We are saddened to share the passing of Unna today. Unna had been under the constant care of the SeaWorld veterinary team and outside experts for the past several months.
Unna suffered from a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida, and the team had developed a novel treatment plan in consultation with leading medical experts around the country. While there were some indications that the treatment was having a positive effect, Unna had remained in serious condition and under 24/7 care.
Candida, and fungal infections in general, are found in wild cetaceans. A necropsy will be performed to determine the ultimate cause of her death.
In honor of Unna, we have decided to cancel all the killer whale shows at SeaWorld San Antonio today.
This is a difficult time for the SeaWorld team and all of Unna’s many fans, and we thank you for your thoughts and well wishes.
Read more about our care for Unna over the past several months on these previous posts: Unna The Killer Whale Under Treatment at SeaWorld San Antonio SeaWorld Vets Rely on New Treatment to Help Killer Whale Unna the Killer Whale Still Under Intensive Care
Below are some of the most asked questions we'd like to answer:
Q. What is Candida? Candida is an organism that is found in many different animals, including whales and dolphins, both in human care and in the wild. In this case, the strain was resistant to commonly used medications, making it more difficult to effectively treat. To provide the best medical treatment for Unna, SeaWorld animal care and veterinary teams consulted with external experts, including nephrologists and fungal experts.
Q. Did Unna die from the Candida infection? Her cause of death has not been determined. A full post mortem examination, including comprehensive laboratory testing and histopathologic review, will be performed to determine the ultimate cause of death.
Q. Is it true that candida only occurs in animals under human care and is exacerbated by being in captivity. Is this true? No. Fungal infections can be found, and can be the cause of death, in both wild cetaceans and those in zoological facilities. (Reidarson TH, McBain JF, Dalton LM, Rinaldi MG. 2001. Mycotic diseases. In: CRC handbook of marine mammal medicine, Dierauf LA, Gulland FMD, editors. CRC Press, New York, New York, pp. 337–356)
Additionally, Candida is considered a commensal organism. In other words, it’s normally found on and/or in the body of most living animals (including healthy animals). It is found in both wild and captive cetaceans, as well as many other species of animals, including humans. (Morris, P. J., Johnson, W. R., Pisani, J., Bossart, G. D., Adams, J., Reif, J. S., & Fair, P. A. (2011). Isolation of culturable microorganisms from free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the southeastern United States. Veterinary microbiology, 148(2), 440-447.)
It’s important to note that Unna’s cause of death has not been determined at this time. A full post mortem examination, including comprehensive laboratory testing and histopathologic review, will be performed to determine the ultimate cause of death.
Q. Some have claimed that SeaWorld has unbalanced water disinfection with high levels of chlorine. Is that true? No. Every pool at the SeaWorld parks is equipped with a sophisticated filtration system, which cleanses and recycles tens of millions of gallons of water serving all animal care facilities. We take our responsibility very seriously to be good stewards of the water we use for animal care and water attractions. You can learn more about the water quality at SeaWorld by watching this video: Does the water in SeaWorld’s habitats contain harmful levels of chlorine?
Q. What sort of treatment was she receiving? First, the SeaWorld animal care and veterinary teams consulted with internal and external experts, including nephrologists and fungal experts, such as the renowned mycologist Dr. Michael Rinaldi. In addition to around-the-clock care and monitoring, there were several steps to treating the resistant strain of candida that Unna had.
After initial treatments, including several anti-fungal medications, did not produce significant clinical improvement, the veterinary team utilized an advanced medical therapy that, while common in human medicine, had never before been used in killer whales.
SeaWorld veterinarians developed this novel treatment plan in collaboration with leading experts around the country. Initial urinalysis results following the treatments were encouraging, but subsequent lab work showed she hadn’t fully cleared the infection.
The veterinary team continually explored innovative treatment options and evolved therapies in consultation with medical partners. While Unna was being treated for the Candida infection, the cause of her death has not yet been determined. A full post mortem examination, including comprehensive laboratory testing and histopathologic review, will be performed to determine the ultimate cause of death.
Q. Do killer whales at SeaWorld live as long as killer whales in the wild? A new peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy by the Oxford University Press adds important insights to the debate over how long killer whales in human care live. The study found no difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and a well-studied population of wild killer whales. You can read more about this study here: /en/2015/07/new-study-on-killer-whale-lifespans/ and watch a video about killer whale lifespan here: https://youtu.be/j3BCjc9wvvA
Q. Activists claim that Unna’s immune system was compromised from stress, making her more susceptible to infections and ultimately causing her death. How do you respond to that? The cause of death has not been determined. We have no evidence that Unna was stressed from her environment. A full post mortem examination, including comprehensive laboratory testing and histopathologic review, will be performed to determine the ultimate cause of death.
Q. Have you ever had a whale die from a candida infection before? Unna’s cause of death has not been determined. SeaWorld has not had a killer whale die from Candidiases in more than 25 years.
Q. How do the orcas cope when they lose their parents? SeaWorld’s animal care staff has a close relationship with all of the animals in our care, and the loss of one of those animals is always a very difficult time. However, killer whales, like most animals, adapt fairly quickly if not immediately to the loss of an animal in their group, including parents.
Q. We saw that SeaWorld San Antonio had three whales die in six months. Is something wrong with the animals or the care they are receiving? We were all saddened by these deaths, especially the animal care team that spent countless hours caring for these animals. After a review of each of these cases, none of the issues were related to each other, or to the care that the animals received, which is the care that SeaWorld is world-renowned for.
SeaWorld is regulated by several federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We’re also accredited by several organizations, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums (AMMPA).
We have the highest standard of care for all animals at our parks. You can read about that care here: How does SeaWorld care for their killer whales?.
And take a look at what it takes to be a SeaWorld Veterinarian here: What does it take to be a veterinarian at SeaWorld?