Tilikum – the Death of a Dark Star

The news, when it finally came, was not a surprise but it still stung. On January 6th, 2017, Sea World announced that Tilikum, the dark star of the 2013 ground-breaking documentary Blackfish, had died. 

This notorious orca will be remembered for many things, not least the death of three people in the more than three decades he was held in captivity. But his story started way before then. Tilikum, you see, was a son of Iceland.

Wild male orca in Iceland
Wild male orca in Iceland

After the orca capture teams were kicked out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970s, the marine park industry moved their operation to Iceland. At that time, Iceland’s herring population was ‘over-wintering’ in the fjords in the east of the country. Attracted by the seasonal herring migration, large pods of orcas were often found in these relatively sheltered waterways – perfect conditions which quickly proved to be a gift for the capture teams.

So it was here in early November 1983 that Tilikum, no more than two years old, was ripped from his mother’s side and hauled out of the fjord. In many ways, his life was over that day as he was put on the back of a truck and driven off into the night for what would become his tortured life in captivity.

His first year was spent at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík, awaiting a buyer. He was eventually shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia in late 1984.

His early years at Sealand contributed hugely to the problems he would encounter for the rest of his life. As a young male he endured constant attacks from the two more dominant females, Haida II and Nootka IV, he shared a tank with. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of life at Sealand was the regime for the orcas once the shows had ended. Each night Tilikum was isolated and ‘stored’ in a module, which was no more than an aquatic kennel, for up to 14 hours at a time. This undoubtedly contributed to his psychosis and subsequent behavioural problems.

On February 20th, 1991, Keltie Byrne a Sealand trainer and champion swimmer, slipped and fell into the orca pool. All three orcas reacted to this but eyewitness accounts recall that it was Tilikum who repeatedly submerged her before she tragically drowned. Sealand never recovered from this and a year later, in 1992, the park closed and all three orcas were sold to SeaWorld. Tilikum’s new home was to be SeaWorld Orlando where he remained for the next 24 years and grew to become the largest orca held in captivity, weighing in at 12,000 pounds and measuring over 22ft long.

Tilikum 'performing' at SeaWorld
Tilikum 'performing' at SeaWorld

SeaWorld’s reputation for secrecy and control is highlighted by the fact that Tilikum’s new trainers were told very little of his previous history and behaviour at Sealand.

Tragedy was to strike again on July 6th, 1999 in a curious incident when Florida-resident, Daniel Dukes, managed to bypass security and sneak into the Orlando park after hours. His lifeless, mutilated body was found draped across Tilikum’s back by security staff the following morning.

But it was to be another decade before Tilikum’s notoriety became international news. On February 24th, 2010, Dawn Brancheau, one of SeaWorld’s most respected and experienced trainers, working on a training session with Tilikum, was grabbed by her arm and pulled into the pool where he brutally rammed and drowned her. This tragic incident came just nine weeks after Keto, another SeaWorld-owned orca, drowned his trainer, Alexis Martinez, at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands on December 24, 2009. These horrific incidents were first documented in David Kirby's critically acclaimed book "Death At SeaWorld" in 2012 and then the following year in the award-winning documentary, Blackfish.

For the last six years, since the Brancheau tragedy, Tilikum has languished, mostly alone, in a holding pool at Orlando with little human contact. For obvious reasons his trainers and vets remained fearful of him with contact only allowed if he was in a controlled situation where the floor of his medical pool was raised. He continued, however, to be an important source of DNA for SeaWorld’s breeding programme.

So what were the positive aspects of Tilikum’s life in captivity? This should be the place where I talk about the important education, conservation and research legacy that Tilikum left but sadly I can’t because there are none.

The true and only legacy from his sad, tragic existence is that a much wider audience now appreciates and understands that these noble creatures deserve better. Orcas are just too big, too smart and too mobile to ever thrive in a tank and so moves to develop a sea-pen sanctuary to retire all captive orcas is the only logical conclusion to this whole, sorry affair.  

Today, 55 orcas still remain in captivity around the world.

Much as we are incredibly saddened to report what we all knew was inevitable-- the tragic death of Tilikum-- we are also angry.  He should be the last and final orca to die in captivity. This sorry tale of incarceration of one of the most majestic creatures to inhabit the earth, simply for our entertainment, must end. The orcas held at SeaWorld and in Miami, Florida and Japan, Argentina, Canada, France, the Canary Islands, Russia and China, deserve a better life. WDC is working hard to establish sanctuaries for captive whales and dolphins. Sanctuaries must be established for the orcas that remain in captivity before they too meet a sorry end performing silly tricks for mis-educated crowds. 

Comments

I can not help but cry as I read this, at least when he passes he will be free.

I thought the same, but what a waste of a magnificent creature.

I agree, This as sad as it is is going to be a big change and an eye opener /Kimberly

This is beyond sad and should never have happened you don't do this to these animals of any kind they aren't meant to be in captivity and how would man like this done to them i think all places that keep animals should be stopped closed down bring back ways of having fun playing outdoors with your kids not taking them to places like this or funding these places.....

It's so sad to hear about tilikum I seen orcas in the wild that why they shoud be

Having seen Orcas in the wild I am ashamed of some human beings for what they have done to these beautiful creatures.
Something has to change

Can't we rescue him?!

Sadly, I doubt it. He has been in captivity for far too long, and I believe probably ill-equipped for survival in the wild. Also, like dolphins, orcas are pod-animals. Tilikum has not been a member of a pod since he was captured. If you have seen "Blackfish", do you remember the part about how other older orcas would "punish" him at night, leaving him with multiple scars all over his body? Because of the abuses by Sealand, he is not mentally or socially equipped to deal with other orcas or even well-intentioned humans.

I am extremely saddened by Tilikum's story. I've watched 'Blackfish' several times and each time makes me more determined to make more people aware of what is happening at SeaWorld Orlando and other parks where these beautiful creatures are being used for 'entertainment'.

We are such a cruel people, so many do not appreciate Nature and all that it offers, we destroy everything and care not about what is left for future generations. I agree with Catherine "at least he is free". How very cruel! Please, let's stop this and free them all.

I can't even imagine how much better off he will be when he passes!! Not heartless, just factual. Look at how horrible his life has BEEN. If you want to call it a life that is. All for $$$$$$$$$..
Turns my stomach.

Heartbreaking and tragic. All for money. And more money. Greed of human captors! Hateful!

it is ver sad to read thtat Tilikum has passed away, but i am very sure that he is now free from humans, free from all that suffering humans had caused him...be free beautiful Tilikum! such a beautiful life being!

It is truly heartbreaking to hear what has happened to this majestic and intelligent creature. I weep for all wild animals living a life of 'performing' for the public. I wait for the day that we become truly aware of what we are doing...

I think all killer whale should be free by the end of 2017 and the other animals to.

I agree with Catherine too. It really pains me to say it but this poor tortured fella will finally be free when he dies. What an absolutely horrible life he has had at the hands of greedy humans.

This need to stop. They deserve a better life free where they belong. I don't think he died yet. He's very sick dieing. So sad his story and all orcas

Maybe we need to replay the movies Free Willy to remind people of what life is like for the captive creatures of the show business world.

I feel so so sad. I maybe saw him years ago in sea world and I am so ashamed of that. These beautiful creatures should never have to endure this ever again

I feel so so sad. I maybe saw him years ago in sea world and I am so ashamed of that. These beautiful creatures should never have to endure this ever again

This is a tragic frustrating disturbing saga of the worst possible treatment to a living creature by the worst possible group of degenerate inhumane beings.

This is a tragic frustrating disturbing saga of the worst possible treatment to a living creature by the worst possible group of degenerate inhumane beings.

Such a waste of a magnificent life, just to satisfy human curiosity. My hope is that when he does pass, it will not go unheard, and we will end this needless barbaric practice of enslaving all wildlife, great and small.

I absolutely agree!! Excellent piece.

Everyone who pays to see animals perform in captivity are complicit in their tragic lives and deaths. "Swimming with dolphins", riding elephants in"sanctuaries", travelling by mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon...They're animal cruelty in the name of "entertainment" for the self-gratification of selfish people. The sooner places like Sea World and its ilk go out of business, the better.

Set him free!

I only learned about Tilikum this past week when I read about his illness, and over the last 3 days have been reading everything I can find about orcas. They are truly incredible creatures and it makes me sad and angry to know how bad things are for them. I hope when Tilikum finally passes, his spirit will find the eternal ocean filled with friends, family and freedom.

When will the people in this world move on to a higher plain and start appreciating the life of these animals is in their natural environment and not as living museum pieces???!

I too, saw Blackfish and began a journey of knowledge and shame of my human race, I have continued to further read about Cetacean brains and social and their individual sense of self and am so sorry that Tilikum couldn't have been put in a sea pen previous to this, but Sea World is too busy saving as much sperm as they can get from him. It makes me physically sick to think that along with Lolita and Canadas orca, Kiska who are living illegal Solitary lives with no hope of escape. I can only hope that my signing of petitions, and joining in protests and donating to organizations that fight captivity will end this once and for all.

I too, saw Blackfish and began a journey of knowledge and shame of my human race, I have continued to further read about Cetacean brains and social and their individual sense of self and am so sorry that Tilikum couldn't have been put in a sea pen previous to this, but Sea World is too busy saving as much sperm as they can get from him. It makes me physically sick to think that along with Lolita and Canadas orca, Kiska who are living illegal Solitary lives with no hope of escape. I can only hope that my signing of petitions, and joining in protests and donating to organizations that fight captivity will end this once and for all.

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