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Kiska, Marineland's lone killer whale and last captive orca in Canada, has died

The Ontario government said Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont., informed the province Thursday of her death.
Marineland is shown in Niagara Falls, Ont., Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Walton

Kiska, a killer whale at Marineland and the last captive orca in Canada who has swam alone in her tank for more than a decade, has died. 

The Ontario government said Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont., informed the province Thursday of her death.

The province had Animal Welfare Service Officers at the park Friday as Marineland performed a necropsy on the animal, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said.

Marineland's owner, Marie Holer, declined to comment to The Canadian Press when reached by phone.

The park told the Niagara Falls Review that the killer whale's health declined recently "despite intensive interventions by her caregivers, Marineland's veterinarian team and international veterinarians with expertise in supporting the health and well-being of cetaceans."

Kiska was believed to be 47 years old and had lived at Marineland since being captured in Icelandic waters in 1979.

She was captured alongside Keiko, who became famous in the movie Free Willy, and the pair lived together for a few years at Marineland in the 1980s. Keiko was sold to an aquarium in Mexico in 1985 and eventually ended up at SeaWorld.

Kiska appeared in shows at Marineland for years but has not performed for more than a decade. She spent that time in a large pool at Friendship Cove separated from a pod of belugas.

Kiska gave birth to five calves during her time at Marineland, but they all died young. 

She has swam alone since 2011 after SeaWorld won a bitter custody battle with Marineland over Ikaika, a young male killer whale it wanted back. 

Christine Santos, who trained Kiska for 12 years until Marineland fired her in 2012, teared up as she looked at old photographs of the orca. 

"I'm in shock, but at the same time I'm just really relieved she's not alone anymore," Santos said.

Kiska was a calm killer whale and easy to work with, she said.

"We just developed a special bond," Santos said. "She was a good mama to her calves, especially Athena and Hudson."

Kiska would keep an eye on the pair, making sure they didn't cause trouble with each other or the other killer whale in the tank, Santos said. She also outwitted new trainers, tricking them into giving "her more fish and more rubs."

Kiska also had a close relationship with another orca captured in Iceland in 1981, Nootka. 

But her mood changed after Nootka and Kiska's calf, Athena, died in 2008.

"She lost her best friend and her baby and you could see her sadness," Santos said.

The deaths left Kiska alone with Ikaika, a young bull killer whale who was growing rapidly and full of sexual energy, court documents show.

But SeaWorld wanted Ikaika back and took Marineland to court, a case it ultimately won. The orca, known as Ike to Marineland staff, moved into SeaWorld's park in San Diego in 2011.

Kiska has swam alone ever since. 

"In my last year you could see her decline and her behaviour changed," Santos said. "She lost that spirit, that happy-go-lucky way about her."

Phil Demers, a former Marineland trainer turned activist, received drone footage two weeks ago that showed Kiska had moved to a smaller pool, which he described as the medical pool.

That pool has a shallow area that would allow staff and veterinarians to examine her closely by dropping the water levels. 

"It's just sad, she unfortunately never had a chance at a second chance to move away from Marineland."

The group Humane Canada issued a statement about what it called Kiska's heartbreaking life and death.

"Humane Canada is saddened and outraged by the passing of Kiska – also known as the “loneliest Orca in the world,” it said.

"This news is heartbreaking to everyone who has spent years advocating for her freedom and release."

Social media videos in recent years have shown Kiska thrashing her head at the side of the pool.

Ontario's Animal Welfare Services has been conducting an inspection at Marineland since July 2020 over concerns about the park's water.

In 2021, it found all marine mammals to be in distress due to the water, court documents show.

Marineland refuted those findings, saying its animals were not in distress.

The inspection remains ongoing three years later.

Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General that oversees animal welfare in the province, said it has inspected Marineland 160 times since January 2020.

The province refused to provide details of those inspections.

But court documents filed in 2021 showed the province ordered Marineland to repair the water system in the pools that house beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, sea lions and Kiska.

Marineland appealed the order on May 18, denying the animals were in distress and noting that an unknown number of whale deaths at the park were not related to the water issues. Marineland dropped its appeal.

A number of animals have died at Marineland in recent years, including four walruses and an unknown number of beluga whales.

In 2021, Marineland moved five beluga whales to a marine park in Connecticut. One of those whales died within months of the move and another died within a year of the move.

The deaths prompted the U.S. government to begin an investigation into the move. That probe remains ongoing.

Last week, Marineland moved its last two walruses, Smooshi and her daughter, Koyuk, to a new SeaWorld park in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. 

In 2019, the federal government passed an anti-captivity law that made it illegal to import and keep killer whales captive, although Kiska was grandfathered in. 

She will likely be the last captive killer whale ever kept in the country. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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