Two killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando are pregnant, with one due in a matter of weeks. SeaWorld says it expects Taima, a 20-year-old orca, will give birth to her fourth calf later this month or in early June. And it says Katina, a 32-year-old orca, is expected to have her sixth calf in late October.
The father in both pregnancies is Tilikum, the 12,000-pound male orca who in February drowned a SeaWorld killer-whale trainer in a violent episode in front of park guests. Should the births be successful, they would push the number of orcas at SeaWorld Orlando to 10. Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which also operates parks in California and Texas, says it has had 26 successful killer-whale births in company history, beginning with Katina's first calf in 1985.
"It is definitely one of our indicators of a healthy population when they are breeding easily and regularly," said Dr. Chris Dold, SeaWorld Parks' vice president of veterinary services. It is also a reminder of the value of Tilikum, a prodigious breeder who has sired 13 calves since SeaWorld acquired him in 1992 at a time when marine parks had to abandon efforts to capture orcas from the wild.
Some SeaWorld critics say that breeding prowess is why SeaWorld has continued to hold on to Tilikum, who is the largest killer whale in captivity and who has a violent history. The animal has been linked to three human deaths in 19 years, the most recent of which occurred Feb. 24, when Tilikum grabbed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau by her hair, pulled her under water and drowned her.
Tilikum is one of three breeding males in SeaWorld's corporate collection. The company has one at each of its marine parks. SeaWorld says it would continue to care for Tilikum even if he were not a successful breeder. "I think it sort of belittles his existence to suggest he's just around as a breeding male," Dold said.
Orcas have roughly 17-month gestational periods, so both pregnancies predated the Brancheau tragedy.
Dold said veterinarians have been monitoring both pregnancies with monthly ultrasounds and will continue to closely monitor the birth process through several important steps. Those include delivery, nursing and the early bonding between calf and mother that occurs during the first 30 days of the baby's life, a period in which the animals will be watched 24 hours a day. It will likely be several weeks after the babies are born before they appear in public. "Once we feel confident that things are moving forward in a progressive manner, then and only then do we begin to start to talk about when and where folks will be able to see that mom-and-calf pair," Dold said.