A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You to Know

Death of Sumar the orca — the real story

By Michael Mountain

A young orca dies in captivity at SeaWorld. The local media faithfully report that trainers at Sea World in San Diego are “mourning the sudden death.” SeaWorld executives keep repeating that Sumar was “part of our family.” But here’s the real story on Sumar’s family:

Sumar was the son of Tilikum and Taima. (Yes, the same Tilikum who killed his trainer earlier this year.) He was born 12 years ago, and, in the wild, would have lived close to his mother for her entire life. Orcas like Sumar are not even mature until at least the age of 15, and they are dependent on their mothers and their social group for their education, values, behavior, and for everything that’s involved in becoming an adult orca.

Instead, Sumar was torn away from his mother, Taima, when he was just 6 months old — a trauma that he could never have gotten over. Even if, in the wild, a young male loses his mother for some reason, the rest of the family – his aunts and grandmothers in particular – will often step in to fill her place.

It only gets worse: When he was taken away from Taima at SeaWorld Orlando, he was passed from one captive facility to the next.

First, he was sent across the country and dropped into a pool thousands of miles away at SeaWorld San Diego.

Within a year of that, he was sent back across the country to SeaWorld Ohio.

And then back again to SeaWorld San Diego.

Each time, he would have met a couple of new orcas, but they would have been strangers to him. They would even have had difficulty communicating, since different pods of orcas have their own dialects of language.

At each stop, his new “family” was a bunch of human trainers who taught him to do tricks in exchange for food.

(SeaWorld says they don’t train dolphins with food, but just watch this video of Sumar. You can see it happening.)

Meanwhile, back at SeaWorld Orlando, Sumar’s dad, Tilikum, was becoming mentally unhinged from being confined to the echo chamber of an entertainment tank. Now in his early 20s, Tilikum had already participated in the deaths of two people. And now, this year, he just went crazy, grabbed his trainer, flung her around, dragged her to the bottom of the pool, and killed her.

Soon after that, Sumar’s mother, Taima, died in childbirth. The baby was stillborn. She’d only been about nine years old when she gave birth to Sumar — too young, most experts say, for an orca to be having a baby. And now, thousands of miles away, Sumar was an orphan. And he didn’t even know it.

This week, just a few months later, Sumar himself has died “mysteriously.” In fact, the only mystery is that he lived as long as 12 years.

In the wild, Sumar would have been with his mother as long she lived – up to 60 years or more. In captivity, very few orcas even reach the age of 20. Sumar made it to 12.

Why did he die? Perhaps someone will come up with a medical explanation. But the answer is simple: he had no reason to live – no family, no friends, no home, no life.

SeaWorld promotes itself as a family center – an educational place where children can learn about real animals. But what lesson about family values can any young person learn from Sumar’s life? Only that family means nothing when you’re in the dolphin business and profits are at stake.

It’s time to bring an end to keeping these magnificent, intelligent, self-aware creatures in captivity. This is not family entertainment. It’s not education. It’s exploitation – pure and simple.

Here at Zoe, we’re going to do all we can to help the whale and dolphin societies who are working to bring this travesty to an end. As their campaign comes together, we’ll keep you posted.

Thank you for caring about Sumar and the other orcas. At SeaWorld they call them all “Shamu.” We call it simply a sham.

Related Stories:
Tilikum’s Son Dies at SeaWorld
The Big Business of Dolphins
Dolphins and People

Note: Special thanks to our science editor, Dr. Lori Marino, for the information about Sumar in this post.