In January of 2017, just 36 years after his birth in the wild, a beautiful and incredible marine mammal died quietly in a tiny tank in captivity within the walls of Sea World.
Known because of his documentary debut in the film Blackfish, this bull Orca, was more famous for his culpability in the death of three human beings while being held captive within marine parks than he was for any of the “tricks” he performed in the confines of Sea World’s tanks. However, perhaps his past needs to be examined before we condemn an animal for his actions.
Tilikum’s Dark Past
Tilikum was around the age of two years when he was captured by a seine net in Iceland. At that age, he was already growing at a shocking rate. According to historians, he was a house for about a year in a small tank in a zoo, until he was purchased by Sealand of the Pacific and his life just went downhill from there.
When debating the cruelty of his housing, one must understand the nature of Orcas in the wild. Typically, an orca will swim hundreds of miles in a day, at the side of his immediate family. Tilikum was taken away from his family, as marine parks had become famous in the eighties for taking only the babies from orca pods in the chilly waters of Iceland and Washington State. From the time he was captured, his remarkable size rendered him able to only swim in small circles or float on the surface of the water, an action almost unheard of in wild orcas.
When he arrived at Sealand, Tilikum was put into a pool with two other female orcas. Orcas are part of a matriarchal society and the females with whom he was housed quickly asserted their dominance. During the night, the whales were housed in a tiny holding pool that barely allowed for movement and caused intense fighting amongst the whales. Also during this time, they were often deprived of food, were shrouded in darkness, and denied any contact from the humans they’d come to know.
These whales were also forced to perform for their nourishment, seven days a week for eight shows a day. Tilikum developed severe stomach ulcers, a condition not uncommon in captive whales. If he didn’t perform, the trainers at Sealand didn’t provide food to any of the whales and he was punished by the females for his inaction. One day, a Sealand trainer named Keltie Byrne, fell into the pool where she was quickly dragged to the bottom. Some witnesses claim it was Tilikum who was the initial aggressor, but all of the whales eventually took part in the nineteen-year-old’s drowning death.
Sealand hurriedly closed and sold off their whales, and excited about his breeding potential, Sea World snapped up the already tense and stress-addled whale. When he was sold, Sea World was advised to never use him for water work, as the actions against Keltie Byrne were certain to happen again. Sea World saw the whale as a giant commodity and decided to bring him on anyway AND put him in the tanks when the trainers had climbed out so he could “perform”.
Sea World was quick to start harvesting from Tilikum, and these days, over half of the whales within their tanks have his genetic code. Although he was readily used for breeding, Tilikum was only used to present a big splash toward the end of shows. Otherwise, he was sequestered from the other whales and kept away from the trainers. However, he was medicated on a routine basis for stomach ulcers, tooth damage from eating the tank materials, and other stress-related conditions.
One fateful night, a homeless man from North Carolina took an unfortunate dip in Tilly’s tank and was found the next morning, stripped of his genitals and being shown around the pool by the whale. Sea World said the man had fallen into the pool after hours and wasn’t noticed by any of the night trainers, security cameras, or guards at the park. David Dukes’ death was glossed over by the park and was quickly forgotten.
Ten years after that event, Tilikum took his final human life, drowning a Sea World trainer during a feature in the water. He’d performed poorly that day, and speculation says he was likely frustrated and quite hungry when a trainer got a little too close to him in the water. Dawn Brancheau lost her life in February of 2010. After this death, he was trapped in a tiny little pool out of sight of tourists and the other whales, until he passed away in 2017.
Many would like to call this whale bad at heart or simply aggressive, but it must be noted that there are no recorded orca attacks in the wild. Meanwhile, Sea World has hundreds of pages worth of documented attacks by their captive orcas over the years. A life of solitude in captivity didn’t help Tilikum to thrive, but it may have helped him become the “dangerous” whale he was. He died about fifty years before he may have in the wild, and one has to question how he would’ve lived in the ocean where he belonged.