Theme Park Central

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12 Year Old Orca Dies At SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld’s signature Shamu show, already under scrutiny after a trainer died in February, suffered another setback Tuesday when one of its famed killer whales mysteriously died in San Diego. The 12-year-old male orca named Sumar did not have any health problems and his passing shocked SeaWorld employees, many of whom feel the creatures are like family. Sumar’s passage leaves the San Diego facility with six of the highly valuable whales and lowers the company’s national total to 18, including animals in San Antonio and Orlando, Fla. “All of us, especially his trainers, will miss Sumar more than you know. He was a truly wonderful whale and was very deeply loved,” the company said in a message to fans on Facebook. Sumar’s death complicated challenges for SeaWorld’s shows, which rely on captive breeding of whales such as Sumar instead of capturing the giant mammals in the wild. They also rely on public support for keeping orcas in captivity, something that animal rights groups said is eroding after a string of high-profile incidents. Tuesday’s news followed a $75,000 fine last month by the U.S. Department of Labor over allegations that SeaWorld neglected safety measures before the death of an orca trainer in Orlando Feb. 24. Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau died after being battered by Tilikum, Sumar’s father. SeaWorld said it would fight the charges but it remains unclear how the company will comply with safety mandates and allow its trainers to return to the popular performances in which they swim with orcas. Analysts said the company likely won’t see any impact at the gates from Sumar’s death. “People aren’t going to stop coming because one whale died,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm in Cincinnati. “Visitors still go to see the killer whales in the pool and it didn’t affect their entertainment value, (SeaWorld) felt,” Speigel said of the research. But he said Sumar’s death could be costly if SeaWorld decides it needs to buy another whale — for instance from another theme park. Company officials downplayed that possibility on Tuesday, saying they would continue with captive breeding efforts. Sumar’s mother Taima, 20, died during childbirth in Orlando in June. Some conservationists said SeaWorld’s ill fortune this year underscores long-standing questions about whether large pools at entertainment parks provide healthy environment for creatures that cruise the world’s oceans. “Sumar was 12. That is not a long life — not for a wild orca. Was it a happy or fulfilled life? Not from our perspective,” said Courtney Vail, a campaign director for Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, an international nonprofit group. “The loss of Sumar today is not related to him being a whale in a zoological environment like ours,” said David Koontz, a spokesman for SeaWorld San Diego. “There is no other marine-life organization in the world that is more committed to the care of their animals.” Sumar died at about 1:45 p.m. after park officials canceled the early afternoon show so they could care for the sick whale. “This came on very quickly,” Koontz said. He said veterinarians took blood samples from Sumar and put him on antibiotics after he started acting lethargic on Monday. Koontz said there’s no concern that the whale had an infectious disease that might spread to other animals and he said other orcas appeared to be fine on Tuesday evening. Koontz said a necropsy is planned for today but details may not be known for weeks. Yeri Park, 21, of San Diego, and her friends learned the first show on Tuesday had been canceled about 30 minutes before it was scheduled to start and they later heard the final show of the day, at 5 p.m., also was nixed though park officials didn’t say why. One of them wondered whether another trainer had died. “That’s really sad,” said Park, after hearing about Sumar’s death. That (Shamu show) was the last thing we wanted to see.” The Bristols, from Cincinnati, visited SeaWorld on Tuesday because Isabella, 10, and Audrey, 7, had never seen the park’s famed killer whales. “I hope he had a good life,” Isabella said.

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