When a SeaWorld Orlando killer whale succumbed to a sudden illness Monday evening, it was the third killer-whale death at a SeaWorld marine park in just four months and the 24th in the past 25 years, according to federal records and company figures.
The death of Kalina, a 25-year-old female, followed that of Taima, a 20-year-old female who died in June giving birth to a stillborn calf at SeaWorld Orlando, and Sumar, a 12-year-old male who died last month at SeaWorld San Diego.
SeaWorld said it will conduct a necropsy to determine an exact cause of Kalina’s death, a process that will take as long as six weeks. The company said Tuesday that Taima’s death resulted from “complications from the birthing process,” and it has not yet completed its analysis of Sumar’s necropsy.
But it said it is “certain” that the three deaths are not related.
“We take very seriously the death of any of our animals, and the loss affects us deeply,” SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said. “They are part of our family.”
The trio of deaths comes amid what may be the most challenging period in Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s nearly 50-year corporate history. SeaWorld has faced intense criticism since the Feb. 24 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was battered and drowned by a 6-ton orca named Tilikum.
Brancheau’s death prompted a harsh condemnation and $75,000 in fines from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. SeaWorld is contesting the citation. The tragedy also fueled criticism from animal-rights activists, who argued that the attack was the product of stress endured by killer whales in captivity – a claim SeaWorld has vehemently disputed.
The recent orca deaths have provided more ammunition for those critics. Killer whales in the wild typically live much longer than Kalina, Taima or Sumar; females have a life expectancy of about 50 years and can reach 80 or 90 years of age, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, while males live for about 30 years and can reach 50 or 60 years.
According to Fisheries Service records and SeaWorld’s own figures, 24 killer whales have died at SeaWorld marine parks since 1985. The animals ranged in age from less than 1 year to approximately 30 years old. The causes of death have included multiple cases of pneumonia, encephalitis and gastrointestinal ailments, according to the records.
The numbers do not include an approximately 23-year-old female orca who died in SeaWorld’s care in 2001. The company said it took in the already-ill animal from another facility to attempt medical treatment, but it died less than six months after it arrived.
Anti-captivity activists have long contended that the shorter life spans recorded in captive killer-whale populations are evidence that confinement causes stress on the animals. Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with the Humane Society of the United States and a longtime critic of SeaWorld, said the deaths this year of Kalina, Taima and Sumar – all of whom were born in captivity – suggest that captive-born whales fare no better than those that have been captured from the wild.
“There’s something about the whole confinement and space and lack of family that the stress is just pervasive,” Rose said. “It may be at a low level, but it’s persistent, and low-level stress can be very dangerous over the long term. And they’re not living very long.”
SeaWorld said there is no credible evidence to suggest that its killer whales are under stress. The company noted that it has also recorded 26 successful births during the past 25 years – beginning with Kalina’s Sept. 26, 1985, birth at SeaWorld Orlando. Kalina was the first killer-whale calf successfully bred in captivity.
Seventeen of the 26 killer whales born in SeaWorld parks – approximately two-thirds – are alive.
“The animals in our parks are content and healthy, a fact supported by medical, scientific and behavioral evidence,” Bides said. “Conversely, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that animals in our care suffer stress.”
SeaWorld currently has 23 killer whales in its corporate collection, which includes four that it has loaned to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands; one it has loaned to Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario; and one it has on loan from the Barcelona Zoo. Six killer whales remain at SeaWorld Orlando.
The oldest killer whale in its care is Corky, an approximately 43-year-old female at SeaWorld San Diego.
SeaWorld has curtailed contact between its animal trainers and killer whales while it conducts a sweeping safety review prompted by Brancheau’s death. Trainers have been forbidden from swimming with any orcas and can work with Tilikum – SeaWorld’s single largest animal – only from a distance.
The company has said it won’t allow trainers back into the water unless it can make sufficient safety improvements to its trainer protocols and equipment. It said there is nothing to indicate that the limited contact with the animals since Brancheau’s death could have affected the health of the killer whales that died.
“We have no reason to believe that the killer whale deaths this year are related, or that there is any indication that their zoological environment was a contributing factor,” Bides said.
The string of tragedies at SeaWorld – which also includes Monday’s death of a 68-year-old tourist who was pulled by lifeguards from a water ride in SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park – have come in the year since it has become a more standalone operation under the private-equity firm Blackstone Group. Blackstone purchased SeaWorld last fall from beer brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev for approximately $2.5 billion