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SeaWorld San Diego’s Killer Whale Gets An Electrocardiogram

SeaWorld San Diego's Killer Whale Gets An Electrocardiogram

How do you give an 8,000-pound killer whale an electrocardiogram? It involves suction cups.

Getting an electrocardiogram on a killer whale is tricky business, but researchers figured out how at SeaWorld. The scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography developed the innovative technique and look to use it in the wild.

Scripps Research Physiologist Paul Ponganis said getting the electrocardiogram from the 50-year-old 8,000-pound orca possessed a unique challenge.

“The EKG electrodes are placed above and below the heart on the chest,” Ponganis said.

The marine mammal then swam around SeaWorld's orca tank for about five minutes. It was enough time to gather the data and test the equipment. Ponganis said the best way to secure electronics on a killer whale is suction cups made by the GoPro company.

Ponganis said he wants to use the techniques developed for this study to learn about the health of large ocean going mammals.

“Lots of studies are looking at these animals' response to things like ship noise, traffic,” Ponganis said. “We can look at the physiological response, look at the heart rate.”

Last week, federal lawmakers asked President Obama to update 20-year-old rules on captive marine mammal treatment. The California Coastal Commission postponed a vote on whether or not SeaWorld should be permitted to build a larger orca tank.

Ponganis said using orcas in captivity for this research is necessary.

“We’re studying orcas because they are the largest available animal in captivity, and eventually we want to try to develop a recorder that will record an EKG in the large whales,” Ponganis said. “The baleen whales, blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales”

This isn’t the first time Scripps Institution of Oceanography studied captive ocean mammals at SeaWorld. Ponganis remembers doing an EKG on JJ the gray whale more than 17 years ago.

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