Tilikum

A killer whale’s tragic life

Wild orcas as they are supposed to live, in Washington State. Photo: Carl Safina

Tilikum has died.

Involved in the killing of three humans, the focus of the movie Blackfish, and the book A Death at SeaWorld, Tilikum was certainly the most famous whale, and quite possibly the most noted and notorious non-human being, in the world. He was above all a performer. But beneath all, he was a killer whale. It’s a name I use without prejudice. As Herman Melville wrote of the species in Moby-Dick, “Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale . . . for we are all killers.” And as a killer whale, he had a mind, a mind that could perhaps have been affected by a life of abuse.

In 1983 a two-year-old, 12-foot-long killer whale caught in Iceland arrived at Sealand in Victoria, Canada. They named him Tilikum. A former trainer there, Eric Walters, remembered Tilikum as, “Very well behaved, and he was always eager to please… Tilikum was the one you trusted.”

But early on, a trainer paired Tilikum with a pre-trained killer whale. If the trained whale performed the behavior that the trainer wanted, but Tilikum did not perform it, the trainer punished both whales, depriving both of food. The trained whale became sufficiently frustrated to rake Tilikum head-to-tail with bleeding tooth marks. Nothing like that has ever been documented for free-living killer whales. It was the beginning of a tormented life for Tilikum.

Sealand was just a big net-pen surrounded by bleachers, floating in a bay like a small marina. Sealand’s management feared that someone sympathetic to their whales might cut the net, so at night they “stored” their three killer whales in a dark, 20 by 30-foot floating steel container. Free-living killer whales travel an average of 75 miles a day. The width of those containers was less than twice the whales’ body length.

On many mornings, Tilikum — by then 16 feet long and spending more than half his hours jammed into that steel can with two hostile companions — appeared with freshly bleeding bites. Tilikum thus found himself subjected to a wholly unnatural level of violence, from which there was no escape.

Ken Balcomb, who has spent four decades studying killer whales, told me that locking Tilikum in the box for 14 hours a day with whales who were hostile to him, “probably led to psychosis.”

As early as 1981, the writer Erich Hoyt had observed, “Captive orcas at Sea World and Marineland have held trainers underwater, nearly drowning them. There have been a number of bitings. These incidents generally occur after an individual whale has been in captivity for several years. Due to a change in routine or sometimes due to boredom, the whale suddenly becomes frustrated or disturbed. Fortunately, there is usually some warning to the trainer. To date, no captive has killed its trainer.”

But one day in 1991, Tilikum and the two other whales drowned a trainer named Keltie Byrne after she accidentally slipped into the water. (Trainers there didn’t normally enter the water.) Perhaps the whales, surprised to suddenly find a human in the pool with them for the first time, were just playing. The attack did not appear brutal; they just kept her under the water longer than a human could hold her breath. We’ll never know what was on their minds. The publicity forced Sealand’s closure. Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld. As a producer of sperm, he was worth millions to them.

Arriving at SeaWorld weighing 12,000 pounds, he was housed with females who continually harassed him. Free-living killer whales have organized themselves into differing acoustic clans in different, non-socializing communities that are genetically and culturally distinct populations. In the well-studied Pacific Northwest, even those communities whose ranges actually overlap shun all contact with each other. They are acutely aware of who they are and with whom they will and won’t socialize. Penning an Icelandic whale with whales from the Pacific Northwest was like putting a Neanderthal mammoth hunter in a cell with three suburban soccer-moms. Even by the unnatural standards of orca captivity, Tilikum was the orca from another realm. And he suffered for it.

Wild orcas, Washington State. Photo: Carl Safina

When killer whales were first brought into captivity, they were assumed to be mindless killers. Captivity brought us close. Close enough to see that killer whales — often called orcas by people who do, as Melville intoned, take exception to their name — are often amazingly friendly and interactive, capable of nuanced understanding and close bonds; that they possess a mind capable, perhaps, of being driven insane.

Graeme Ellis has spent decades studying free-living killer whales. But he started as a trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium. “It’s not how many tricks you can train them to do,” he has observed, “it’s how long you can maintain a whale’s sanity.” Juvenile orcas, he says, are eager. But eventually the novelty wears off. “Some get bored, lethargic. Others turn neurotic and perhaps dangerous.” After a few years in captivity, he says, “they all start to get a bit nutty.”

In 1999 a man who’d snuck into SeaWorld Orlando was found dead in Tilikum’s pool, his body very roughed-up. It may have been an unfortunate meeting of two disturbed minds.

No free-living orca has ever killed a human. Wild orcas are astoundingly nonviolent both to one another and to humans. But captivity can cause violence among them. Violence never seen in normal killer whale society. Violence seemingly stemming from the frustrations of so unnatural an existence.
Wild orcas, Washington State. Photo: Carl Safina

In 2010, Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. In my viewing of the video in the movie Blackfish, Tilikum seems to have thought he’d done what she’d asked, but missed seeing the next cue from her, then become frustrated when she did not reward him. Only between two sentient beings capable of understanding might so deep a misunderstanding arise.

Tilikum had endured a bizarre existence. He was involved in the death of three humans. The start of all these troubles was that the life Tilikum was born and built to live, in the sea with his mother and siblings and social group, had been taken from him. In its place humans substituted an existence deformed solely for our amusement. Perhaps the lesson of Tilikum is that he was so capable of having a life that he was also capable of having a life gone tragically wrong. As Herman Melville also wrote, “There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

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Carl Safina is the Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University. His latest book is Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.

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