SeaWorld Orca Dies After Photos Of 'Terrible' Skin Lesions Emerge

“She is literally being eaten alive.”

After nearly 40 years in a tank, Kasatka, the matriarch orca at SeaWorld San Diego, passed away on Tuesday.

While SeaWorld said her death was the result of a years-long respiratory condition, photos had recently emerged showing Kasatka with significant skin lesions plastering her lower jaw.

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Kasatka with serious skin lesions across her jaw | Chelsy Sutton

SeaWorld made no mention of the lesions in the statement announcing her death. According to the park, she was euthanized.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute and noted orca researcher, told The Dodo that she took issue with SeaWorld’s secrecy surrounding Kasatka’s apparent skin condition.

“I notice that they didn’t mention the lesions on her lower jaw at all,” Rose said. “They’re claiming it’s a respiratory infection. I think it’s ludicrous, everyone can see them [the lesions]. And to not comment on it is exactly the kind of lack of transparency that I have an issue with.”

“It’s just messing with reality,” she added. “I find that really bizarre from a company that claims it’s about education and science.”

seaworld kasataka orca chin lesions
Kasatka with serious lesions across her jaw | Unknown
Kasatka with serious lesions across her jaw | Unknown

While Rose emphasized that she was unable to identify the lesions or say how they impacted Kasatka’s health, she noted that they looked “terrible” and “probably made it worse."

“I can not tell you what they were,” she said. “They looked bad, that’s all I can say. They were unusual. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the wild.”

Voice of the Orcas, a group made up of former SeaWorld trainers who now advocate for the orcas, said the skin condition was likely aggravated by stress and the heavy prescription drugs SeaWorld gives its orcas to help them survive unnatural tank conditions.  

“Kasatka is immunocompromised from stress & years of meds,” the group wrote. “She is literally being eaten alive.”

Kasatka’s death comes just weeks after the death of her granddaughter, Kyara, who was the last calf born under SeaWorld’s orca breeding program. Kyara was just 3 months old when she died.

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Newborn Kyara with her mother, Takara, before her death | SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

Rose urged SeaWorld to release the results of Kasatka’s necropsy — SeaWorld has historically refused to release further information about orca deaths, leaving the public to go off of the company’s statements about cause of death.

“It’s best for science, it’s best for the public — people are devastated when they find out that the animals they’ve known by name are dead, and they’re told something ludicrously insufficient,” Rose explained, noting that, while SeaWorld claims to support orca research, they’re hiding valuable necropsies that could help other orca researchers study the animals. “The problem is their lack of transparency, pretending this [death] is something that’s perfectly ordinary when something was clearly going on with those lesions.”

In its statement, SeaWorld said the rest of the orcas were being monitored but “appear to be doing well.”

“They [SeaWorld] have no idea,” said Rose, who’s studied orca family structure in the wild. While Rose noted that SeaWorld’s so-called “pods” are highly unusual, as they’re made up of unrelated animals from different wild populations who may not even like each other instead of family, she said that the social animals would still be aware of Kasatka’s absence.

seaworld kasataka orca chin lesions
Kasatka with lesions apparent under her chin | Unknown

“She was the matriarch for over 30 years and she’s gone,” explained. “They’re going to be confused and disrupted and grieving … certainly her offspring are going to be grieving.”

“They don’t give these animals any credit,” she added.

Kasatka was less than 2 years old when she was captured from her family off the coast of Iceland and eventually brought to SeaWorld. She gave birth to four calves — for her most recent pregnancy, in 2013, SeaWorld artificially inseminated her even though she was already battling the lung infection that, according to SeaWorld, would eventually kill her.

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Kasatka, second from left, with some of her family members | SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer who now advocates against the company, and had recently shared photos of Kasatka’s damaged jaw, expressed disappointment at her passing — and SeaWorld’s PR response — on Twitter.

“I'm sick to my stomach to think of all the years I believed in them,” Hargrove wrote. “What they have done to these animals is tragic.”

To help captive orcas and other cetaceans, you can support the Whale Sanctuary Project. Founded by a number of cetacean scientists and former SeaWorld trainers, the group is working to open the first sea sanctuary where captive whales and dolphins can be released.