2005 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the untimely death of one of SeaWorld’s star orcas, Splash, who the marine park described as "a favorite" with animal-care staff and as an orca "who bonded the best with the trainers." The article described the 15-year-old as "one of the park's sickliest animals," who in 1994, "smashed face-first into the wall of his tank, ripping a book-sized patch of skin along his jaw that had to be repaired surgically."

But one SeaWorld trainer who worked closely with Splash, John Hargrove, now tells The Dodo that Splash was a troubled, overly aggressive orca who died young after consuming large quantities of sand, presumably because of the boredom of captivity, and which possibly contributed to his death. SeaWorld, meanwhile, did not respond to repeated requests from The Dodo to comment on this story.

According to the independent database of captive dolphin and whales, Ceta-Base.com, Splash was born on August 15, 1989, at Marineland in Canada, transferred to SeaWorld in San Diego at age three, and died there in 2005. As killer whale longevity goes (federal estimates suggest male orcas in the wild can live up to 60 years), Splash died very young.

Hargrove left SeaWorld in 2012 after 20 years of training marine mammals. He was featured prominently in the documentary “Blackfish,” which focused on the death of trainer SeaWorld Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, the orca many have speculated has been driven to violent behavior from his years in captivity. Hargrove has become an even more outspoken critic of SeaWorld since the release of that documentary, testifying on behalf of a California bill that would severely limit orca captivity, and he plans to testify next month for a similar bill under consideration in New York. He also described to The Dodo how SeaWorld employed different drugs in (usually unsuccessful) attempts to curtail whales’ destructive behavior.

Splash was different in one way from those others. “He was epileptic,” said Hargrove, “so we treated him with phenobarbital.” The orca also was treated for ulcers, and for having high stress levels, he said. “He was always sick, I never saw him off medication.”

Few questioned at the time whether it was safe to swim with whales who had seizures, “but we did,” Hargrove said. The orca’s ill health wasn’t the only issue that the killer whale struggled with. “Splash had full-on aggression” that began when the male orca became sexually mature, Hargrove said, and the trainers were wary of him.

Once, while backstage getting ready to perform with the killer whale, Hargrove said he was sitting with his legs in the water when Splash, “sank down deep, rolled sideways and opened his mouth on my leg.”

The trainer calmly put his hand in the water and, “asked for a hand target” -- a standard maneuver, a trainer will reach out their hand and an orca will press its snout, or rostrum, against it. When Splash complied, Hargrove said he closed the whale’s mouth and signalled for him to leave. “I wasn't swimming with him,” Hargrove said, “because his mind was already thinking aggression.”

The incident was just one of several involving Splash that Hargrove recalled. “Another time, I dove into the water and rolled over on my back, which is a sign for the whales to also roll over on their back,” the trainer explained. The orca is then meant to pick the trainer up from beneath. The maneuver places the trainer in a perfect position on the killer whale’s stomach, and together they glide around the pool.

Splash picked Hargrove up as planned, but the orca was fully sexually stimulated, which makes orcas volatile and dangerous to work with. “His erection went completely through my legs and up onto my face. He was in full-on sex mode,” Hargrove said. “We've had major aggression issues with whales when sex is on the brain.”

It is impossible to know what a killer whale is thinking, but Splash also exhibited other strange behaviors, such as swallowing sand. Over a period of years, Hargrove said, Splash gobbled up filtration sand that found its way into the orca’s tank.

“Because Splash was so bored and the environment is so sterile, he would just sit for hours — he would come up to breathe and then would go back down, and he would suck up all the sand that was coming through,” Hargrove said. This type of chronic, destructive behavior has only been observed by orcas in captivity, experts report, not in the wild.

“Splash sucked up that sand for years,” Hargrove said. “Filtration sand is very rough and abrasive.”

After Splash died, Hargrove says he was told by a SeaWorld veterinarian that a necropsy revealed “hundreds of pounds of filtration sand in his stomach,” and that if it wasn’t what killed him, “it didn't help.” (The Dodo contacted SeaWorld of California’s director of veterinary services at that time, Thomas Reidarson, for comment. But Reidarson left SeaWorld in 2010, and wrote us: “As a former employee of SeaWorld I signed a nondisclosure statement at the time I left the company so I unfortunately cannot assist you.”)

So did Splash eat enough sand to kill himself? Only a veterinarian looking at the necropsy reports would be able to determine that, said Naomi Rose, a senior marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute. And Rose points out that the necropsy reports no longer are available to the public since a 1994 change to the Marine Mammal Protection Act; only if the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inquires into a death is a facility expected to turn over a necropsy report.

The only official report available to the public, the Marine Mammal Inventory Reports, lists Splash’s death as due to "acute perforating gastric ulceration with associated peritonitis.” According to Rose, that means: "Splash had ulcers (that’s what ‘acute perforating gastric ulceration’ means – his stomach was riddled with ulcers that had significantly damaged the stomach lining and finally poked holes in it).”

She said she could only speculate on the role the sand could have played. “If he had a lot of sand in his stomach and his stomach was ulcerated, it would not have been helpful. I cannot say if the sand could have caused the ulceration, but if it didn’t, he probably would have exacerbated the condition by eating it.”

What about Splash’s epilepsy? “Did Splash’s condition contribute to his death? Probably,” Rose said. “But again -- that’s just a guess, because I do not have enough data to draw solid conclusions about it.” She added that, there’s a “good chance” he wouldn’t have been epileptic if he’d been born in the wild -- David Kirby’s book, “Death At SeaWorld,” reports that Splash  was born premature in captivity, developing his epilepsy later. “But I have seen and heard about whales in the wild that were a bit ‘odd’ – possibly having fits, etcetera -- and they are cared for within the pod. A27, one of my study animals, lived to be 30, which is the mean life expectancy for males in the wild. I’m not saying he was epileptic, but he had these weird tail-slapping fits and his growth seemed stunted.”

While we may never truly know the reasons behind the Splash’s death, we do know what happened to the young orca’s remains. According to the Union-Tribune report:

“Several of Splash's organs and tissue samples were donated for scientific research. His seminal fluid went to University of California Davis. San Diego State University received tissue samples from his flippers. Blubber samples were sent to the University of Central Florida. Other researchers want to study the whale's eyes. The remainder of the carcass was sent to a rendering plant.” 

SeaWorld and marine parks profit off keeping orcas and other marine animals in captivity -- despite evidence that captivity not only induces unnatural behaviors in whales, but also endangers trainers. Join us in pledging never to visit SeaWorld or other marine parks until they empty their orca tanks.