hopes up since the weather was warmer.

As we got into the park, there were rumors of one manatee in the area.  Moving on to the end of the walkway I saw an infamous tag floating in the water.  There she was! Slowly moving among people swimming was a lone manatee.  Others in the area said her name was Pixie.


When I returned home, I looked up her profile, which states:

Pixie was rescued as a very young orphaned calf on July 24, 2010.  She was found in Daytona in the Halifax River, Volusia County, when she was 110 cm long and weighed 42 lbs, and brought in to SeaWorld in Orlando for medical care.  She also spent time in Columbus Zoo to grow and gain weight before being moved to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.  Pixie was released at Blue Spring in the St. Johns River in January 2014. 

After reading her story I was concerned.  What if she didn’t know how to leave the springs?  What if people harassed her in the spring?  What would happen if she didn’t leave?

All these questions were weighing heavily on my mind, so on Tuesday I decided to call.  First I spoke to Buddy Powell, Executive Director of Sea to Shore Alliance.  Buddy has worked for more than 40 years conserving manatees starting at Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s.  He co-founded Sea to Shore Alliance in 2008.  He said that occasionally a rescued manatee will imprint on people and not join the other manatees in the area.  He said they were looking for volunteers who would monitor her at the springs to ensure swimmers were keeping a distance from her.  I gladly volunteered and was then referred to Melody Fischer.

Melody, Manatee Field Biologist, instructed me to tell people to ignore her and stay 20 ft. away.  My first “shift” was to be Saturday, March 30.  She said worst case scenario, Pixie would be returned to captivity and put on a program to make her less reliant on humans.  I was looking forward to Saturday to do my part for Pixie to remain wild.

Thursday morning I received a heartbreaking email from Melody.

Fish and Wildlife Service has made the decision to bring Pixie into captivity as soon as possible for her safety and for the potential safety risk she could pose to swimmers after noting some of her more aggressive pursuing behavior.  A capture attempt is scheduled for today at 10 am. 

I was able to speak to Melody later and she explained that Pixie was becoming even more aggressive when she ignored.  She would most likely be returning to Lowry Park Zoo and would be a candidate for re-release next winter.  The concern is that if she chases after people, it would put her at a higher risk with boaters when/if she were to leave the spring.  For her safety, it is best to try to desensitize her to humans.

According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Pixie was successfully moved to Lowry Park Zoo on Thursday.  Melody told DBNJ that Pixie will undergo “a behavior conditioning program to wean her off human attention and encourage her to socialize more with other manatees.”

I’m incredibly grateful for the work done by Sea to Shore Alliance, and hopefully I can see Pixie at Blue Springs next winter.  For more manatee updates, check out their partner’s page Save the Manatees Club and sign the petition to give manatees sanctuary in Kings Bay.  I’ll continue to post updates when available.

UPDATE 4/2/14

From Lowry Park:

Pixie arrived safely and is settling in to their Manatee Hospital and Aquatic Center. Her weight and body condition are in the normal parameters, so that is not a concern at this time. She will likely gain weight while she is there, since she will not need to find her own food. She is eating normally and has begun to socialize with other manatee patients. Their team will be working with her in the coming weeks and months to prepare her for another opportunity for release.