SeaWorld’s 20-year-old killer whale Nakai dies

A killer whale underwater
Nakai, an orca born in September 2001 at SeaWorld San Diego, died Thursday.
(SeaWorld San Diego)

A 20-year-old male killer whale that has been at SeaWorld San Diego since his birth died Thursday night following treatment for an infection, the park announced Friday.

Despite aggressive efforts to treat the infection, the orca, Nakai, died surrounded by members of the animal care and medical teams who had worked closely with him over the last two decades, SeaWorld said in a statement.

Nakai’s death leaves SeaWorld with eight killer whales, ranging in age from 9 to 57. The marine park is unable to expand its orca population after having instituted a breeding ban in March 2016, following years of pressure from animal rights protesters and shifting public opinion about orcas being held in captivity.


Nakai, who was born in September 2001 at SeaWorld, is the park’s second orca to die in the last year. Amaya, a 6-year-old female, died Aug. 20, 2021. Before that, the most recent death was that of Kasatka, a 42-year-old female who died of a lung disease in August 2017.

“Every attempt was made to save [Nakai’s] life,” SeaWorld said in a statement. “Veterinarians and health specialists had been actively treating an infection, but aggressive therapeutic and diagnostic efforts were unsuccessful.”

The park did not specify what kind of infection killed the orca.

Revenue at SeaWorld’s 12 parks soared nearly 15% in the second quarter, driven by higher admission prices and spending by visitors on food and merchandise.

Aug. 4, 2022

In its statement, SeaWorld said Nakai will “be remembered as a curious and quick learner, often picking up behaviors just by observing the other whales in his pod.”

The park said that skill prompted scientists to use Nakai in hearing studies that sought to better understand how noise from ships and other human activity affected orcas.

“His contributions to helping improve the health and survival of whales in the wild cannot be underestimated and will never be forgotten,” the statement said.


An unnamed member of Nakai’s team who helped care for the killer whale since his birth described Nakai in the statement as a “very friendly and an overall playful guy who loved to interact with people.”

Criticism regarding SeaWorld’s killer whale populations has intensified over the last decade following the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which focused on the life of Tilikum, an orca responsible for killing trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 when he dragged her into a pool at SeaWorld Orlando. The movie implied that orcas become more aggressive in captivity.

SeaWorld subsequently announced it was ending killer whale shows at its parks. In 2017, the San Diego park became the first location to replace its traditional, trick-laden Shamu performances with an educational program that highlights the orcas’ natural behaviors in the wild.