The True and Tragic Story of Tilikum, SeaWorld's Captive Orca

Orcas are known as "killer whales" because they are apex predators. In the wild, highly social killer whales prey on sharks, seals, dolphins and even other whales.

Then there are captive orcas like Tilikum, the world's most infamous killer whale. When it comes to tales of killer whales harming humans, Tilikum's story is the most notorious.

Tilikum's Early Life

Tilikum, also known as Tilly, was a male orca whale (Orcinus orca) captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, when he was about 2 years old.

After his capture, the young orca lived at Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo in south Iceland for about a year before he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sealand of the Pacific

At Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum sired his first offspring, Kyuquot, who now lives at SeaWorld San Antonio.

On February 20, 1991, Tilikum — along with Kyuquot's mother, Haida II, and another Sealand orca, Nootka IV — forcibly submerged 20-year-old Sealand trainer Keltie Bryne after she fell into the whale pool. Haida II was pregnant with Kyuquot at the time.

Bryne's death marked the first time that orcas in captivity had killed a human.

After Kyuquot's birth, the two older female orcas became aggressive toward Tilikum, who had to be isolated in the medical pool. In 1992, Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, and Sealand of the Pacific closed shortly after.

Tilikum's Life at SeaWorld Orlando

Tilikum spent the remainder of his life at SeaWorld Orlando, where he sired 20 more offspring and performed in some of SeaWorld's most popular shows.

Death of Daniel Dukes

In July 1999, Tilikum was involved in another tragic death. The body of 27-year-old Daniel Dukes was found dead in Tilikum's tank after Dukes hid at SeaWorld after closing. Because there were no witnesses, the details of Dukes's death remain unclear.

Death of SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau

In February 2010, after a "Dine With Shamu" show, Tilikum killed his trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau was giving Tilikum his usual post-show massage when the orca pulled her into the pool and forcibly submerged her.

Dawn Brancheau's death led to new rules preventing SeaWorld trainers from coming into close contact with captive orcas. After the incident, SeaWorld Orlando trainers continued to work with Tilikum but used high-pressure hoses to massage him.

Tilikum's Death and Legacy

Tilikum was the subject of the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which suggested that keeping large marine mammals like killer whales in captivity could be harmful for their mental health.

"Blackfish" led many to question SeaWorld's treatment of its captive orcas, and whether humans should be keeping orcas in captivity at all. Following the film's release, SeaWorld San Diego ended its orca performances.

In 2016, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum's health was declining due to a bacterial lung infection that would likely kill him. Tilikum died in 2017 in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando. He was about 35 years old.

Original article: The True and Tragic Story of Tilikum, SeaWorld's Captive Orca

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