Known as “the world’s loneliest killer whale,” Kiska spent more than four decades in captivity at MarineLand, a theme park in Niagara Falls, Canada.
For the last 12 of those years, despite wild killer whales being social and intelligent animals living in close-knit family pods that hunt together and communicate through clicks and calls underwater, Kiska swam alone, in a featureless tank, with no calves, mate or mother by her side. She was Canada’s last captive killer whale.
In one of her last recorded videos, she floats listlessly in azure waters while a boy behind the glass wall tries to get her attention. “Kis-kaaa! Kis-kaa! Kis-kaaa!” he yells as the whale floats past, seemingly oblivious.
But while the Ontario government’s announcement that Kiska had died in captivity last week, reportedly from a bacterial infection at an estimated age of 47, was met with widespread grief, marine activists also credit the whale for inspiring tangible change. in the protection of marine animals.
Kiska’s death comes four years after Canada passed Bill S-203, which would ban the captivity and breeding of whales, dolphins and porpoises. While the new law came too late for Kiska — barring individuals already in captivity from protection — activists say her story helped draw public attention to the plight of captive marine mammals.
Since the bill, campaigners had worked hard to free Kiska, protesting in the streets of Niagara Falls, filing legal complaints and drawing up plans to secure her release from MarineLand.
“When I heard Kiska died, I just screamed, which I hardly ever do,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of the Toronto campaign group Animal Justice.
“It’s frustrating for so many people because it felt like we were so close to getting her out and she just couldn’t hold out long enough.”
Kiska was captured off the coast of Iceland along with Keiko, the killer whale in the movie Free Willy, in 1979 and soon transferred to MarineLand, where the two killer whales lived together. Keiko was later sold to a Mexican amusement park, eventually rehabilitated and released back into her Icelandic home waters.
However, Kiska remained at MarineLand, where she gave birth to five calves, none of which survived. Her last tank mate was Ikaika, son of Tilikum, the whale that killed three people and featured in the 2013 documentary, Blackfish.
“There were times when we had to separate them because Kiska needed a break,” said Christine Santos, a former trainer-turned-activist who worked closely with the two whales. “She just wanted to get away from this young man who kept attacking her.” In 2011, Kiska was given a reprieve when Ikaika was flown back to California and its original owner, SeaWorld. No replacement for Ikaika was recruited and Kiska’s long period of isolation began.
For years, allegations of substandard animal care haunted MarineLand. In 2012, the Toronto star published a series of stories in which eight former staff members, including Santos and her partner, Phil Demers, alleged that poor water quality and understaffing caused animal suffering in the park. Lawsuits flew back and forth between activists and the amusement park and the government launched various investigations.
As of January 2020, Ontario’s Provincial Animal Welfare Services has inspected MarineLand 160 times.
In a statement, MarineLand said the “marine mammal care team and experts have done all they can to comfort Kiska and will mourn her loss,” and did not respond to requests for comment.
Kiska’s health seemed to deteriorate in her last years. In the summer of 2021, Demers posted the video of a listless Kiska as the boy calls to her, and another in October of the orca banging her head against the walls of her tank.
Attempts to free Kiska failed at the time. A proposed whale sanctuary in Nova Scotia has not become operational, while plans to move her to an aquarium with other marine mammals have not materialized.
Animal Justice is calling on the Ontario government to release the results of Kiska’s autopsy examination, and Demers is urging that the remaining animals at MarineLand — including belugas, dolphins and sea lions — be removed.
“There is very little positive about Kiska’s death, but many animals have died the same way, while at least she will be recognized as the last, and the killer whale that largely created and inspired S-203,” says Demers.