Meet Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, weighing 12,500 pounds and measuring over 22 feet in length.
Tilikum was captured near Iceland in November of 1983, 30 years ago. At only 2 years old, when he was approximately 13 feet long, he was torn away from his family and ocean home.
After his capture, he was kept in a cement holding tank for close to a year at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík, Iceland, as he awaited 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 away from the expansive ocean in which he had swum a hundred miles a day alongside his family members.
Finally, he was transferred to the rundown Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada, and forced to call his barren 100-foot-by-50-foot pool—just 35 feet deep—his sad new “home.”
Food was withheld from him 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 its doors 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 have been killed because of Tilikum’s stress, frustration, and confinement.
Shortly after the death of Keltie, Sealand closed its doors for good and put Tilikum up for sale as though he were nothing more than a commodity.
When SeaWorld heard that a 12,000-lb. bull, the largest orca in captivity, was on the market, it quickly purchased him for its breeding program apparently giving little thought to his reputation for killing and aggression. Tilikum’s sperm was used to build up a collection of orcas, and now, 54 percent of SeaWorld’s orcas have his genes.
Over the course of 21 years at SeaWorld, where he is confined to a tank containing 0.0001 percent of the quantity of water that he would traverse in a single day in nature, Tilikum has been involved in multiple incidents of aggression. The stress of captivity drives Tilikum to exhibit abnormal repetitive behavior, including chewing on metal gates and the concrete sides of his tank—so much so that the most of his teeth are completely worn down.
The stress of captivity also causes Tilikum to exhibit aggression toward humans, which has cost two more lives—those of Daniel P. Dukes in 1999 and Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Tilikum scalped and dismembered Dawn as well as breaking bones throughout her body before drowning her.
Following Dawn’s tragic death, Tilikum was kept in a tiny enclosure that limited his ability to swim, communicate with other orcas, and interact with humans even further. He was reported to have been floating listlessly in the water for hours at a time, a behavior never seen in wild orcas.
After a year in isolation, Tilikum was returned to performing. SeaWorld is appealing its citation for violating a federal workplace safety law meant to protect workers from recognized life-threatening hazards and asking that the government allow humans to swim with orcas despite the risk.
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 which 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 them to lash out, posing a danger both to other whales and to employees alike.