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.
Note: Special thanks to our science editor, Dr. Lori Marino, for the information about Sumar in this post.
Posted September 9, 2010, by MichaelMountain
Do you have any suggestions regarding how we can help marine mammals who are currently in captivity? My understanding is that captive-born animals may have limited survival skills, are there any programs designed to assist captive marine mammals with their transition into wild environments?
Doesn’t the Marine Mammal Protection Act prevent the capture of marine mammals in the US and ban their import from other countries? How is it that orcas captured in Iceland after the MMPA was passed are now on display in US facilities?
Thanks for sending the questions below. You asked: Doesn’t the Marine Mammal Protection Act prevent the capture of marine mammals in the US and ban their import from other countries? How is it that orcas captured in Iceland after the MMPA was passed are now on display in US facilities?
The MMPA prohibits the “taking” (killing, capturing, harrassing, importing) of marine mammals in U.S. waters and high seas but it is not illegal, per se, to do so. There has been a moratorium on takes since 1989 but it can be undone. More importantly, there are many loopholes. They provide permits for “exceptions”. That is, if one is importing dolphins for display and the display has an educational purpose – that is the exception. So the captivity industry uses this unregulated loophole to import dolphins from elsewhere and, theoretically, to capture dolphins. But there is no educational value to these dolphin and whale displays. You might be interested in a recent congressional hearing on this matter in which I testified that there is no evidence for real education occurring during visits to these facilities. See:
The moratorium has prevented U.S. facilities from taking directly from the wild since the late 1980’s. HOWEVER, there is a huge loophole here as well. What they can do is purchase dolphins from drive hunts or get someone to capture them from the wild in some other way. Then they store the dolphins or whales in a foreign facility and then, after some time has passed, they import the dolphins to U.S. facilities. So, technically, they are not capturing from the wild. They are simply doing a facility-to facility transfer. It has been documented that Sea World has done this – including purchasing dolphins from the Taiji drive hunts, warehousing them in the North somewhere, and then bringing them in. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of the captivity industry.
You asked: Do you have any suggestions regarding how we can help marine mammals who are currently in captivity? My understanding is that captive-born animals may have limited survival skills, are there any programs designed to assist captive marine mammals with their transition into wild environments?
The easiest way to help marine mammals in captivity is to not buy a ticket to these facilities and to tell everyone you know about how devastating captivity is for these animals.
Regarding living in the wild, there are many scientific protocols in place for rehabilitating dolphins and whales and, at the very least, providing for them in an open water sanctuary where they can lead some semblance of a normal life. The captivity industry wants you to think that none of the animals can survive in the wild. That isn’t true for those who were taken from the wild. They can be taught to live freely or semi-freely again. As for the captive-born ones, no, they don’t know how to live in the wild. But they can live in sanctuaries and lead decent lives there. So, there isn’t any excuse for keeping them confined.
Here are some other websites to go to if you want to help them:
Thank you for your prompt and informative response. I am interested in helping dolphins and am grateful for any information you can provide.
The MMPA has been a law since 1972, I don’t understand the 1989 date you cite for the enactment of the moratorium on taking marine mammals, can you please explain more? Am I missing an amendment to the MMPA?
You mentioned that SeaWorld has used loopholes in the MMPA to imported wild-caught dolphins into the US, which directly contradicts SeaWorld’s claims on the origin of their animals. Can you please tell me which individual animals at SeaWorld have been captured from the wild? Since the MMPA prohibits the wild capture and import of marine mammals in the US, isn’t SeaWorld breaking the law when they do this? Is Sea World the only perpetrator or is there documented evidence of other facilities doing this as well?
Can you please recommend some open water sanctuaries that could benefit from my donations? I am also interested in learning more about organizations that are rehabilitating or releasing dolphins back into the wild.
Thanks for your continued interest and enthusiasm! The history of marine mammal protection in this country is tricky. But here is the bottom line. The MMPA - which originated in 1972 - imposed a moratorium on the taking of marine mammals WITH THE EXCEPTION that they can be taken for public display as long as they are not highly endangered and are going to serve an educational purpose. So places like SeaWorld and other aquariums around the country captured dolphins and orcas for their facilities. And these places make claims that their displays are educational but, in fact, that is something that has never been actually determined. The 1989 moratorium is self-imposed by the captivity industry and was a direct response to public outcry once they saw videos of how these animals were captured. So, the MMPA actually does allow the taking of dolphins for public display IF there is an education purpose (hence the whole congressional hearing)but the public reaction to the taking of wild dolphins and whales in our waters would be so strong that no captive facility has attempted it since 1989. More soon....!
Hi again Tracy,
For information on organizations committed to developing rehabilitation protocols and sanctuaries for orcas, please visit:
If there are currently no sanctuaries or rehabilitation facilities in existence for marine mammals, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse? It seems to me that boycotting marine mammal parks will hurt the dolphins, since that money pays for their care. If there is not yet a solution in place to accommodate captive dolphins, where will they go if the boycott is successful?
Is it accurate that no marine mammal facility in the US has captured or imported a wild marine mammal in over 20 years? If that is true, shouldn’t we be boycotting the overseas facilities that are perpetuating the Taiji drive hunts? Why are we being asked to “not buy a ticket” if the US parks aren’t the problem?
I am definitely in support of ending dolphin hunts worldwide, but the more I research and learn, the more I feel duped by “The Cove.” Sounds like a lot of important information is being left out or misconstrued.
Peyton, please do your homework before you post. Rely on something other than your own biased opinions. Seriously you sound like a far right wing whale fundamentalist if there were such a group. In other words your credibility is zip. Worse still you sound like a LUNATIC.
Tracy Hilary, all you did was lash out with insults. You did not present any ideas to support your opinion. Animals have been proven to be very intelligent sentient beings with social structures and intuition to help them to remain healthy. The artifical environment with limited space and human interaction that they are forced to call their home is very detrimental to their health and length of life. There are plenty of statistics to prove that.
you can argue the scientific and or moral reasons why dolphins and orcas should not be enslaved for our enjoyment as an uneducated spectator til the cows com home !! but i look at this as a very simple case of common sense....it is obvious that SeaWorld and places like it are a business for profit ! It does not take a whole hell of a lot of thinking to realize that these great creatures of the sea could possibly be happy waving a fin for their dinner and doing other silly tricks to an audience of paying cumtomers ! Use your noggin and STOP the unnessary torment in the name of "training" and allow these beautiful souls of the sea to live their life as god intended !!
In my response above I quoted maximum lifespans for wild orcas of 50-90 years but the average lifespan for wild females of 50 years and wild males of 35 years still far exceeds the average life span of captive orcas. Here are more facts. Median survival time for an orca in captivity is 4 years! The average lifespan for a captive born orca is 8 years! And over 90% of all orcas taken into captivity are dead prematurely! So, the point still stands. Captivity is deadly for orcas and other dolphins.
Lori Marino, PhD
Senior Science Editor for Zoe
This is a beautiful telling of Sumar's life and death, factual in setting the background and context, and emotional and respectful of Sumar and all captive orcas.
I'd like to see a panel of scientists look into the question of whether dolphins (including orcas) can simply quit living and die. Not only do dolphins breathe each breath as a conscious action, but their thermoregulation and other bodily functions seem to be under constant control. That could include their immune response.
Given their demonstrated self-awareness, they may have a clear sense of their life beginning and ending, and be able to consciously end it. They are actively involved in maintaining their lives every minute with every breath. If they don't decide to breathe, they don't breathe. Their blowholes are shut tight unless they open them by conscious muscular action. About half of the causes of death of dolphins in captivity is a common infection or disease that suddenly appears and usually leads to death in about 24 hours. Sumar is a case in point. Did he just lose his willingness to live?
This is a question for whale biologists, neurologists, and sociologists or social psychologist to investigate. The orcas' culural capabilities and language use should be considered along with the stats and conditions from the wild and captivity.
Spin-off questions, like why do some whales suddenly break all the rules they've obeyed for years and attack their trainers? And how do some orcas, like Lolita at the Seaquarium and Corky at SW in San Diego, not succumb but somehow manage to keep their spirits up after years of confinement?
same as every other living creature with a brain I expect, Some people and animals are naturally shorted tempered. I have been in trouble for my temper, doesnt mean I want to bite at people that annoy me. I have friends who are the most patient of people I know. Same with animals. In my job working with animals, I have been attacked many times, simply has been the animal was in pain or woke up on the wrong side of the bed. They have obeyed me for years previous so why that day?? Some animals are so patient a child can handle them, pull ears and tails and never a grumble?!? presume they are similar to humans in that respect.
Orcas CAN live 50-90 years in the wild. The average lifespan for a male is 30 and for a female it's 50. You make it sound like they all live forever when clearly they don't. Did a phd actually write this article? If so then wow is all I can say.
wild animals are not meant to be domesticated, which means...leave them where they are. i dont know why people need graphs and charts to understand "keep your hands to yourself". it's all about money, it always is. and when money is a motive, there is nothing good behind it.
by the way jenno, i wasnt talking to you. i was speaking in general. i dont need to convince you to change your mind about anything in order for me to sleep at night.
what a load of crap. all that is complete lies. there is absolutely no fact in this at all except that Taima died during childlabor and her calf was stillborn. You cant call yourself a writer and then write.. this. A good true writer gives accurate information and not just their own biased opinions that by the looks of the article are not very well formed.
Thank you for your time Lori, I do still disagree with points made solely from personal view of '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.'
I see these posts alot when it comes to captives with so many lines like that thrown in which make me mad as then I find I cant take the rest of a post as fact if someone has used such obvious emotion in it- no one would ever know the answer to that unless they spoke orca and had a direct conversation with that whale themselves. Obviously you guys are all passionate about what you do and of course emotion will go into it. So thanks for taking your time to explain and I will mull and research it some more. Thanks Jenno.
Dear Jenno and All,
I am the Science Editor for Zoe and have studied dolphin and whale intelligence, evolution and biology for twenty years. I am a faculty member in neuroscience and psychology at Emory University. I want to respond to Jenno's questions with some facts. Jenno, you ask a legitimate question about how dolphin captivity is different from keeping pets. Actually, you already know the answer! Domesticated animals have gone through an adaptation that allows them to thrive in a captive setting. And, in fact, our dogs and cats don't do well unless they are in a home and well cared for. In contrast, dolphins and whales are not domesticated animals. Being domesticated does not mean being in captivity. It means having gone through a long inter-generational evolutionary process that changes behavior and physiology. Cows have been domesticated as well. So you are right there. But dolphins and whales have not. The dolphins and whales in captivity today were either taken from the wild or born in captivity and are just 2nd or 3 rd generation individuals. In that circumstance there is no way that we could expect dolphins and whales to be domesticated. They are wild animals.
Now, you ask for facts and I am happy to comply. The scientific studies tell us that dolphins and whales have a very high mortality rate in captivity and that they live a fraction of their natural lifespan in these facilities. Did you know that most orcas in captivity live only a few years when, in the wild, their natural lifespan is 50-90 years? Also numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that captive dolphins and whales have elevated leels of stress hormone, show behavioral stereotypies (senseless and often self-mutilating repetitive behaviors) and other signs of psychological disturbance. So there is a vast scientific literature demonstrating that dolphins and whales, as wild animals, do not thrive in captivity. You may see a parallel between training your dog to "sit" and giving him a treat and the kinds of conditioning that dolphins and whales go through. But again, remember, your dog expects to listen to you. Dolphins and whales are deprived of one of the greatest pleasures in life: banning together to cooperatively figure out - for themselves - ways to get prey - live prey. In captivity this is taken away.
So Jenno and others, you have every right to ask for the science and the facts. I hope I've shown you that it is all there! The story above is based on these grounded facts - not opinion.
Lori Marino, PhD
Am not a retard but the only reason that I havent changed my judgement yet is I dont see how it is any different from domesticated animals which is socially acceptable after years of breeding, all animals still show wild instincts and obviously havent forgotten their ancestry so why is it acceptable to keep cats dogs fish in doors, rabbits guinea pigs and hamsters in cages, horses, cows and chickens in sheds?? If after many years it has become acceptable to do this, why should marine animals be different. Its a bit hypocritical of me to have many of these animals myself- and say no aout marine animals isnt it??
My dogs are trained to do 'tricks' for sweets and pats. Give paw, shake, lay down and roll etc. This is classed as obedience. My horses are trained to do all sorts of 'tricks' with food rewards and pats. They stand still whilst I mount, pick feet up without being asked, Its ok for me to ride a horse but not a whale?? Horses are not physically built to jump, it often causes problems in their joints yet we jump them all the time and to high level its a high level of well watched competition too.
Even my cows come to call for their dinner, is this a trick?? Same with chickens.
If you want to change my view, tell me how a whale is never going to be socially acceptable 50 years down the line when all I have is now. Thats why I cant change my judgement yet. None of my animals were created in a box they were ALL originally wild in history somewhere. They have the same problems as described in the post above so dont tell me am selfish and ignorant when half of you have the same animals as me- give me facts and change my mind, name calling will only serve to push me in the other direction. Have a nice day all.
And by socially acceptable I dont mean so much for human benefit, I mean through repetitive breeding, it becomes second nature that they and we accept that they are captive.
animals suffer psychological damage just as people do. stress and depression can have fatal consequences for humans, and it's just the same for animals. an animal who is neglected, abused, unloved, and worked without any affection will not live as long as an animal in a free and loving environment. giant beautiful creatures belong in the giant beautiful ocean. maybe we should put humans in a box and make them do tricks and see how well that works out. there's nothing wrong with preservation, protection or rescuing animals and nursing them to health. there is something wrong with using them for entertainment purposes. dont people have something constructive to do with their time? like, not being selfish and ignorant? i dont need facts, it's just common heart-ful sense. if someone needs facts, just google it.
what a load of tosh, most of this is taken from your personal views. SW openly says they train their animals with fish ALONG with other items as positive reinforcement.
The reason is clear- He had no reason to live?!?! Seriously, you had a chat with him did you, may not have been an infection after all, he just decided to die. OK. I was very close to being swayed on captivity ( hence reading the article) but after reading this mindless rubbish, you lost all credibility! Provide me with facts and i'll listen and decide, not what you made up in your head and is quite frankly an embarrassing article with very little real information.