SeaWorld’s pilot whale Sully dies – a story of successful rescue and early death

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On May 23rd, 2012 Sully the pilot whale took his last breath in SeaWorld San Diego’s Animal Care facility, three years after he was found emaciated on a Curacao beach.  His life was short, at an estimated age of 4 years he was still a juvenile. His was a nearly silent and often lonely existence, lost from his natal pod and reliant upon humans for care.
In her breaking news story on this, Elizabeth Batt writes:

SeaWorld has given no official cause of death and has yet to release a media statement but back in early May, Sully allegedly began to have issues with sunburn, a common concern for marine mammals in captivity because of the time spent logging at the surface. Former SeaWorld trainer, Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, told Digital Journal that harmful sun and UV exposure in captive cetaceans is often under played. Ventre said:
It’s a much larger problem than the public knows about. It impacts the whales on several levels. Not only is it likely painful, but it opens the animal up to infectious disease, lowers the immune system, and probably increases mortality. In the open ocean whales spend only a fraction of their time at the surface, with their backs exposed.
Ventre, along with former fellow trainer John Jett, Ph.D, a visiting research professor at Stetson University, first addressed the issue of sun exposure and immunosuppression in the paper “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity,” published at The Orca Project in Jan. 2011.

Note the sunscreen applied to Sully’s skin while at Curacao (SCCN photo).

The following video covers Sully’s life – showing how he was first rescued, rehabilitated, and how attempts were made to release him to the wild. Sully’s skin appears normal while at Curacao, and the rescuers (Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network , SCCN) kept the young whale in near ideal conditions.  He was kept in a netted area, and regularly taken out in the open water for conditioning swims.  As it turned out, Sully was hearing impaired (cause still unknown or undisclosed) and so was exceptionally reliant upon the humans to provide him with food and security.
Although the video is a bit long and seemingly targeted at a young audience, it is worth watching, particularly if you are interested in learning more about the best way to help whales and dolphins that wind up stranded, caught in our fishing nets or crippled by the loud sounds that our activities impose on their environment. It is clear that Sully had a more robust, engaging, and enriched life before he was turned over to SeaWorld. Note the changes in his skin through time.

Although the attempts to release Sully to the wild  may seem authentic it was perhaps a bit naive to think that the whale would suddenly abandon the boat he had been so thoroughly conditioned to follow in the open sea, or that the wild whales would accept him immediately. At best this shows a lack of understanding of the basic principles of animal behavior.

(Dolphin Academy photo)

It is worth noting that the trainer involved with Sully’s rescue was very experienced – SCCN President George Kieffer has been training dolphins since 1986. He is currently the Director of Dolphins and Programs for the Dolphin Academy, Curaçao Sea Aquarium, Netherlands Antilles where he leads captive dolphins out to open water for tourists:

The Dolphin Academy is the third dolphin facility in the entire world which offers an Open Water Dolphin Dive program. Our dolphins are trained to go outside and enjoy themselves in the open ocean. Since dolphins are territorial animals, this program actually increases their territory.

SCCN had consulted with SeaWorld San Diego veterinarian Dr. Tom Reidarson about Sully’s care, so it was probably a forgone conclusion that Sully would wind up there if the release attempts failed because SeaWorld was actively engaged in trying to get a male pilot whale at that time.  (see SeaWorld Has a Vested Interest in Helping Stranded Whales and Dolphins)
Coincidentally, just two months ago SeaWorld finally succeeded in obtaining the male pilot whale, Argo, from Japan (WDCS).

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