Orca’s sudden death at theme park sparks backlash

The “unexpected” death of a 12-year-old male orca named Moana at a theme park in France last week ignited boycott calls and backlash from animal and marine advocacy groups across the globe.

Moana died sometime overnight on October 17, according to an online statement from Marineland d’Antibes in southern France where the young whale lived in captivity. His cause of death was unknown at the time of publication, with the French theme park saying a post-mortem examination had been conducted and results are expected within the next several weeks.

“This loss is extremely painful for all the zoo teams, for the keepers who have built such a bond with Moana and for all those who love Marineland,” the theme park said in an online statement announcing the orca’s death. “Moana marked our history and will be greatly missed; he will forever remain in the heart of our teams.”

While Moana’s cause of death has not been revealed, animal rights groups are accusing the French theme park of forcing the orcas to live in “poor conditions.”

An employee trains an orca in a pool at the Marineland theme park in a French Riviera city, southeastern France, on March 17, 2016. The theme park is under fire after a 12-year-old orca named Moana died suddenly.

Newsweek reached out via email and social media on Monday to Marineland d’Antibes for comment.

Moana was born in captivity on March 16, 2011, via artificial insemination and spent his entire life at Marineland d’Antibes in the French Riviera with three other orcas: his mother Wikie, half-brother Keijo and uncle Inouk. His father Ulises was “wild-caught” from waters off the coast of Iceland in 1980 and sent to the Barcelona Zoo in Spain where he lived without other orcas before eventually being transported to SeaWorld San Diego where he has lived for nearly 30 years, according to French marine and aquatic animal advocacy group C’est Assez!

“He spent his entire existence in a small concrete amphitheater where his main role in life was to entertain crowds of tourists,” the animal welfare group said.

The group, which was founded in France in 2014, according to its website, lashed out at Marineland d’Antibes in an online statement shortly after the theme park announced Moana’s death.

“C’est Assez! is filing a complaint of lack of proper care, and involuntary harm to an animal’s life,” the statement reads. “The organization is also seeking detailed information about the circumstances that led to Moana’s death.

French animal rights group OneVoice says it’s been working for two years to document and condemn the “worrying declining state of the pools” the orcas live in at Marineland. The group said it had filed a complaint in 2021, noting that Moana was in “poor health.” In the complaint, OneVoice called for the French Ministry of Ecology to perform an independent investigation and urged a precautionary shutdown of the theme park.

“We have been right from the start, and this gives us no satisfaction: Moana was in danger,” OneVoice said in an online statement. “He was wasting away, his skin, the sudden collapse of his dorsal fin, his stereotyped behavior and the state of his teeth … all expressing his distress. It was nothing more than a cry for help.”

The group said it is now demanding justice for Moana and pleading that his family be helped.

“Our hearts are full of rage,” OneVoice said. “The Ministry of Ecology has not lifted a finger to help him, Inouk, Keijo, or Wikie.”

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a global nonprofit dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins, also described the facility as being in “poor condition.”

WDC said on October 13 that an independent investigation had been legally enforced, and that the experts found all four orcas exhibited “behavior issues,” in addition to finding “deep skin injuries” on Moana and poor dental health in Inouk.

Marine Connection, an advocacy group focusing on creating a safer world for all cetaceans, said there has been “ongoing concern over the unsuitable conditions” in which all four orcas lived at Marineland.

“Tanks covered with algae—such dire conditions for these magnificent marine mammals to be living in, day after day,” the group said.

Moana’s family members at Marineland face an uncertain fate, as a French law introduced in 2020 states that the captivity of orcas in France will end by 2030, according to WDC.

“Marineland is therefore in contact with marine parks in Asia and the orcas may be relocated to Japan,” WDC said in an online statement. “The transfer has met with strong criticism both in the [European Union] EU and in Japan.”

C’est Assez! said the group fears the orcas’ living conditions in Japan would be “even worse than they are in France.”

“A transfer to another facility would be another unbearable trauma for this group of orcas, that over the years, has experienced many deaths and forced separations,” said Julie Labille, group spokesperson. “Wikie, who is no doubt traumatized and mourning the loss of her son Moana, should not have to also endure a transfer to another concrete tank.”

Animal advocacy groups’ efforts to set up a marine sanctuary for the remaining orcas in France have been unsuccessful, WDC said, adding that “Marineland has refused to cooperate.”

“Moana is the fourth orca to die in a dolphinarium in the EU in the last three years,” WDC’s anti-captivity campaigner Ulla Christina Ludewig said. “It is high time to phase out the keeping of these intelligent and sensitive marine mammals in concrete tanks. WDC has been campaigning for the construction of coastal sanctuaries in which orcas and other dolphins in captivity could lead a more species-appropriate life if releasing them into the wild is not possible.”

In 2018, Moana, alongside his mom Wikie, made international headlines and amassed widespread recognition for learning to imitate human speech, using their blowholes to mimic laughter and words, like “hello” and “bye-bye.”