Animal Ambassador for SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove – Julie Scardina, is reporting that Sully the pilot whale died at the San Diego facility on May 23. Sully had several health issues, sunburn was one of them.
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.