Aside: Contrary to conservation claims by the industry, hybrid orcas, bred exclusively for shows, have no conservation value. They could, however, live more meaningful lives if given access to wild fish & kelp, the tides, ocean sounds, a lot more space, & medical care in an open ocean sea pen. More on that, here.
Recent photographs show that Malia's skin appears diseased, likely a phototoxic reaction, at least in part, due to medication. One image, not available to publish, shows a large area of sloughed off skin encompassing most of her (white) ventral surface. Note that phototoxic reactions are typically "dose dependent." This suggests that whatever Malia is being treated for has developed some resistance & thus the medication dosage has been sufficiently increased to produce visible skin lesions.
Here's a peer-reviewed article from "Pediatric Dermatology" on dose dependent skin reactions in humans.
|A drug induced photosensitivity reaction|
In a recent conversation with John Hargrove, former SW trainer at the Texas & California parks, he recalled administering Dexamethasone to whales. Indications for it and side effects can be found here. Like antibiotics, corticosteroids can suppress the immune system in mammals. That is why they are used in human recipients of organ transplants, so the body is less likely to reject a donor organ (i.e. the immune response is lowered).
|Click the image to expand|
Of most concern is that Malia's skin lesions resemble ones that appeared on Kasatka who recently died. This suggests Malia is being given similar medications as Kasatka was and at sufficient dosage to trigger photosensitivity.
The matriarch was euthanized at SeaWorld of California on 15 August 2017 after a long battle with "pneumonia." A lawsuit seeks to discover more medical details surrounding her condition & the circumstances leading to her death. Unlike children who can stay inside or wear a hat after being prescribed Tetracycline, for example, the whales at SeaWorld have nowhere to run from UV exposure, especially in Orlando & San Diego.
Times of San Diego article: SeaWorld Hiding Orca Necropsies, Including San Diego’s Kasatka, Federal Lawsuit Claims
|Photo of Kasatka from Elizabeth, months prior to her death (SeaWorld of California)|
In memoriam, the unedited uncut version of Kasatka with trainer Ken Peters during a live public performance, courtesy of "Death at SeaWorld" author David Kirby:
So, is Malia dying?
The lesions tell us only that she is medicated and make it difficult to answer that question. We don't know what she is being treated for nor the current state of her immune system. For SeaWorld to use a drug that causes striking visual changes (i.e. "bad PR") one can presume that Malia is being treated for something fairly serious. Regarding immunity, she is younger than Kasatka was and stronger. We also know that degraded skin, like broken teeth, offers pathways for more aggressive pathogens to enter her body. Thus a phototoxic lesion can become a host for a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, and the cycle continues leading to more or different meds.
What could SeaWorld do?
An open "science-based" company, as SeaWorld likes to imagine & portray itself would share data, talk to outside researchers & discuss what Malia is being treated for and what drugs the animal care staff are using to combat her illness. They would publish research on it; perhaps a peer-reviewed journal article regarding phototoxicty in captive killer whales. I suspect we'll never get that information, related:
SeaWorld is actively battling attempts from attorneys to see its orca medical records in the context of a current class action lawsuit & Federal investigation. For more on the teeth damage captive orcas sustain, John Jett, Ingrid Visser, et al:
So, what can we deduce from the limited information we have?
Malia is being treated with a medication that is causing phototoxic skin lesions which expose her to more dangerous pathogens. The photosensitivity is amplified by a shallow water column, treated-water that doesn't block UV-radiation, and general exposure. In contrast, wild orcas spend 80-90% of their lives submerged and in darker water & with healthier teeth & stronger immunity. Darker, particulate-filled ocean water protects their skin and eyes, unlike captives who have both skin & eye issues.
We also know that over time chronic antibiotic & steroid use & the stress of captivity leads to weakened immunity and sometimes immune systems collapse, as seen with Kasatka & Tilikum.
An AV presentation of Keto & Tilikum express the stress of orca captivity is here:
Over half of SeaWorld's orcas end up dying from infections. This is likely due to compromised immune systems being unable to fight off various pathogens that enter the body via damaged teeth or skin.
— V Pod Orcas (@VPodOrcas) January 17, 2018
The bottom line is that Malia will live a shortened impoverished life with broken teeth at SeaWorld, being chronically medicated and with no where to run from aggression & small concrete pools that limit exercise & play.
Some of us suspect that is why SeaWorld is fighting the Florida Orca Protection Act (HB 1305) with such vigor. They may be planning to ship orcas to China.
For more information on phototoxicity and photosensitivity the Merck Veterinary Manual has been copied below.
i haven't seen this picture of #malia's skin posted on twitter yet. this isn't "natural discolouring" that #SeaWorld claims. #boycottseaworld #emptythetanks #blackfish pic.twitter.com/Bvp6DOlhMI— jaimee 🐬🌍 (@jaimee_hinton) January 24, 2018
|Video attributable to the Center for Whale Research|
Overview of Photosensitization from the Merck Veterinary Manual
By George M. Barrington, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University
Photosensitization occurs when skin (especially areas exposed to light and lacking significant protective hair, wool, or pigmentation (note that it impacts mostly the white areas of the captive orcas) becomes more susceptible to ultraviolet light because of the presence of photodynamic agents. Photosensitization differs from sunburn and photodermatitis, because both of these conditions result in pathologic skin changes without the presence of a photodynamic agent
In photosensitization, unstable, high-energy molecules are formed when photons react with a photodynamic agent. These high-energy molecules initiate reactions with substrate molecules of the skin, causing the release of free radicals that in turn result in increased permeability of outer cell and lysosomal membranes. Damage to outer cell membranes allows for leakage of cellular potassium and cytoplasmic extrusion. Lysosomal membrane damage releases lytic enzymes into the cell. This can lead to skin ulceration, necrosis, and edema. The time interval between exposure to the photodynamic agent and the onset of clinical signs depends on the type of agent, its dose, and the exposure to sunlight.
Photosensitization is typically classified according to the source of the photodynamic agent. These categories include primary (type I) photosensitivity, aberrant endogenous pigment synthesis (type II) photosensitivity, and hepatogenous (secondary, type III) photosensitivity. A fourth category termed idiopathic (type IV) photosensitivity has been described.
A wide range of chemicals, including some that are fungal and bacterial in origin, may act as photosensitizing agents. However, most compounds that are important causes of photosensitivity in veterinary medicine are plant-derived. Photosensitization occurs worldwide and can affect any species but is most commonly seen in cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.