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Tilikum in 2015: what happens when orcas are kept in captivity

Updated on August 30, 2015
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I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!

Orcas in the wild

Orcinus Orca: (killer whale): a large black and white toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family.

Orcas (or 'Killer Whales') are one of the world's largest predatory marine mammals. Orcas live in every ocean of the world, (generally preferring cold coastal regions). They are a type of 'Cetacean' (a marine mammal family that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises).

In their natural habitat they feed on both fish and other marine mammals such as seals and walruses, as well as many different species of birds. Orcas are found in every ocean of the world, but prefer colder waters and coastal marine areas (e.g. New Zealand, Alaskan Aleutian islands, Canadian and American Pacific Northwest waters).

There are three different 'sub species' of orca: those in 'residential' pods (pods around a fixed marine area), transient orca (orca pods that travel and do not have a fixed geographical location), and 'offshore' orca (those which live a long way offshore). Residentials and transients are often found in the same areas, but the two types avoid each other and do not interbreed or socialise together. These three sub-species (especially residential vs transient) are so different from each other that some have argued they are different species -for example:

(1) Diet: the residential orca tend to feed almost exclusively on fish, whereas transient orca feed mainly on marine mammals and birds.

(2) Physical appearance: Residential orca have a rounded dorsal fin, whereas the transients is more upright;

(3) Language: Residentials have more complex and varied vocalisations than the transients.

(4) Family grouping: Larger and more stable for the residential orcas (whereas the transients rarely have a pod of more than six).

Orcas in the wild are characterised by the following unique traits:

* Highly social -they live in complex family pods of up to 40 members that swim, hunt, sleep, mate, groom and play together;

* Matrilineal -females are dominant in orca society, and the males must submit to them. However the female orca is much smaller than the male. A young male orca will stay with his mother for his whole life, even when he is at reproductive age.

* Highly intelligent - Orcas have the second heaviest brain of any mammal (their brains are twice the size of human brains), and orca are known for their complex system of vocalisations (the sounds they make to communicate with each other, as well as to identify and track down prey). Each pod has its own unique 'language' of vocalisations, which may consist of between 7 and 17 different and distinct sounds. They will imitate others' behaviour (even other species), and teach tricks to their young. In captivity they are easily able to learn new tricks when induced with a reward system.

* Longevity - Orcas in the wild can live up to about 60 years (male) and 90 years (female), although the average is about 30 for males and 50 for females. In captivity they tend to live a much shorter life, as they become prone to infections and illnesses.

Despite the name "killer whale", orcas in the wild are not known to attack humans, either for food or other reasons.

Problems with orcas in captivity

In 2010 a horrified TV viewing public witnessed scenes of carnage and tragedy at 'Seaworld' in Florida, when a beloved and highly respected senior Orca trainer who'd worked there for 20 years, was dragged to the bottom of the tank, scalped and dismembered by 'Tilikum', a 28 year old Orca bull who had been one of her favourite animals to work with. The most shocking question of all was "why had he suddenly turned against a woman he'd worked closely with for many years"?

Nobody could understand it - no-one that is, except for those who study Orcas from a scientific viewpoint; many of whom argue (very convincingly) that Orcas in captivity become traumatised, and even psychotic.

Many of the problems surrounding Orcas in captivity were canvassed in the 2013 documentary film 'Blackfish'; the aftermath of which pitted Seaworld staff and managers against marine biologists and concerned members of the public in a bitter media debate about the ethics of marine mammals in captivity.

To understand how and why this tragedy happened, it's necessary (as was done in 'Blackfish') to rewind the clock back to 1982...the year Tilikum (Tilly) was captured off the coast of Iceland, and taken permanently into captivity.

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1982: Tilikum and Keiko are captured near Iceland

Tilikum (meaning "friend" in the native American Inuit language), is the largest orca in captivity -weighing 12,500 pounds and measuring over 22 feet in length.

His capture was part of the 'Orca rush' of the 1970s and early '80s. Commercial operators had discovered that orcas could be captured and trained as entertaining marine park mammals. Like dolphins, they were intelligent and responsive to reward and punishment, so could be taught to perform tricks and entertain audiences. There was much money to be made in capturing and selling them to marine park operators. After a series of captures in US waters, culminating in a gruesome and distressing mass capture and killing of orcas off the coast of Puget sound in Washington, the US banned domestic capture of orcas in 1972, and so the practice was forced offshore.

In 1983 Tilikum and Keiko (the latter became the subject of the film 'Free Willy') were captured off the coast of Iceland as young orca calves. They were kept in a small holding tank for an entire year near the Icelandic capital, Rejkavik, before being sold to marine parks. Tilikum was sold to a rundown marine park in British Columbia, Canada, named 'Sealand of the Pacific'.

The Sealand Years (1984-1990)

The bleak details of Tilikum's years at Sealand are outlined in the 'Blackfish' documentary, which argues that he was severely traumatised in captivity in these substandard conditions, by being kept in a pen that was far too small, locked into a dark holding pen at night to avoid the risk of poaching, and that during the night time confinement, as a 'subdominant' (lesser in the pecking order than the dominant females), Tilly would be attacked by larger female orcas who were trying to assert their dominance over him. They would rake his skin mercilessly and often draw blood. He became a victim of being placed with other orcas who were not part of his original family pod, and of a matriarchal system of dominance in the species.

Despite his trials in captivity, early trainers at the Sealand park describe Tilikum as having been a delight to work with - they describe him as keen and enthusiastic, responsive, and a quick learner. All of that changed in February 1991...

Media extract of 1991 death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific, B.C
Media extract of 1991 death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific, B.C

Death #1 Trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific, British Columbia, Canada

Keltie Byrne was a 20 year old student who worked at Sealand part-time for extra income as a trainer. Sealand did not allow its trainers in the water with the Orcas -the three orcas performed shows, but were not accustomed to any people in the water with them. The trainers knew this.

In Feb 1991, while walking a narrow ledge between two pools, Keltie Byrne lost her footing, slipped and fell into the pool containing all three orcas -two females (Noortka and Haida), and one male (Tilikum). She was pulled to the bottom of the enclosure by Tilikum, tossed around among the three orcas, and ultimately drowned. Sealand marked the incident as an 'accidential drowning', however eye witnesses said that the three whales actively prevented Keltie Byrne from getting out of the pool, and forced her under water until she drowned.

It took Sealand employees two hours to recover her body from the orcas. Shortly after the death of Keltie, Sealand closed its doors for good and put Tilikum up for sale.

Although this incident received somewhat limited publicity because it was prior to the internet age, and occurred in Canada rather than the USA, it nevertheless sent shockwaves around certain sectors of the community -notably marine biologists who studied cetaceans (the genus to which orcas belong), and trainers working in other marine parks who learned of the death.

Why? Because it was the first recorded death of a trainer caused by an orca at a marine park.




Sealand of the Pacific (now closed): near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Sealand of the Pacific (now closed): near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

1992 - 2010: Orcas in captivity cause accidents and near misses to humans

18 years elapsed since the death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific. That park had closed, and with it, (at least it appeared), had the park's dark history of inappropriate treatment and confinement of orcas, and trainer 'accidents'.

Meanwhile, Seaworld, with parks in Florida and San Diego, was fighting its own PR battle during the '90s and early 2000s. Public consciousness of the plight of orcas in captivity had been raised after the movie 'Free Willy' came out in 2003, and suddenly marine parks were under much closer public and scientific scrutiny than they'd ever been before. Seaworld opened in 1964, and by 2010, it was a multi-million dollar enterprise, operating marine theme parks in seven different states. Seaworld didn't just have orcas -they had dolphins, seals and sea lions as well. Their trainer jobs were highly sought after, and the trainers had to be fit, smart, and media savvy as well. Over the years the stunts performed by trainers became more and more complex and dangerous, and yet the trainers didn't get high rates of pay, or a huge range of benefits to compensate for the risk. On the contrary, they were taught to deflect any difficult questions from the public about accidents, or about the health or wellbeing of orcas in captivity. The trainers were part of a glitzy corporate brand that could not be compromised.

Throughout the 18 years between the death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand, and the next two deaths (at Loro Parque and Seaworld respectively), there were many trainer accidents and near misses at Seaworld and other marine parks around the world. Here are just a few:

* In 1993 14 year old Kasatka tried to bite an unidentified trainer at Seaworld California, taking him down twice to the bottom of the tank;

* In November 2006, a dominant female killer whale, Kasatka, repeatedly dragged experienced trainer, Ken Peters, to the bottom of the stadium pool during a show after hearing her calf crying for her in the back pools. Peters was left with serious injuries, and spent months in hospital and rehab afterwards;

* On October 6, 2007, at Loro Parque (a marine park affiliated with Seaworld, in the Canary Islands), a 29-year-old trainer, Claudia Vollhardt, who had worked at the park since 2003, was hospitalized after she was injured during a training session with the male orca, Tekoa. The orca crashed into the trainer, injuring her right lung and breaking her forearm in two places. She was rescued by two colleagues after the incident. The trainer was in a stable condition after surgery.

* On September 9, 2008, during a show at Marineland Antibes in France, a 26-year-old female orca named Freya began acting oddly in the middle of the show then pulled an unidentified trainer under the water. The trainer resurfaced after a few seconds only for Freya to return and begin jumping on top of the man. After landing on top of her trainer twice, she began to push him through and under the water. The trainer tried to regain control of the situation by climbing on the orca's back but was thrown off. The trainer eventually managed to get to the edge of the pool and climb out, seemingly unhurt.

As early as the 1980s, writers and public commentators had been raising questions about whether orcas should be kept in captivity at all, and if they were, what the risky consequences of that captivity might be for their human captors. For instance in 1988 Robert Reinhold wrote an op-ed in the NY Times, where he posed the following question (following a series of recent incidents at Seaworld parks):

"If killer whales could communicate with humans, as some experts believe they may someday, four whales here might give answers to some profound questions:

Why did they turn on two of their trainers, nearly killing them? Are these highly intelligent ocean creatures happy spending their lives in a big tank doing stunts for human audiences? Does the human species have the right to confine them for entertainment and profit, or even research? What, in short, is the proper relationship between the two most highly evolved species in the planet's two biological realms, land and sea?"

It was clear the tide was beginning to turn on the idea that it was perfectly acceptable for marine mammals to be kept in their equivalent of bathtub sized tanks, and taught tricks for the entertainment of humans. The scientific community for its part had begun to realise, following extensive research on orcas, that they had a highly evolved intelligence, as well as a sophisticated social and familial structure that was often disrupted during captivity - leading to terrible consequences for the orcas. Not only could they become 'bored' in captivity, but they could be traumatised by having their family pods broken up, and being forced to co-habit with unrelated orcas who sometimes were from different sub-species altogether, let alone not being from the same family.

All of this led to the orcas turning on each other (biting, scratching and raking), and eventually also turning on their human captors.

1997 article about the death of Daniel Dukes at Seaworld, after he drowned in Tilikum's pool
1997 article about the death of Daniel Dukes at Seaworld, after he drowned in Tilikum's pool

Orcas in captivity versus in the wild

In the Wild
In captivity
Swim for hundreds of kilometres per day
Swim only in the small pools they inhabit
Feed on live fish and sometimes small marine mammals
Feed on dead fish only
Travel in family groups (pods)
Are lumped in with other incompatible and unrelated orcas
Males live to 60-70
Males live to between 10-30 (median age 9)
Spend most of their time underwater or just below surface
Often suffer sunburn from inadequate water coverage and need artificial sunblock
Can breed naturally
Mostly artificial breeding
Have erect dorsal fins
Dorsal fins are collapsed (a sign of stress)
Can escape when other whales are aggressive
Cannot escape attacks from other whales

Death #2: A Vagrant dies in Tilikum's pool -1997

In July of 1997, seven years after Byrne's death, SeaWorld employees came in the morning to discover a dead body in the pool inhabited by Tilikum at the time. Nobody apparently witnessed the death.

A man by the name of Daniel P. Dukes jumped into Tilikum's pool after sneaking into the park after hours. The official report states that Dukes became hypothermic from the cold water and drowned. But the autopsy report states that Dukes had cuts, contusions and even his genitals bitten off by Tilikum. While none of the night watch trainers heard or saw Tilikum kill Dukes, the drifter was found naked, draped across the whale's back the next morning. Effectively Tilly was parading around the pool with the dead body on his back.

Seaworld stated to the media that Dukes had simply fallen in and drowned. Mysteriously, no video footage of the incident ever surfaced, even though the park was under 24 hour video surveillance.

Alexis Martinez: Trainer at Loro Parque marine park, Canary Islands
Alexis Martinez: Trainer at Loro Parque marine park, Canary Islands

Death #3: Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque (Canary Islands)

Fast forward to Christmas Eve 2009, Tenerife, the Canary Islands.

Alexis Martinez is a 29 year old man who's recently moved in with his girlfriend of 7 years. Since 2006 he has worked as a trainer at Loro Parque, a popular marine and theme park near Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Loro Parque has a close relationship with Seaworld. Its trainers often visit there to train Loro Parque's staff, and they lend their orcas to Loro Parque at times. At this time they have a show featuring four orcas that originally came from Seaworld, including Keto -a young male.

In the leadup to a special Christmas show, Alexis has been working non-stop with Keto, the orca to whom he's been assigned as a trainer.

For the first couple of years at Loro Parque, Alexis loved his job and was excited to work with the whales. However for the past few months, Alexis has been coming home anxious, telling his girlfriend that the job was hard, he was very tired, and that there was a lot of trouble and aggression between the four orcas at Orca World -they were not routinely obeying commands, and were hurting each other. Twice since he began work in 2006 he had contemplated leaving the job, and often worried about safety. He was apprehensive that something bad would happen and told his girlfriend, Estefania Rodriguez, of his concerns.

On the morning of Dec 24th, something bad did happen. Martinez had been in the pool with Keto, On the fatal day, December 24, Martínez and Rokeach, along with five other Orca Ocean trainers, ran through a morning practice session with Keto, who worked alone in the show pool while the other three killer whales were secured in the two back pools.

According to an internal accident report, Keto “appeared in a good mood” that day and had behaved well during routine animal care and a swim session with Skyla. Martinez attempted to execute a trick known as a 'spy hop' twice with Keto, while the other trainer was with another whale. Because Keto didn't perform the trick correctly he wasn't rewarded, and became frustrated. When the other trainer exited the pool (and Martinez was still in the pool), the whale attacked Martinez and prevented him from getting out of the pool. Keto drove Martinez to the bottom of the pool.

By the time they got Martinez out of the pool and the whale under control, Martinez's body was limp -he was dead. The company's response to the death was inadequate - they paid no compensation to the family and did not acknowledge responsibility. Martinez's girlfriend, Estefania Rodriguez, was heartbroken.

The autopsy report on Martínez stated that he suffered a “violent death.” It describes multiple cuts and bruises, the collapse of both lungs, fractures of the ribs and sternum, a lacerated liver, severely damaged vital organs, and puncture marks “consistent with the teeth of an orca.” It concludes that the immediate cause of death was fluid in the lungs (i.e.,drowning) but that the fundamental cause was “mechanical asphyxiation due to compression and crushing of the thoracic abdomen with injuries to the vital organs.”

In layman's terms, a killer whale gone rogue...

Dawn Brancheau with an orca at Seaworld
Dawn Brancheau with an orca at Seaworld

Dawn Brancheau, beloved Seaworld trainer, is killed

On Feb 24th 2010, Seaworld underwent its most highly publicised tragedy, when one of its senior trainers, Dawn Brancheau, was killed by 28 year old Tilikum, shortly after a shamu show in the main stadium.

Out of respect for Dawn's family, who have already suffered through endless, salacious media coverage of the event, as well as the intense scrutiny that followed the screening of the 'Blackfish' documentary, I don't intend to go into graphic details of what happened to Dawn on that fateful day. You can read a full account here. Here is a brief summary of the facts:

  • Tilikum was not a 'waterwork' animal. Because he was known to have a history of aggression, trainers were not allowed to get into the water with him, but they could get him to do tricks from the side of the pool;
  • During the 'Dine with Shamu' lunchtime show in the main auditorium, which ended at 1.30pm, Dawn took Tilikum through various behaviours that were part of his routine. Nothing was out of the ordinary;
  • As the show ended and the audience left, Dawn rewarded Tilly with herring from a bucket, and poured some water over him (whales love this). She then lay down by the side of the pool for what Seaworld refers to as a 'relationship' session. This is where trainers bond individually with whales, stroking them and talking quietly to them;
  • Down below the bottom of the tank, there was a viewing platform where a number of people had gathered for a photo op. Tilly was supposed to swim down (on cue) to the bottom of the tank, and wait there for customers to take photos of him;
  • Instead of doing this, for some unknown reason he took Dawn's hair in his mouth, and pulled her in. He swam around the perimeter of the pool with her, repeatedly dunking her and thrashing around with her;
  • Seaworld staff repeatedly attempted to slap the water -a cue for Tilly to return to the side of the pool and release Dawn, but he ignored all their commands;
  • An emergency was declared, and trainers had to be sent into the pool to get Dawn out of Tilly's mouth, as he would not let go.
  • Approximately 10 minutes later her body was retrieved and she was declared dead. Some spectators who had remained in the stadium or were waiting for the photo op at the bottom of the tank witnessed the incident, and were able to provide eyewitness accounts for the investigation.
  • Following the incident Tilly did not perform any shows for a year, and was confined to one of the back pools.
  • An autopsy report showed that Dawn had multiple lacerations and other serious injuries (not detailed here).

The public and media jumped on Seaworld right away, asking some probing questions, such as:

  1. Were the trainers like Dawn at risk by working in such close proximity to the whales, who could pull them into the water at any moment?
  2. Why had Tilikum not been "de-sensitised" to having a person in the water, by being gradually trained to accept someone in the pool with him?
  3. What were the psychological effects of keeping orcas in captivity in marine parks?

Seaworld's initial response was essentially to characterise the incident as a terrible accident, caused by Dawn having not kept her pony tail out of Tilikum's way. Commentators rightly called foul on this false narrative -they pointed out that trainers regularly had ponytails, and it had never been a problem in the past. Furthermore, eyewitnesses denied that Tilikum had grabbed her ponytail at all -instead they said that he grabbed her by the arm, and had her arm (not her head) in his mouth.

It seemed that Seaworld simply didn't want to admit the truth, which was that Tilikum -a highly intelligent killer whale separated years earlier from his family and his natural habitat in the North Sea, had become bored and traumatised by years in captivity, and had 'gone rogue' on a trainer.



An orca show at Seaworld
An orca show at Seaworld

Fallout from Dawn's death

Following Dawn’s tragic death, Tilikum was kept in a tiny enclosure that limited his ability to swim, communicate with other orcas, and interact with people. He was reported to have been floating listlessly in the water for hours at a time, a behavior never seen in wild orcas.

Seaworld spent much time and money on strengthening and improving its safety procedures. For a while all water work was stopped. When it recommenced, Seaworld implemented new measures such as:

  • Safety and rescue training for all staff once a month;
  • Trainers taught to go limp when they are grabbed, so that the whale loses interest;
  • Whales taught to keep their mouths closed while swimming
  • Whales taught to stay calm and swim around the perimeter of the pool if someone falls in
  • Whales taught emergency recall signals (e.g. hand slapping, net dropped in the water)
  • Scuba gear is always kept nearby trainers

Perhaps most importantly, the death re-ignited the decades old debate about the wisdom and appropriateness of keeping orcas in captivity in the first place. Was Tilikum, in killing Dawn and others, simply reacting in a way any human being would if kept in stressful, unnatural conditions for almost their entire lifetime?

We'll never really know, but in the meantime by keeping these majestic creatures in captivity, it seems we're playing a game of Russian Roulette with the lives and health of trainers and possibly even members of the public, let alone the ethical issues it raises.

"Maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological....maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive."

— Jean-Michel Cousteau

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    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 20 months ago from Home Sweet Home

      this is really scary and sad, the trainers lives are at stake with wild animals

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