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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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Tilikum and the history of wild orca captures

Although Tilikum has been a captive whale for most of his life – the past 33 years – he started life as wild orca in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, a free Icelandic whale.  Tilikum was a victim of the wild capture efforts that shifted to Iceland and the North Atlantic after they were run out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s.  He is among sad company in those captures, which included Keiko, who was returned to his home waters after years of effort – the first captive orca to be rehabilitated and released.

Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world.  17 of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks.  Just six are still alive today, most still residing at SeaWorld locations: Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, and Ulises (SeaWorld Orlando and San Diego); and Kiska and Stella (held in Canada and Japan).

Efforts to capture orcas for the purpose of public display began in earnest off the west coast of the US in the 1960s, after a few captures in the previous decade proved that these majestic beings could draw quite a crowd – and bring in quite the profit.  The Northern and Southern Resident populations were heavily targeted; the Center for Whale Research estimates that at least 58 Southern Residents were either sent to oceanariums or died in capture efforts.  Just one whale from each population is still alive, and still captive, today: Corky, a Northern Resident, is just down the coast at SeaWorld San Diego while her family swims free in the waters off Canada (including her brother, Fife); and Tokitae (Lolita), is held in the US’ smallest orca tank at the Miami Seaquarium.

On March 7th, 1976, a horrendous capture effort involving multiple boats herding six Bigg’s orcas with the aid of a seaplane and “seal bombs” (underwater explosives used to scare marine animals) in Olympia, Washington, just happened to be witnessed by Ralph Munro, an aide to then-Governor Daniel Evans.  Two key events also “just happened” to be occurring in the state capital at the same time: an orca conference at Evergreen State College, and a meeting of the state legislature to discuss creating an orca sanctuary in Puget Sound.  Public and political outcry was swift and furious, lawsuits were filed, the whales were eventually all freed, and SeaWorld was banned from taking orcas within the waters of the state of Washington.

Less than a month later, the Center for Whale research officially began its orca survey, and has now been tracking the Southern Resident population for 40 years.

Less than seven months later, SeaWorld had its first orca flown in from Iceland.

As the Resident populations of the northeastern Pacific prefer salmon, the Icelandic orca populations love to eat herring, and appear to follow herring migrations across the North Atlantic.  They gather in sheltered fjords to feast on herring in their overwintering grounds, and the capture team deployed by SeaWorld to find a new source for their orca stock quickly found that their methods, perfected in Washington waters, could be adapted to take orcas from the waters around Iceland.  Like the orcas off the US and Canadian coasts, very little was known about Icelandic orca society when these captures began.  What was considered to be a “plentiful supply” of whales in the northeastern Pacific proved, with research efforts, to be several distinct types and populations of orcas, who were certainly vulnerable to the effects of losing individuals from their communities and families.  Research in Iceland shows that these orcas probably have societies very similar to the Pacific Resident orcas – matrilineal, family-oriented groups with tight and complex social bonds.  We know what has happened to the orcas taken from their families, but sadly we may never know the fate of those left behind.

In November of 1983, three young orcas – two males, one female – were stolen from their families and sent to a marine zoo near Reykjavik.  After waiting over a year for a buyer, one of the males was shipped overseas to Sealand of the Pacific, where he was named Tilikum.  The rest, as they say, is history.

After over a decade of allowing their orcas to be captured and exploited, increasing public awareness and sympathy for the whales led to the slowing and eventual halt of the capture industry in Iceland.  However, live captures still occur, most recently in Russia, where a growing oceanaria trade in China and Russia has led to at least 13 orcas, possibly as many as 20, taken since 2012.

SeaWorld’s recent announcement of their plans to end their captive breeding program is a good first step to ending the cruel practice of captivity for whales, dolphins, and porpoises. But unfortunately that doesn’t make things better for the whales they have now.  WDC is working to establish sanctuaries for orcas and other captives to ensure the remainder of their lives be spent in retirement in as close to a natural setting as possible. Tilikum’s legacy will certainly live on in the phasing out of captive orcas at SeaWorld, but his true gift will be realized when the incarceration ends and the tanks are emptied at last.

For more information on the history of wild orca captures, see:


Sandra Pollard’s book “Puget Sound Whales for Sale

Erich Hoyt’s book “Orca: The Whale Called Killer

WDC’s report “Captive Orcas: Dying to Entertain You