How a Captive Killer Whale, Who Killed 3 People, Changed the World

There is a lot to learn from the tragic true story of Tilikum, the killer whale.

Tilikum looking at his trainers. Image credit: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The life of the largest, and best known orca held in captivity, Tilikum, sheds light on the abuse that happens behind the curtains of large aquariums and why keeping large marine animals in man-made tanks is a dangerous, and unethical idea.

Tilikum was only 2 years old when he was torn away from his family and captured in Iceland, near Reykjavík in 1983. For a year, he was kept in a concrete holding tank at Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo, next to Reykjavík. His stay in Iceland was short, though, and the orca was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. Tilikum was kept there for the next 8 years, until he was moved for a final time; to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, in 1992, where he spent the rest of his life, in captivity.

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Tilikum’s life was full of pain and suffering; even from the time of his capture, he was fed drugs on a daily basis to treat the chronic stress and injuries caused by living in confinement. He was also involved in the deaths of three people, including his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.

Tilikum during a performance in 2009. Image credit: Milan Boers

During his first year of captivity, Tilikum has reportedly spent the long days either swimming in circles or floating still on the surface of the water. When he was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific, he lived in the same 26 feet-wide enclosure with 2 older female orcas called Haida II and Nootka IV. Due to female orcas being at the top of their social structure in the wild, Tilikum was subject to constant abuse and attacks by the females who sought dominance over him. As a result, he often got isolated in a medical pool, where trainers kept him away from the attacks of Haida II and Nootka IV.

On February 20, 1991, as the final orca show came to an end at Sealand of the Pacific, Keltie Byrnea, a 21-year-old marine biology student who was working as a part-time trainer, slipped and fell into the pool of Tilikum, Haida II, and Nootka IV. The whales then pulled Keltie under, and dragged her around the pool. Despite other trainers trying their best to get her out of the water, Keltie drowned after 10 minutes. Sealand of the Pacific could never recover from the tragic death of Keltie Byrnea, which was ruled an accident, and closed their gates a year later.


After Sealand closed for good, the orcas ended up with SeaWorld. Tilikum and Nootka IV were moved to the chain’s theme park in Orlando, while Haida II was transported to SeaWorld San Antonio.

8 years later, a man called Daniel Dukes was found dead on Tilikum’s back while he was in his tank. The 27-year-old Dukes had visited SeaWorld Orlando earlier that day. He stayed after the park’s closing hour, and hid from security – then, when it was safe to come out, he entered Tilikum’s tank. The body of Dukes was found the next morning. Even though it was covered in cuts and bruises, his demise was ruled as an accident.

Tilikum remained at SeaWorld Orlando, where he killed and mutilated Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer, on February 24, 2010. She had been working as a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years and became the face of the park at the time as the star killer whale trainer. It was after a “Dine With Shamu” show when Tilikum grabbed Dawn and pulled her into the water. For 45 minutes, he refused to release her body. The autopsy indicated that she died from both drowning and blunt force trauma.

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SeaWorld resumed orca shows in Orlando only 3 days after Dawn’s death, and Tilikum returned to performing a year later amid tight security precautions, but spent most of his time in a small enclosure, away from the public. His health drastically deteriorated in the following years, and Tilikum eventually died in 2017 due to a bacterial infection.

Dawn Brancheau performing with Tilikum. Image credit: Ed Schipul

Instead of stigmatizing the orcas, this incident sparked heavy debate and led to people questioning whether or not it’s really ethical to keep these large apex predators in aquariums. A documentary film that tells the story of Tilikum and other captive killer whales, called Blackfish, was also produced and resulted in protest against SeaWorld. Ultimately, they announced to end animal-based enterta inment by the end of 2019.


Many former trainers have come forward and told the public about the terrible conditions animals have to suffer, and how SeaWorld has downplayed the dangers of keeping these whales in captivity.


Tilikum was also part of a captive breeding program and has sired 21 calves throughout his life. The fact that 11 of these captive whales have died before he did, shows how these animals don’t belong in metal pools for the sake of our entertainment.

While Tilikum’s life was sad and full of tragedy, it also made a huge difference in the world, and now his species has a lot less to fear.

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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