Tilikum the orca

Dawn Brancheau - Riders on the Storm | Ed Schipul | CC BY-SA 2.0
Dawn Brancheau – Riders on the Storm | Ed Schipul | CC BY-SA 2.0

The tragic death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau after an attack from an orca she was performing with is well known.  Today, the orca involved in the attack has also died.

Tilikum the orca was captured near Iceland in November 1983 and his age was estimated at about 2 years old.  After being held at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo for a year, he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia and trained for shows.  During training Tilikum suffered stomach ulcers and attacks from the other dominant orcas there.  While there, Tilikum was also linked to another death as he and two other whales did not allow a trainer from leaving the tank after she fell in.

Tilikum was purchased by Seaworld, and by this time was 12,000 pounds and was the largest orca in captivity.  He was used extensively in their breeding programs, and it is estimated that 54% of Seaworld’s orcas have his genes.  He sired 14 calves during his time in the Seaworld breeding program.  At Seaworld Orlando in 1999, there was another death and found dead next to Tilikum the next day.  He had sneaked into the park, and nobody is quite sure what happened although an inquest ruled the man died of hypothermia.  However, the man’s body did bear bite marks.  One source reports there were multiple incidents of aggression- chewing on metal gates and the concrete sides of his tank.

Tilikum kept performing in shows until the death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau in an attack in front of a live audience in 2010.  After this new safety rules were enacted and trainers were no longer allowed in the water with the orcas.  In 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released and featured Tilikum’s story as one of the examples of why orcas should not be kept in captivity.  It argued keeping the orcas in small tanks caused stress and frustration, which turned into dangerous and destructive behaviors.  Because Tilikum was only allowed access to 0.0001 percent of the water he would have traversed in a single day, they theorized this put enough stress on him that he exhibited abnormal repetitive behavior as well as aggression towards humans.

In 2016, Seaworld announced the end of the orca breeding program and the theatrical shows involving killer whales.  Since then, Tilikum has remained in captivity.  He was reported to have suffered serious health issues, but a cause of death was not reported