A funny thing happened on the way to researching my essay on grandmothers…

I was writing about short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) because they are one of the few animals, besides humans, that experience menopause. On that note, I had opened my essay with the story of the first ever pilot whale captured solely for the purpose of public display and entertainment.  She had been caught in 1957, near Santa Catalina Island, California and was put on display at tourist attraction, Marineland of the Pacific.

I had managed to track down a 1960 account by David H. Brown (then Marineland’s Curator of Mammals ) of the 7-year old whale’s capture and her first year at Marineland. He discussed her reaction to captivity (there’s a sad tale) and her behavior towards humans and other sea mammals.  It seemed like a good story and I decided to use it.

Then, to my surprise, while researching grandmother pilot whales I also came across a 2010 press release promoting the “grande dame” of SeaWorld (which replaced Marineland).  “Bubbles” was touted to be the oldest pilot whale in captivity. SeaWorld said that she “began her expansive career at Marineland in the 1960s and was eventually given her own stadium and placed center stage.” Today she is SeaWorld’s biggest draw.

This was perfect!  It had to be the same whale. Now I could use the story of Bubbles, from capture to grandmother, as bookends for my essay.

But first I had to confirm that the original captured whale was indeed named Bubbles. (David Brown’s article was a scientific report. He did identify the whale by name.)  Here Life Magazine (and Google books) came to the rescue, with a 2 page spread showing Bubbles “hamming it up” for audiences at Sea World in 1957.   I also learned that Bubbles had done a cameo on a 1958 episode of Sea Hunt.

That was all I needed and I wrote my essay.

But there was a problem niggling at the back of my mind. The dates didn’t seem to add up. Calculating her age based on her capture in 1957 at “about age 7” put her at over 60 years old. SeaWorld was saying she was in her 40’s.  I supposed that there could have been a mistake in estimating her age back in the 1950’s and maybe it had been readjusted along the way.

I needed to find out if these two whales were the same animal, so I emailed SeaWorld. A few days later came a reply:

Dear Ms. Gerson;

Thank you for your email.  We appreciate hearing from you. We have been caring for Bubbles since 1987. She is a wonderful and amazing animal.  We love her very much. The records show that Bubbles was collected in 1966 and her age was estimated to be approximately 3 years old at that time.  Based on that, her current age is estimated to be in her late 40s.

Thinking maybe I was getting a canned reply, I emailed back, showing my research trail and asking for comment specifically on David Brown’s account and the Life Magazine article. To which they replied:

Hi Kimberly,
It looks like there may have been more than one Bubbles.
Good luck in your research.

So much for that.