Captive Orca Torn From Mother and Forced to Breed Dies at Theme Park at 20

A female orca has died in a theme park aged only twenty years old.

Kohana was the daughter of Tilikum, the subject of the documentary Blackfish and responsible for the deaths of three trainers.

Kohana's death marks the third killer whale to die at the Loro Parque marine park in Tenerife, Spain in the past 18 months.

Previously in August 2021, a three-year-old orca named Ula died, and shortly before that in March 2021, 17-year-old Skyla died. In the wild, female killer whales can live for up to 80 years.

orca sad
Stock image of an orca waiting for instructions from a trainer. Captive killer whales develop aggressive tendencies, and have a characteristic dorsal fin droop. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Orcas are the largest species of dolphin, and are known for their intelligence and social cooperation. They live and hunt in groups called pods, and work together to employ specialized techniques to hunt prey.

According to dolphin activism non-profit Rick O'Barry's Dolphin Project, Kohana was born in captivity at SeaWorld San Diego, and was sent to Tenerife when she was only three years old on a breeding loan.

According to UK charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the bond between orca mothers and calves are extremely close. In the wild, orcas live in social family groups led by matriarchs, which are often the mothers of many of the members of the pod.

Some orcas stay with their mother their whole lives, with her passing down hunting techniques and other knowledge to her offspring.

The other orcas that Kohana was sent with were her full sister, half-brother and uncle, close relatives that she would not naturally breed with in the wild. Kohana gave birth at eight years old, making her the youngest orca to have ever given birth in captivity, to a calf fathered by her uncle.

In the wild, female orcas only begin mating aged 14 to 15.

She rejected both this calf and a second calf she birthed years later, and they had to be reared by the human trainers at the park. Her second calf died aged 10 months.

While killer whales have never been recorded attacking and killing a human in the wild, captive orcas are known to display aggression towards and even kill their trainers. There have been four recorded deaths caused by captive orcas, three of which Tilikum, Kohana's father, was responsible.

Keltie Lee Byrne (first victim) and Dawn Brancheau (third victim) were trainers at SeaWorld Orlando who were pulled under the water by Tilikum, and eventually died from drowning or blunt force trauma.

SeaWorld has maintained that Daniel P. Dukes, the second death, was an intruder who (unauthorized and unsupervised) climbed into Tilikum's pool and drowned.

It is thought that captivity causes the orcas to be aggressive towards trainers, each other, and themselves, often gnawing on tank walls and gates, leading to dental damage.

"Killer whales are highly social and traditionally quite vocal animals. So, for an animal like this to be in such an unnatural environment most likely caused psychosis," Deborah Giles, the science and research director for the Washington state-based non-profit Wild Orca, previously told Newsweek.

"I personally believe that he was made crazy by the environment that he was forced to live in. It was probably not premeditated. There's no way to know that, of course. But he had interacted with Dawn Brancheau for years and years prior to that. I think that something snapped."

SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that they would soon cease all orca theatrical shows and breeding. However, visitors can still see orca shows at the parks, as of September 2022.

Newsweek has contacted SeaWorld and Loro Parque for comment.