By Stuart Winter
PUBLISHED: 16:51, Thu, Apr 20, 2017 | UPDATED: 17:05, Thu, Apr 20, 2017
SEAWORLDSeaWorld San Antonio welcomed an orca calf on Wednesday afternoon
Animal rights protests and falling ticket sales had beset SeaWorld’s controversial captive killing breeding programme, leading to it bringing down the curtain last March.
By that time, 25-year-old matriarch Takara was already well into months into her 18-month pregnancy.
Today SeaWorld announced Takara had given birth to her 400lb, 7ft-long calf at its San Antonio park in Texas, describing the event as an “exciting and emotional day” and saying the mother had immediately bonded with her new baby.
Describing the moment the baby appeared, Julie Sigman, an assistant curator at the park, said: “Nothing can prepare you for that moment when mum helps the calf get to the surface for its first breath.
"The moment the calf is born, Takara is 100 per cent focused on the care and well-being of that baby. She knows exactly what to do. It is amazing.
SEAWORLDThe calf is the last to be born at a SeaWorld park Mon, January 25, 2016
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“Takara will continuously swim with her calf as it begins to nurse and learn.
Takara will continuously swim with her calf as it begins to nurse and learn
“We take our lead from mum, Takara will let us know when she is ready for us to meet the calf and at that time we should be able to determine the gender.”
SeaWorld says that although this is the last killer whale birth, it is pledged to “understand and protect” the species for years to come.
The calf’s arrival comes only a few weeks after the death of SeaWorld’s most famous captive orca, Tilikum, from a bacterial infection at its Orlando facility.
Tilikum, 35, became notorious for the deaths of three people during his time in captivity, featuring heavily in the £50,000, low-budget documentary 'Blackfish' that went on to earn international acclaim by highlighting the incredulity of keeping highly social, extremely intelligent whales in captivity.
Two of the deaths happened at SeaWorld Orlando, a man who trespassed into the park and Tilikum's trainer Dawn Brancheau who was killed in 2010.
SeaWorld has maintained the documentary was inaccurate and misleading, but campaigning by animal activists hit attendance figures in the run-up to its 2016 announcement to end captive breeding and to also introduce natural orca encounters “as part of its ongoing commitment to education, marine science research, and rescue of marine animals”.
Reiterating its commitment to research and education, SeaWorld says the mother orca and her new un-named baby will have an important role to play in coming years.
Dr Hendrik Nollens, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, said: “Takara and her calf are an important part of not only educating the visitors who see them at the parks, but also ongoing research that helps marine biologists understand how to better care for and protect orcas in the wild.
SEAWORLDMum Takara gave birth after an 18-month pregnancy
“We are very pleased that this birth will be able to continue to add to this body of knowledge for this iconic species.”
With more than 22 million visitors a year, SeaWorld says it has committed almost £40 million over the next five years “to be the world’s leading marine animal rescue organisation”.
The new calf, it says, will provide the last chance for researchers to study orca development in a way that cannot be conducted in the wild, providing information to its extensive database and helping studies on populations threatened by pollution and overfishing.
Chris Bellows, vice president of zoological operations, said: “This is an exciting and emotional day for us at SeaWorld and we are all so proud to share this new killer whale calf with the world, after a year and a half of planning, and observing and providing all the special care.
“Takara is a great mum and immediately began bonding with and caring for her new baby.
"Every day she inspires SeaWorld’s guests to learn more about and do more to protect animals in the wild. She is a true ambassador.”