Dart was the third mammal to die at the SeaWorld branch in Texas in as many months, his death coming fast on the heels of those of Unna, an orca, and Stella, a beluga whale.
Last July, a baby beluga also died after being born prematurely.
It’s still not entirely clear what caused any of the three most recent deaths. It doesn’t appear that the park has released necropsy results for Stella, who died Nov. 14 after being treated for gastrointestinal problems. In an announcement on Saturday, the park said that Unna was receiving antibiotics for an infection and treatment for a fungus but appeared to have a systemic bacterial infection that ultimately led to her death in December.
Although SeaWorld reported that Dart had “health-related issues,” it didn’t specify what those were. But one of Dart’s four Pacific white-sided dolphin companions, 37-year-old Betty, is also sick; the park said she is being monitored constantly for indications of inflammation or infection.
SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides told the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday that necropsy results for Dart are expected in about six weeks.
In a statement, the park said that it has been “a difficult time for our San Antonio team,” acknowledging that Dart’s is the latest in the string of deaths.
But “there are no apparent connections between these deaths,” it continued. “Our veterinarians will be conducting a thorough review of all the cases as they work through the post-mortem examination process.”
Still, the news is alarming for SeaWorld — and its animals. All three of the most recent deaths involved relatively young animals: Stella, who was born at Sea World in 2013, was only 2 when she died, and Unna was 18 (female killer whales generally live to 50, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). At 12, Dart was just about a third of the way through the average Pacific white-sided dolphin lifespan of 36 to 40 years.
Meanwhile, SeaWorld has seen its finances slide and the pitch of public condemnations rise. The documentary “Blackfish” was released in mid-2013, and between 2014 and 2015 SeaWorld’s net income fell by 84 percent. Bands canceled their concerts at the parks, Pixar changed an allusion to it in the “Finding Dory” movie, and the chief executive resigned.
Last fall, the California Coastal Commission banned the breeding of killer whales (which are actually a species of dolphin) in captivity as well as the sale, trade and transfer of orcas — essentially spelling the end of SeaWorld’s iconic killer whale-focused “Shamu” program, even as it approved an expansion of the park’s orca habitat. A month later, SeaWorld said that it would be phasing out the San Diego Shamu show in favor of a more natural “orca experience” without the splashy antics and acrobatics.
The effects of captivity on whales and dolphins are still debated. Animal rights groups such as the Humane Society argue that the large and social animals aren’t suited to life at aquariums and parks. Evolved to roam thousands of miles of ocean in massive pods (Pacific white-sided dolphins like Dart live in groups of up to 100), a captive animal is likely to be bored, lonely and vulnerable to infection. Wild animals have a longer life expectancy, the group argued in a report in 2011, and are less likely to display “aberrant” behavior, including attacking humans. Captive orcas have been implicated in the deaths of at least four people since 1965; there are no records of wild orcas ever killing a human.
SeaWorld has pushed back against these accusations repeatedly. In a document released in response to “Blackfish” — which SeaWorld said is “propaganda, not a documentary” — it argues that orcas in captivity are not the “ticking time bombs” that are described in the film. And in a FAQ-style addendum to the announcement about Unna’s death in December, the park addressed questions such as “Activists claim that Unna’s immune system was compromised from stress, making her more susceptible to infections and ultimately causing her death. How do you respond to that?” and “Some have claimed that SeaWorld has unbalanced water disinfection with high levels of chlorine. Is that true?”
SeaWorld’s answer: No. The park also directs readers to a study published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2015 that found no significant difference in life spans between captive and wild killer whales.
Notably, though, that study was conducted by researchers for SeaWorld.