When one of SeaWorld’s most famous whales died in 2017, the park alleged that a lung-related illness had claimed her life. But when images emerged showing sores on the orca’s skin, many people grew suspicious. And some believed the cause of her death was not quite so straightforward.
Kasatka the female Orca was born in 1976. Just two years later she was captured in the seas near Iceland with her pod-mate Katina. The pair were soon sold to SeaWorld. Subsequently, they spent four years together in San Diego, before Katina was transferred to Orlando.
Kasatka starred in SeaWorld’s famous Shamu show. Indeed, her days were filled with performances, and she sometimes appeared in as many as eight a day. But although the crowds loved her, Kasatka was not always the friendly character the park made her out to be.
In fact, the whale was sometimes aggressive towards humans. And in separate incidents in 1993 and 1999, she attempted to bite her trainer Ken Peters. Things came to a head in November 2006, when Kasatka violently dragged Peters underwater.
Eventually, Peters was able to break free of Kasatka’s mouth and escape the tank. Somehow, the ordeal left him only with minor injuries. However, a clip of the incident later appeared in Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that claims to highlight the negative and dangerous effects captivity can have on killer whales.
But even following the attack on Peters, Kasatka continued to appear in Shamu performances. And her starring role in the show wasn’t the only way she was valuable to SeaWorld. In fact, she was also the San Diego pod’s matriarch, having borne four children, later leading to six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Kasatka delivered her final child – a male named Makani – in February 2013. However, his birth proved controversial due to a problem with his mom’s lungs, discovered by vets in 2008. Since then, she had relied on an inhaler to pump medicine into her respiratory system. According to some, this may have made her unfit to carry and deliver another baby.
However, SeaWorld went ahead with the artificial insemination of Kasatka. Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove later questioned the aqua park’s decision to make the orca go through a gestation period of around 18 months. And he also worried Kasatka could pass the medication in her system on to Makani during nursing.
Following the birth of Makani, Kasatka’s condition deteriorated. Consequently, in August 2016, SeaWorld announced the whale was having trouble battling her illness. The park blamed her decline on her age and ailing immune system. However, this excuse didn’t convince many of the organization’s critics.
SeaWorld of Hurt is a branch of the animal welfare group PETA that campaigns exclusively against SeaWorld. In a statement from August 2017, they pointed out that orcas can live over 100 years in the wild. Meanwhile, Kasatka was just 40.
However, by other estimates, Kasatka lived to a ripe old age. According to the Born Free Foundation, the majority of SeaWorld’s captive orcas do not last longer than 25 years. Furthermore, only one has ever survived to the age of 41.6.
Following SeaWorld’s update on Kasatka, in June 2017 photos emerged of the orca looking unwell. A park visitor called Elizabeth captured the shocking images, which showed the whale as she lined up for her medication. In an interview, Elizabeth revealed the worrying story behind the pictures.
“When Kasatka lifted her head out of the water, her lower jaw looked completely disfigured,” she told Dolphin Project. “She appeared extremely lethargic and did not swim around the pool as she normally would. When a trainer asked her to do a behavior for the crowd, she did a pathetic attempt at a spy-hop.”
“She seemed barely able to get her head out of the water,” Elizabeth added. “When the trainers were through, they dismissed the group of orcas, and they all left except for Kasatka, who moved only a few feet from the wall and stayed logging in the same spot until I left.”
In Elizabeth’s images, it appeared Kasatka was sporting a number of lesions on her jaw. According to Hargrove, these were a clear sign of a huge fungal infection. In fact, he revealed that SeaWorld gives its orcas large doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy. And this in turn had likely weakened Kasatka’s immune system.
“Sadly, when I look at this photo, all I see is a diseased whale,” Hargrove said. “Historically, when a necropsy is performed on an animal with this level of fungal infection, the fungal lesions are far worse internally than they are externally. It is also an incredibly painful way to die.”
Unfortunately, Kasatka passed away in August 2017, one month after the shocking photos emerged. In the end, vets put her to sleep as her battle with her illness intensified. However, the park made no reference to the orca’s skin sores when it announced her death online.
“Kasatka passed away at approximately 8:15 p.m. surrounded by members of her pod, as well as the veterinarians and caretakers who loved her,” a statement from SeaWorld read. “All of us at SeaWorld are deeply saddened by this loss but thankful for the joy she has brought us and more than 125 million park guests.”
However, SeaWorld’s emotional statement didn’t wash with Hargrove. “She suffered unbearably so that kids could watch her do tricks and SeaWorld could get richer,” he told the Daily Mail in August 2017. “Now she’s dead. My only comfort in her death is she is no longer being exploited. Finally, she is at peace.”
But SeaWorld contested Hargrove’s accusations. “These allegations are the same distortions and mischaracterizations that have been made and discredited over the years,” the park said in a statement. “No one is more dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our animals than the expert veterinarians and animal care staff working with this family of killer whales every day.”