Friday, August 30, 2013


No other story of an animal's life and death has effected me like the story of Gudrun. 

She was a creature defined by misery; her sadness was palpably recognizable to the people who worked with her. Cynthia Payne, an animal trainer who formerly worked with Gudrun at SeaWorld said, 
"She seemed to possess a sadness of the soul, unlike anything I had ever seen."

Once she was free. She swam alongside her mother in Icelandic waters when she was still very young. In 1976, she was captured by a ship called The Gudrun. Sea World personnel were aboard the ship. 

"She was named after the ship that captured her...I felt that explained everything." Payne recalled.

Gudrun was brought to the Dolfinarium Harderwijk in Holland, were she performed as the theme park's main attraction. Her only companions were bottle nosed dolphins.

In 1987, Dolfinarium Harderwijk contacted Sea World in Orlando Florida about the possibility of a "breeding loan." The Dolfinarium had no male Killer Whales with which to breed Gudrun. Their proposition was this: they would loan Gudrun to SeaWorld in order that she be bred with the male whales there. The calves born would be split between Harderwijk and SeaWorld, one after another.

SeaWorld agreed. To temporarily replace the Gudrun at the Dolfinarium, SeaWorld provided four false killer whales, which they had obtained from a Japanese mass capture. 

Gudrun's introduction to Florida included being "raked" and put in her place by the dominant female Katina. Sea World wasted no time breeding her; as David Kirby explains, "She was locked in a back pool with the aggressive Kanduke, who chased her around the tank, trying to penetrate her over and over, and often succeeding."

Kanduke was a moody, melancholic Transient Orca whale-- which means he was a different kind of animal than Katina and Gudrun. he was from a different part of the world, with a different language, whose family pods ate small mammals rather than fish. SeaWorld's captive breeding resulted in the first "half breeds" of Transients and Residents in thousands of years. 

Taima, a little girl, was born to Gudrun one stormy summer night in a pool at SeaWorld, 1989. Taima grew to be a defiant,"difficult" whale that would sometime intentionally disobey orders from her trainers.

(Gudrun and her firstborn, Taima)

On hot summer nights in Orlando, swarms of mosquitoes could be seen hovering around the blowholes of sleeping Orca whales, like clouds in the dark. It was one of these tiny creatures that proved to be the demise of the great beast Kanduke: he died in 1990 of a disease transmitted by a mosquito bite. 

Kanduke had been their only male. The bull Orca had to be replaced in order for SeaWorld's breeding program to survive. They wasted no time in purchasing a male killer whale from a small, dying Canadian marine park. This whale had a dark past that SeaWorld would keep hidden from their own trainers.

His name was Tilikum.

No one who worked directly with him at SeaWorld was told by management that he had drowned a Sealand trainer earlier that year, 20 year old Keltie Bryne.

(Tilly and Gudrun)

Unlike Kanduke, Tilly was gentle with Gudrun and her calf. He was an Icelandic whale, like she was; perhaps they had shared a similar culture in their lives before capture. Whatever the reason was, Gudrun and Tilikum spent much of their time together harmoniously. 

Astrid van Ginneken, M.D., Ph.D, had a special connection with Gudrun, and spent a lot of time with her. In David Kirby's book, she recounts how Tilikum and Gudrun bred: 

“He would swim behind her, and Gudrun would be in the lead, and she would look back at him, as if to say, ‘You’re still following me, right?’ And then he would swim up to her and caress her with his head, or he’d roll over and take her on his chest. It was so romantic. Afterwards, they were completely content, resting side by side. It was totally different from Kanduke.”

Gudrun soon became pregnant a second time, this time with Tilikum's calf. 

The baby was named Nyar. She was born deformed and disabled, with severe medical problems. Gudrun rejected the calf, and tried to drown her. SeaWorld separated the mother and calf. Because of her birth defects and mental disabilities, she was unable to learn tricks, and had trouble swimming correctly, so she could not perform in shows. Nyar spent most of her time with her father, Tilikum, who "treated her with great gentleness." 

The breeding continued, and Gudrun became pregnant once again by Tilikum, a third and final time. 

Gudrun was beautiful. She had maintained a perfectly straight dorsal fin, which was rare in captivity. Her perfect physicality made her SeaWorld's premier model for tourist pictures. The pregnant whale would be made to come up out of the water and hold a pose for many minutes at a time, while guests took souvenir photos on top pf her. The immense pressure of her weight was on her unborn calf. 

Towards the end of her pregnancy, Gudrun began eating less. When she went into labor, caretakers were unable to detect a heartbeat in the unborn baby, and it was presumed dead. Unable to expel the baby on her own, veteranarians had to manually extract the calf. Gudrun hemorrhaged severely. As David Kirby explains, 
"The pain must have been unearthly... She remained motionless in one spot, unprotected by shade, so staff lovingly lavished her back with zinc oxide"

The calf was stillborn. Gudrun dead baby was taken out of her, then from her. 

After the senseless loss of her freedom and then then of her child, she seemed to simply give into that misery which had for so long defined her. After four days of quiet mourning, nearly motionless in the water, Gudrun swam over to the gate that divided her from her sickly child, Nyar.
" Gudrun gently nudged Nyar’s rostrum through the bars, as if to ask for an overdue rapprochement"
 She nuzzled the calf she had once tried to kill, perhaps to say "I'm sorry," perhaps to say "goodbye."

Gudrun died a few hours later. She was presumed to be about 19 years old.

This is the life story of your performing Shamu, of the smiling whale on your postcard, the one with the toddler on it's back. Upon closer inspection of these joyful theme park attractions, you will find animals lives cut short and marked by suffering.

I have done my best to recount Gudrun's story here, confirming and compiling information from multiple sources. I am grateful to the people who have been willing to share their experience first hand with Gudrun, to Cynthia Payne and to John Jett, Jeff Ventre, Sam Berg, Carol Ray and to David Kirby. I hope her story continues to be told, and helps change peoples perception of Killer Whales in captivity.

For reference:

Former trainer Cynthia Payne gives her testimony via Voice of the Orcas

"A Killer Show" David Kirbry

"Whale of a Business" PBS Frontline, inside SeaWorld:

Former Trainer Sam Berg recalls Gudrun

Cetacean Inspiration: Dirty Little Secrets: SeaWorld History

TAKE PART: Seven reasons they should be free 5. The Tragedy of Gudrun


  1. SeaWorld = poop faces

  2. To hear Gudrun's story is so heartbreaking. I never thought of her life like this, until now.
    I always thought of her being a dominant, aggressive Whale who even attacked her own child due to discomfort.
    Now, I know better, and I really thank you for opening my mind about this gentle creature who suffered as much as Corky, Lolita, Tilly, Kalina and Co.!
    R.I.P. Gudrun. May your heart and your offspring rest in piece :-(

  3. the photo of "Tilly and Gudrun" is actually Tilikum and Taima. Taima has a longer eyepatch, where as Gudrun has equally long eyepatches, but more fat.