Tilikum: What Happened to the Orca Who Inspired a Movement to End Marine Captivity



While activists have been fighting to end wildlife captivity for decades, Tilikum’s story re-ignited the call to “free the whales,” inspiring a number of people to fight for his freedom.

Possibly one of the most famous orcas in recent history is Tilikum, the star of the CNN documentary Blackfish and the subject of the books Death at Seaworld and Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. Tilikum is most known for killing two of his trainers, Keltie Byrne and Dawn Brancheau, and a third person, Daniel Dukes, who was suspected to have jumped in Tilikum’s tank overnight.

Tilikum, a transient orca, was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, at approximately two years old. He lived at Sealand of the Pacific, an aquarium in Canada, with two female orcas named Haida II and Nootka IV after spending almost a year in the tank at Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo.

The medical module, where all three orcas were kept for at least 14 hours a day (often referred to as a sensory deprivation tank), was so small (26 feet wide, 20 feet deep) that Tilikum couldn’t escape the relentless attacks from Haida II and Nootka IV. His trainers stated in Blackfish that he would emerge from the pitch-black night enclosure with rake marks and other visible injuries. Eventually, for his safety, trainers kept him in a smaller medical pool, where he could barely swim and instead would just float.

At Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, two eyewitnesses saw Tilikum attack 21-year-old Keltie Byrne after she slipped and fell into the tank. While Tilikum dragged Keltie repeatedly under the water, Haida II and Nootka IV prevented the rest of the Sealand of the Pacific staff from reaching her. She had been able to surface just twice, screaming, “I don’t want to die,” and calling out for another trainer. Keltie passed away from the attack on February 20 from “drowning due to forced submersion by orca.” It was hours before her body could be recovered.


A few months later, Sealand of the Pacific closed, and Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld and moved to SeaWorld Orlando with Nootka IV, where he was used in shows and for SeaWorld’s breeding program. Haida II was eventually sent to live at SeaWorld San Antonio with her calf.

SeaWorld trainers at the time were unaware Tilikum was directly responsible for Keltie’s death and spent years interacting with him without barriers in between the trainer and the orca. In fact, SeaWorld trainers at the time believed Keltie had died of hypothermia and “all Tilikum and the other whales were doing was carrying around her dead body.”

However, unlike with other killer whales, the trainers were not allowed to be submerged and perform underwater tricks with Tilikum. Because SeaWorld officials did not disclose the reason for this rule, trainers believed, in hindsight, that the executives knew of Tilikum’s involvement in Keltie’s death.

On the morning of July 6, 1999, Daniel Dukes was found naked and dead, draped over Tilikum’s back. While it’s suspected Daniel jumped in his tank after hours, it’s also possible Tilikum dragged him in similarly to the way he did with Keltie. Despite numerous cameras in the tanks and night trainers on staff whose sole responsibility was to monitor the animals during the park’s closed hours, the circumstances surrounding Daniel Dukes’s death still remain largely a mystery.

Despite two deaths, Tilikum’s trainers were still performing shows with him, giving him cues from the side of the tank without barriers. On February 24, 2010, that would all change.

During a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando, veteran animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was conducting a “relationship session” with Tilikum when he dragged her into the pool. The 11-ton orca mutilated her in a 45-minute attack, with her autopsy report documenting injuries not limited to blunt force injuries to her torso, blunt force injuries to her head and neck, and evidence of drowning. Tilikum reportedly severed her spinal cord, bit off her arm, and scalped her. 

Similar to the horrifying situation with Keltie Byrne, Dawn Brancheau’s body was unable to be recovered for hours after her death.

While the captivity industry—specifically SeaWorld officials—blamed Dawn’s death on her, citing “trainer error,” multiple former SeaWorld trainers dispute this claim. Despite four deaths by SeaWorld-owned orcas, the company argued in the US Court of Appeals that “contact with killer whales is essential to the product offered by SeaWorld.”

As a transient orca, Tilikum would have naturally been aggressive to establish territorial boundaries when his pod would be passing through areas and to hunt a wide variety of large prey.

Life in captivity, which cannot in any way replicate the needs of an animal who spends their days swimming and diving hundreds of miles while interacting with their pods and catching prey, is likely to have contributed to Tilikum’s aggression due to psychological suffering.

Tilikum died from a bacterial lung infection on January 6, 2017 after months of battling illnesses. He suffered in captivity for 33 years, but many of his descendants still live and perform for crowds at SeaWorld parks.

Wild animals, even if they’re born in captivity like the 21 calves Tilikum sired, retain their wild instincts. According to Sam Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer who worked with Tilikum, 54% of the killer whales in SeaWorld facilities have Tilikum’s genes, as he had been their “most successful breeder.” Berg states that Tilikum should have never been allowed to breed, especially with his aggressive tendencies (we agree, and no cetaceans should be bred in captivity to create new generations of performers).

Tilikum’s offspring have shown that the aggressive instincts of transient orcas have passed down through generations, as Kyuquot almost killed his trainer, Steve Aibel, by jumping on top of him in attempts to keep him underwater. The attack, which took place on July 24, 2004, lasted an astonishing ten minutes while onlookers watched and recorded the horrifying event.

Kyuquot, who still resides at SeaWorld San Antonio, is Tilikum’s first-born and the son of Haida II, who was involved in the death of Keltie Byrne. He was removed from shows in 2004, kept out of public view and banned from working with trainers after the attack. Kyuquot went on to sire the last orca calf born at SeaWorld parks, Kyara, despite clear inherited (and natural) aggression.

There have been no documented fatal attacks of humans from any orcas in the wild, yet captive orcas have been recorded trying to kill, maim, and otherwise attack people interacting with them. World Animal Protection and the Animal Welfare Institute have documented the psychological effects of marine mammal captivity in our report: The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity (specific discussion of “The Blackfish Effect” starts on page 87). While there are many captive orca attacks that have not ended in the death of their trainers, they could have easily done so.

According to the report:

“[T]he dangers posed by orca aggression were so well known that the leading marine mammal veterinary handbook … called this aggression “a grave concern” and noted that some situations had resulted in “potentially life threatening incidents.”

While SeaWorld announced its intention to end its killer whale breeding program in March 2016 in the United States, orcas are still suffering at their parks around the world. SeaWorld continues to breed other species, including bottlenose and pacific-sided dolphins and are highly focused on the continued breeding of captive beluga whales. Both dolphins and beluga whales perform circus-style tricks at SeaWorld facilities.

Dolphins at SeaWorld.

In 2019, World Animal Protection US called out SeaWorld San Antonio for being one of a dozen worldwide venues utilizing demeaning and unnatural animal performances for profits. To this day, the venue continues to force animals, including orcas, to perform.

World Animal Protection urges everyone who loves orcas and was moved by Tilikum’s story to never visit amusement parks where wild animals are kept captive and forced to perform for entertainment.

Protect marine animals further by supporting the SWIMS Act, which would phase out the exploitation of orcas, beluga whales, pilot whales, and false killer whales by making it illegal to capture and breed these animals for public display.

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Hero image credit: Creative Commons / Milan Boers

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