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This Orca's Living Hell at SeaWorld

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Posted June 19, 2015 by Kim Johnson

Meet Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, weighing 12,500 pounds and measuring over 22 feet in length.

tilikum_01© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.

When he was just 2 years old, Tilikum was captured from his family and ocean home near Iceland. That was in 1983—over 30 years ago. He has never seen his family since then. This was the beginning of his living nightmare.

After his capture, the young whale was kept in a cement holding tank for nearly a year at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo in Iceland to await transfer to a marine park. Held captive against his will, all he could do was swim in small circles and float aimlessly at the surface of the water, far from the expansive ocean in which he had swum every day alongside his family members.

The picture above is of Lolita, who was captured in the Puget Sound, Washington, 13 years earlier than Tilikum. Orca capture techniques using nets, high-speed boats, and even underwater explosives and aircraft were perfected in Washington shortly before orca-capture operations became regulated in the United States and were outlawed in Washington state. No longer able to capture orcas from Washington waters, the orca hunters moved to the open waters near Iceland, where Tilikum was captured.

The picture above is of Lolita, who was captured in the Puget Sound, Washington, 13 years earlier than Tilikum. Orca capture techniques using nets, high-speed boats, and even underwater explosives and aircraft were perfected in Washington shortly before orca-capture operations became regulated in the United States and were outlawed in Washington state. No longer able to capture orcas from Washington waters, the orca hunters moved to the open waters near Iceland, where Tilikum was captured.

Finally, Tilikum was transferred to the rundown marine park, Sealand of the Pacific, in British Columbia, Canada. A barren 100-foot-by-50-foot pool—just 35 feet deep—was his sad new “home.”

This image shows Tilikum covered with lanolin, an oil extracted from sheep’s wool. It is applied to orcas’ whole bodies to prepare them for a long transport without water.Steve Huxter / Voice of the Orcas

This image shows Tilikum covered with lanolin, an oil extracted from sheep’s wool. It is applied to orcas’ whole bodies to prepare them for a long transport without water.

Food was withheld from Tilikum as a training technique, and he regularly endured painful attacks by two dominant female orcas, Haida and Nootka. He was forced to perform every hour on the hour, eight times a day, seven days a week. The constant stress and exhaustion gave him stomach ulcers.

When the park closed at the end of each day, the three incompatible orcas were crammed into a tiny round metal-sided module for more than 14 hours until the park reopened the next morning.

When Tilikum did not perform a trick correctly, food was withheld from both him and his tankmates, which caused a great deal of tension, and as a result, Haida and Nootka would bite Tilikum and rake the entire length of his body with their teeth.Steve Huxter / The Voice Of The Orcas

When Tilikum did not perform a trick correctly, food was withheld from both him and his tankmates, which caused a great deal of tension, and as a result, Haida and Nootka would bite Tilikum and rake the entire length of his body with their teeth.

On February 21, 1991, Sealand trainer Keltie Byrne fell into the pool containing all three orcas. She was pulled to the bottom of the enclosure by Tilikum, tossed around among the three orcas, and ultimately drowned. It took Sealand employees two hours to recover her body from the orcas. She was the first of three people to be killed because of Tilikum’s confinement, stress, and frustration.

Shortly after Byrne’s death, Sealand closed its doors for good and put Tilikum up for sale as though he were nothing more than a commodity.

SeaWorld officials quickly purchased Tilikum for the marine park’s breeding program, apparently giving little thought to his reputation for aggression and killing. Tilikum’s sperm was used to build a collection of orcas, and now, 54 percent of SeaWorld’s orcas have his genes. He has now been at SeaWorld for over 21 years and has 11 living children and four grandchildren.

The stress of captivity drives Tilikum to exhibit abnormal repetitive behavior and has also caused him to continue to exhibit aggression toward humans, costing two more lives—those of Daniel P. Dukes in 1999 and Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Tilikum scalped and dismembered Brancheau as well as breaking bones throughout her body before drowning her.

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

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

After a year in virtual isolation, Tilikum was returned to performing. SeaWorld unsuccessfully appealed its citation for violating a federal workplace safety law meant to protect workers from recognized life-threatening hazards. The company recklessly continued to allow trainers to swim with orcas behind the scenes and interact with them in shallow areas without any barrier or minimum distance, leading to yet another series of citations for endangering workers.

Tilikum is not the only orca who has become aggressive as a result of all the stress that the whales are forced to endure in the small tanks at SeaWorld. The park’s own records contain 600 pages of incident reports documenting dangerous and unanticipated orca behavior with trainers, consisting of more than 100 incidents in which killer whales bit, rammed, lunged at, pulled, pinned, and swam aggressively with SeaWorld trainers. Many of these incidents led to human injuries, including a near-death encounter experienced by trainer Ken Peters.

seaworld trainer dawn brancheau killed by orcaDawn Brancheau-Riders on the Storm | Ed Schipul | CC by-SA 2.0

Dawn Brancheau was one of SeaWorld’s star performers. She was cautious and always abided by the park’s “safety” guidelines when she was around the orcas. When her death was announced, former and current trainers were astonished that she had been the one killed.

Aggression toward humans and among orcas is nearly non-existent in nature, but the constant stress of living in incompatible social groupings inside minuscule tanks at SeaWorld causes some orcas to lash out, posing a danger both to other whales and to employees.

Remember: Every dollar spent on a SeaWorld ticket contributes to Tilikum’s misery. Never go to any SeaWorld park, and urge your friends and family to stay away, too. Together, we can shut down SeaWorld for good!

No chains. No cages. No tanks. 

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  • 180 days ago

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]

    0

    I think it’s horrible that the Killer Whale is still in captivity in Sea World. It is very disgraceful & harmful for him. Don’t sell any more tickets to Sea World. Save the Orca.

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