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Orca dies at SeaWorld Orlando; cause of 30-year-old Kayla’s death is a mystery

Orca dies at SeaWorld Orlando; cause of 30-year-old Kayla’s death is a mystery
Kayla the orca, shown at right, prepares in 2014 for a SeaWorld Orlando show with trainers Michelle Shoemaker, right, and Ryan Faulkner and orca Melia. Kayla died Monday morning. (John Raoux / Associated Press)

A 30-year-old orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., died Monday after becoming ill over the weekend, the theme park said.

It could take several weeks before SeaWorld finds out the cause of Kayla’s death.

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SeaWorld is monitoring the five other orcas that live in the Orlando park.

“It is possible the other orcas could be affected socially by her passing, and the orca behaviorists will be monitoring the other whales closely,” SeaWorld said in a release. “We don’t, however, anticipate any physical health issues amongst the other orcas.”

Kayla had been otherwise healthy, SeaWorld said, until the first indication something was wrong Saturday afternoon when Kayla showed “signs of discomfort.”

“Her veterinarians immediately began treatment based on a physical examination. Unfortunately, her condition worsened on Sunday. Although animal care specialists and veterinarians devoted around-the-clock attention to Kayla, she did not survive,” the release said.

Kayla died with an animal care specialist who monitors the animals overnight at her side around 12:15 a.m.

“The entire SeaWorld family is deeply saddened by the loss,” the theme park said. “While today is a difficult day for all of us at SeaWorld, Kayla inspired generations of guests and employees to care and learn more about this amazing species.”

A SeaWorld spokeswoman could not immediately provide more details about Kayla’s history at the park.

In September, Kayla was part of the park’s Killer Whale Up-Close Tour to teach visitors about the animals.

Kayla was the second oldest captive-born orca ever, said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute.

For an orca, “30 is prime of life,” said Rose, who works for the animal advocacy group that has been critical of SeaWorld in the past.

“That’s like literally being a 30-year-old woman. Dying at 30 is not normal,” Rose said, pointing out orcas in the wild have been known to live up to 80 or 90 years.

The average age for killer whales in the wild is 50 years after they survive the first six months, when they are most vulnerable, she said.

The company has struggled since the 2013 “Blackfish” documentary, which told the story of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer’s death and portrayed whale captivity in a negative light.

Attendance dropped and the company struggled financially. It fell further behind Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, which are expanding heavily and adding new attractions.

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But SeaWorld has taken steps to move past the orcas, once its iconic image.

Former CEO Joel Manby announced the company had halted its orca breeding program in 2016.

SeaWorld Orlando’s theatrical orca shows were scheduled to end in 2019, Manby had said at the time.

The company is moving to more educational shows but did not provide an update on the timeline Monday.

“We are not making any adjustment to this approach,” SeaWorld said in the release.

The park also puts more emphasis on its rides and attractions to give visitors more things to do beyond seeing the animals. Infinity Falls, a rapids raft ride, opened in late 2018 and construction is well under way for a child-friendly “Sesame Street” land that opens this spring.

For much of 2018, the company’s finances and attendance were improving. SeaWorld Entertainment, an Orlando-based company that operates 12 parks across the country, has not said when it will release its next quarterly earnings for the fourth quarter.

SeaWorld has 20 orcas left at its parks. There are five in Orlando, five in San Antonio and 10 in San Diego.

The animal rights group PETA said its members in Florida planned to hold two protests this week outside SeaWorld's Orlando park to memorialize Kayla.

"While we recognize that it's too late to help her, it's not too late to call attention to SeaWorld's other orca prisoners, who must be released into seaside sanctuaries as soon as possible," PETA said in a statement.

Russon writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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