A lot of us grew up loving Shamu. We had pool floats, stuffed animals, and stickers of the famous orca. We begged our parents to take us to SeaWorld and swore that we’d be Shamu trainers one day. We bought what SeaWorld was selling—hook, line, and hefty price tag.
But that, of course, was before we knew the truth about SeaWorld. The real SeaWorld, the one that used explosives to separate orca pods in the wild, paid orca hunters to kill mothers and abduct their babies, withheld food from animals to force them to learn tricks, and covered up their deaths. That was before we knew that there wasn’t just one Shamu. There were many. And a lot of them died young in SeaWorld’s concrete tanks.
This is the real Shamu story.
The First Shamu
SeaWorld’s first “Shamu” was a female orca who was captured in the wild in 1965 when she was just 3 years old. Whalers harpooned and killed her mother and the young orca refused to leave her dead mom’s side. She was dragged away and sold to SeaWorld San Diego, where she was deprived of food in order to make her learn tricks and was trained to become the park’s first performing orca. She was used in shows until an incident in 1971 in which a park employee was instructed to ride on her back for a televised publicity stunt. When secretary Annette Eckis fell off Shamu’s back, the orca clamped her teeth down on the woman’s leg and refused to let go. A trainer had to shove a pole into Shamu’s mouth and pry her jaws open. Eckis—who needed more than 100 stitches—sued, and Shamu was retired from shows.
Shamu died that year at SeaWorld of pyometra (a uterine infection) and septicemia (blood poisoning). She was just 9 years old. In the wild, she could have lived to be older than 100.
More Parks, More Shamus
But SeaWorld had seen the kind of money that a performing orca could bring in. It had been capturing more cetaceans in the wild to add to its collection and had discovered that it could swap out different “Shamus” without people asking questions. The company trademarked “Shamu,” and it became a stage name that was given to any captive orca the park used in shows.
When SeaWorld opened more parks—in Cleveland in 1970, Orlando in 1973, and San Antonio in 1988—each got their own “Shamu” (played by a hodge-podge group of captured orcas) to sell park tickets and merchandise.
For captive-animal exhibitors, nothing brings in the money quite like a new baby. So SeaWorld introduced “Baby Shamu” at the Orlando park in 1985. Her actual name was Kalina, and she was the first orca to live after being born in captivity.
Some sources say that 10 captive-bred babies were born at SeaWorld before Kalina, all of whom were either stillborn or died within the first two months of life. We may never know the actual number. Until the U.S. amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994, parks weren’t required to report deaths, and often facilities still don’t give complete or comprehensive accounts. It’s clear why SeaWorld wouldn’t want to.
People clamored to see Baby Shamu, and when Kalina was just 4 years old, the company took her away from her mother and sent her to SeaWorld Ohio to increase ticket sales there. Ten months later, they moved her to San Diego. She was sent to San Antonio eight months after that. In nature, she likely would have stayed with her mother for life. While being held captive by SeaWorld, she was shipped all over the country and was shoved into one concrete tank after another with individuals who were strangers to her, many of whom didn’t even speak the same dialect.
Kalina was impregnated at just 6 years old. In the wild, the average age of reproduction is 15. She produced another Baby Shamu for SeaWorld and was soon impregnated again. In all, she had four calves: one who was stillborn and three who were taken away from her and shipped to other parks. She died in 2010 of septicemia at just 25 years old.
Every “Shamu” at SeaWorld had a tragic story. And one of those stories resonated with people around the world when it was chronicled in the groundbreaking documentary Blackfish, which told the truth about a “Shamu” whose actual name was Tilikum.
Kidnapped from waters off Iceland, Tilikum was abducted from his family pod at just 2 years old. He was shoved into small tanks that offered no escape from other suffering, frustrated captive orcas—the fights between them often left him injured and bloody. SeaWorld trainers withheld food from him in order to teach him to perform tricks, including rolling over so that employees could masturbate him and collect his semen in a container. The company used him as its chief sperm-producing machine in its program that was designed to inseminate female orcas forcibly so that they would churn out more captive performers who endured lives that no one would ever choose. He was bred 21 times, and 11 of his children died before he did. The constant stress and deprivation of captivity drove him to kill three humans, including trainer Dawn Brancheau. As is typical of animals at SeaWorld, he deteriorated both mentally and physically. Shortly after the release of Blackfish, he died after 33 years in captivity.
But the documentary aired regularly on CNN and was streamed on subscription services around the globe. Viewers were shocked as many of SeaWorld’s worst abuses of marine mammals played out on screens in front of them. People visited PETA’s website in droves to learn more about SeaWorld and the animals it imprisons. The park’s attendance numbers plummeted, revenue plunged, stock prices fell, and longtime high-ranking employees started to abandon ship.
In an attempt to save face—and after California refused to allow it to build new orca tanks, SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding the animals. It began to distance itself from the controversy by moving away from using the “Shamu” name. SeaWorld San Antonio President Carl Lum even said that the parks were focusing on a “Shamu-free future.”
The curtain had been pulled back. The fairytale of the orca Shamu who lived happily ever after at the park was over. We learned that the iconic animals we adored as children were suffering and dying in SeaWorld’s concrete tanks all along, and that orcas held at the parks will continue to do so. There can only be one happy ending to the Shamu story: the end of orca captivity.