Another Death at SeaWorld

An 18-year-old orca succumbs to a fungal infection in San Antonio.

Unna wows the crowd in 2012. (Photo: Jordantea/Flickr)

Dec 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

There has been yet another death at SeaWorld.

On Monday, the company announced that Unna, an 18-year-old killer whale at SeaWorld San Antonio, died from a rare fungal infection.

“This is a difficult time for the SeaWorld team and all of Unna’s many fans, and we thank you for your thoughts and well wishes,” the company said.

According to the statement, Unna was infected with a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida.

“The team had developed a novel treatment plan in consultation with leading medical experts around the country,” SeaWorld said. “While there were some indications that the treatment was having a positive effect, Unna had remained in serious condition and under 24/7 care.”

Unna was the daughter of Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca at SeaWorld Orlando that has been implicated in the deaths of three people, including Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010.

This was the third death of a whale at SeaWorld San Antonio in the past six months. Last month a beluga whale, Stella, died from gastrointestinal complications, and in July, a premature beluga calf died.

The last SeaWorld-owned killer whale to die was Victoria, who succumbed to intestinal problems in June 2013 at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. At least 45 orcas have died at SeaWorld, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

SeaWorld said that Unna, who was born in December 1996 at SeaWorld Orlando, had suffered from Candida “for months.” But John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld killer whale trainer who appeared in the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish and penned the 2015 book Beneath the Surface, disputed that account.

“It’s patently false,” Hargrove said. “When I came back to the San Antonio park in March of 2008, she had already been sick for some time.”

Hargrove said that Unna’s urine samples routinely tested positive for fungal spores.

“She was already on high doses of multiple medications, including an antifungal and antibiotics, every single day,” Hargrove said, explaining that trainers at the park have told him that the medical regime continued for the three years since he quit SeaWorld in 2012.

“She was chronically ill,” Hargrove said. “I’m surprised she lived this long.”

SeaWorld said that Candida affects captive as well as wild whales and dolphins. But that claim was discounted by Naomi Rose, a leading orca researcher and marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute.

“SeaWorld implies that Candida is common in the wild, as if that absolves the company of Unna's death,” Rose wrote in an email. “This is both self-serving and scientifically inaccurate.”

While Candida does impact some whale and dolphin species, it is “not common in orcas,” Rose said, adding that the fungus does not cause serious disease unless stress and immune compromise are also involved. “Unna died because she lived her short life in a concrete tank and SeaWorld's veterinary care couldn't help her,” she said.

Animal-welfare activists said Unna’s premature death is further evidence that captive killer whales do not survive as long as wild orcas, which can live between 50 and 100 years.

SeaWorld, citing a July 2015 study in the Journal of Mammalogy, authored by company-affiliated researchers, says the survival rate of captive and wild orcas is the same.

Those findings have been challenged by scientists such as Rose and groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who note that the vast majority of killer whales to die at SeaWorld have not endured past the age of 20.

Unna died “far short of how long she was expected to live,” PETA said in a statement.

“Although it is, in fact, hard to call it ‘living’ when her ‘life’ consisted of being taken away from her mother just before her sixth birthday, being impregnated when she was only eight years old before giving birth to a stillborn calf, and being so deprived of enrichment and the opportunity to engage in natural behavior that she obsessively picked at the paint on the bottom of SeaWorld’s show pool floor until her face became badly injured,” PETA said.

Editor's Note Dec. 23, 2015—1:52 p.m. PT
This article has been updated to include material from a TakePart interview with John Hargrove.