(SEAWORLD/WHALES IN CAPTIVITY) Last week, SeaWorld lost another one of its marine mammals, reigniting the debate over whether cetaceans belong in captivity.

On Thursday, Nanuq the beluga whale died at SeaWorld Orlando after fracturing his jaw during an interaction with two other whales and later contracting an infection.

According to SeaWorld, the cause of Nanuq’s death is still unknown and his autopsy results will not be available for another six to eight weeks.

Actress Isla Fisher gets a kiss from Nanuq. Photo Credit: Rigo Diaz/SeaWorld San Diego/Getty
Actress Isla Fisher gets a kiss from Nanuq. Photo Credit: Rigo Diaz/SeaWorld San Diego/Getty

Nanuq was believed to be 31 or 32 years old, and was a long-term loan from the Vancouver Aquarium. Nanuq was first sent to SeaWorld San Diego until he was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando for its breeding program.

“While the cause of death is not yet known, Nanuq was being treated by SeaWorld veterinarians for an infection associated with a fractured jaw; an injury that resulted from an interaction between two animals that were a part of a compatible social group,” SeaWorld wrote on its Facebook page in reply to Nanuq’s death.

Naomi Rose, an Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal scientist and noted SeaWorld critic, spoke with the Orlando Sentinel, stating that an injury such as Nanuq’s would have been unlikely to occur in the wild, as the whale would have had enough space to flee.

“It’s not a common injury and yet it happens in captivity because they just can’t get away from each other,” she said.

Seaworld has said that Nanuq was an “older whale,” citing the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, who determined the beluga whale lifespan to be between 30 and 35 years. In response to this claim, Rose told the Sentinel that scientists have yet to prove the lifespan of beluga whales, as it is still up for debate.

SeaWorld is certainly struggling since the release of the 2013 film Blackfish, which sparked widespread criticism surrounding the marine mammal captivity program.

Jim Atchinson, SeaWorld’s former CEO, recently stepped down last December after a large fall in stock prices and a weakening in the company’s ticket sales. A permanent replacement has not been announced yet, but in the meantime, Chairman David D’ Alessandro has taken over as interim CEO.

In response to the backlash, SeaWorld announced plans to nearly double the size of its orca enclosures in upcoming years. However, activists say this is not enough, and are pushing for SeaWorld to release their marine mammals to ocean sanctuaries.

— Sabrina Clinkenbeard, exclusive to Global Animal