Tilikum died in a barren tank on January 6, 2017, at SeaWorld. He was the largest orca in captivity, weighing 12,500 pounds and measuring over 22 feet in length.
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.
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.”
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.
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 drove 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.
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.
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.
It’s too late for Tilikum, but we can help the other animals still trapped at SeaWorld. Remember: Every dollar spent on a SeaWorld ticket contributes to animals’ 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!