Three days after delighted spectators watched the birth of a calf he sired, Orky the killer whale died at Sea World here Monday.
The death leaves the amusement park chain with only one proven breeding male among its 12 surviving whales, dealing a blow to its breeding program for killer whales.
The 7-ton Orky--at about 30 years the oldest killer whale in captivity anywhere--was so important to that breeding program that Sea World paid $23.4 million for Orky's home, Marineland of the Pacific, in 1987. Some observers saw the move as a bid primarily to acquire Orky and his mate, and Sea World owner Harcourt Brace Jovanovich closed Marineland shortly after the acquisition.
Orky died Monday morning after refusing the regular feeding offered to him and the three adult females at the park, said Jim Antrim, general curator.
An autopsy will be performed by Sea World and the results reported to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which issues permits for holding killer whales in captivity, Antrim said.
Orky was captured off the British Columbia coast of Canada.
Shortly after arriving at Sea World in January, 1987, Orky bred with Kandu, mother of the new baby, and with another whale that is now pregnant at the park, Antrim said.
But caretakers at the park had noticed a general slowdown in Orky within a few months of his arrival, Antrim said. The symptoms resembled those one might see in an aging human, he said.
Orky's death leaves Sea World with only two males, one that is about 20 to 25 years old in Orlando, Fla., and a second that is just about to reach sexual maturity in San Antonio, Antrim said.
Sea World officials say that is enough to operate a viable breeding program, however.
In addition, they said they were heartened that Orky had fathered two calves with new mates before dying--something that wouldn't have happened if he had stayed at Marineland, said Brad Andrews, vice president for marine mammals at Sea World.
Orky and mate Corky had produced six offspring at Marineland's smaller facilities, but two were stillborn and the other four died after birth.
"I think it's very important that this didn't happen at the facilities at Marineland," said Andrews, who was at Marineland until it was closed. "That was my worst fear, to have he and Corky producing offspring that weren't living. It was very important for the animals to be moved to a larger facility in 1987 so he could be exposed to other animals."