Sully the pilot whale stranded on a Curacao beach, a Caribbean island near Aruba in 2009. The whale was rescued by staff of the Curacao Sea Aquarium and named after the famous airline pilot Captain "Sully" Sullenberger – the US Airways pilot who made an amazing emergency landing in the Hudson River.
Staff at the aquarium spent months nursing Sully back to health before SeaWorld San Diego adopted him. Weighing almost 1,000 pounds and measuring around 11 feet long, Sully was shipped to SeaWorld
on Jan. 5 2010 via a FedEx A300 Airbus cargo plane.
Yesterday via Twitter, SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina revealed that Sully had died:
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.
Dr. Ventre told us that for cetaceans in captivity, black-colored zinc oxide is often used to protect and camouflage the skin of killer whales that had sunburns and skin damage.
Although details are still emerging in Sully's death, his sunburn was observed as mild at first. Still, no zinc or sunscreen was ever witnessed being applied to the pilot whale and Sully's health continued to decline. With his skin deteriorating rapidly, he was moved into SeaWorld's Animal Care on May 16, dying on May 23.
Sully's death could add to mounting evidence showing that captivity poses several health issues for marine mammals. Samantha Berg, M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl.Ac. herself a former SeaWorld trainer agreed with Ventre that sun exposure is a much overlooked side-effect of captivity. Berg worked with several mammals at SeaWorld including seals and sea lions. She told Digital Journal that sun exposure in cetaceans shows up on the skin but with seals and sea lions sun damage showed up in the eyes. Berg added:
I can't tell you how many blind sea lions and seals I saw at SeaWorld. I'm sure they would say it was normal aging, but my hunch is it's a combination of skin damage and diet lacking in proper nutrients and antioxidants – along with staring into the sun all day and reflective blue pools that give no protection or shelter.
Back in April, a presentation at the 4th Florida Marine Mammal Health Conference held in Sarasota, Florida, led by Jett, Ventre and Courtney Vail of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS)
, revealed newly-discovered evidence that two orca deaths at SeaWorld occurred because of mosquito-transmitted viral diseases, including the West Nile and St. Louis encephalitis viruses.
The unnatural amount of time that captive cetaceans spend "logging" at the surface increases their exposure to the sun's harmful rays and was seen as a possible factor in the deaths of Kanduke and Taku in 1990 and 2007, respectively. It's worth noting that West Nile Virus and St Louis Encephalitis are not usually fatal, and only kill animals (or humans) who have compromised immune systems. Over-exposure to the sun can achieve this.
Scardina mentioned in her tweet that Sully had underlying health issues, and treating marine mammals in captivity can be notoriously difficult. Many of SeaWorld's cetaceans are trained to accept medical procedures, but Sully was a relatively new captive, formerly wild, who may have been resistant to training processes. In difficult cases when an animal will not comply, treatment might not be as stringent as it should be.
Unfortunately, after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was overhauled in 1994, entertainment parks were no longer required to submit animal necropsy reports whenever a marine mammal died. This meant that the information could no longer be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and there is no opportunity for independent and impartial oversight from other expert scientists.
Sadly in Sully's case, SeaWorld only has to note his cause of death in their Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) within 30 days of when the pilot whale died. But seeing as typical entries to the MMIR consist of nothing more than a one or two word sentence, the full extent of Sully's illness will probably be buried with him.