Tilikum: A captive giant

I was planning to upload a totally different post today, but in light of recent news, this one feels more appropriate…

On Friday 6th January, it was announced that Tilikum, a SeaWorld Orca, had died, aged just 35.

Tilikum was the subject of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which took a look at life inside SeaWorld and in particular, the life of one Orca – Tilikum. I watched the documentary a few months ago now and I felt slightly ashamed at having been so excited to see Shamu at SeaWorld when I visited with my family as a child.

My family as a whole are much more clued up about things like this now, and personally, the thought of watching an animal forced to entertain me in a ‘show’ makes me feel slightly repulsed.

Photo courtesy of Born Free

Blackfish underscored the problems within the sea-park industry and in man’s relationship with nature. Featuring interviews with trainers at the park, the documentary provided a glimpse behind the shows we’ve all heard about – but it also told the story behind the deaths of multiple trainers. Deaths caused by Tilikum but for which we are ultimately responsible.

About Tilikum

Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland and transferred to a marine zoo near Reykjavíc. He was held there for a year before being moved to a marine park – by which point he was just two years old. It’s worth noting that in the wild, offspring stay with their mothers their whole lives. Males only ever leave temporarily to find unrelated orcas to mate with – they always return to their own mother.

Tilikum was taken to a Canadian aquarium where he joined two female whales that often chased and bullied him. He was at the bottom of the social order.

Around seven years later, a trainer and marine biology student tripped and fell into the water where she died, having been dragged around the tank by Tilikum and the other two captive orcas.

Was this a sign of their frustration? I’m not an expert on whale behaviour, but these magnificent creatures were confined to relatively tiny spaces and kept in a social group that did not work. They must have been frustrated and bored – was this a result of those feelings?

Shortly after this incident, Tilikum became a father but he was still isolated from the group. He was eventually moved to SeaWorld Orlando and during his time there, he became part of a regular show for visitors. But in the years that followed there were to be two more deaths. One was a 27-year-old man who snuck past security to stay in SeaWorld overnight and was found the next morning draped over Tilikum’s back. The other was veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau who was dragged into the pool by Tilikum during a post-show routine. She died from drowning and severe blunt force trauma.

These facts are horrific and distressing. No doubt, the trainers who died loved the whales tremendously – Dawn, in particular, seemed to live for them. But if you love something that much, wouldn’t you want it to be free?

Interestingly, there has never been a documented fatal orca attack on a human in the wild – only in ‘parks’… (Information from TheMetro.co.uk)

The reality of captivity

A male orca, on average, can grow to be between 20-26 ft. long and weigh an average of 8,000 – 12,000 lbs. Tilikum was around 22.5 ft. long and weighed over 12,500 pounds. He was big.

Anything that size needs to be living in an unrestricted area – in his case, a vast expanse of ocean. But he was kept in a pool.

Photo courtesy of Born Free

We often hear about the dangers of captivity – the mental impact of living in confined spaces and the threat of boredom. Captive whales in particular have been reported as swimming frantically in circles, and repeatedly hitting their heads against the side of their tanks. This isn’t normal.

So when Tilikum’s death was announced, I thought back to Blackfish. I thought of the footage they showed which revealed how whales are captured – with boats herding whales up like sheep, forcing them into corners where there is no escape before taking the calves from the pod.

One hunter explained how they had caught a calf and separated it from the rest of the pod with nets. The adults were free and the rest of the ocean lay ahead of them. You’d think that they would swim away from danger and away from the boats.

But they didn’t.

The hunter described how the adults in the pod stayed near the boats all night communicating with the calf. They stayed despite the potential danger.

Whales are highly intelligent and they form strong relationships, just as we do. These whales stayed together because of those bonds. They stayed because they were waiting for their calf to be returned to them. They stayed because they were a unit.

The future

Born Free recently launched a campaign called Sanctuaries Not Tanks which focuses on the captivity of cetaceans and their treatment in marine parks.

It’s a campaign and an issue that has been in my mind a lot recently.

Whether you agree with animals being kept in captivity or not, taking them from their families in the wild and making them perform for our entertainment can be justified by no-one.

Photo courtesy of Born Free

Thankfully, in March last year, SeaWorld promised to abandon its breeding programs and entertainment performances to focus on educational endeavours. They said they were looking into enlarging their orca pens and said, “Society is changing and we’re changing with it. SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose and to inspire all our guests to take action to protect wild animals and wild places.”

On Sunday, SeaWorld San Diego hosted its final killer whale show. A good step certainly, but it seems that not all SeaWorld parks are to stop their shows – many of the orcas at other parks will still be performing. The shows, apparently, will change to focus on conservation messages – but what does that really mean?

It’s important to remember that SeaWorld aren’t the only ones at fault here.  There are still many other parks across the globe that need to phase out their shows and really look at the life they’re forcing upon these great creatures.

Tilikum was just 35 when he died. A whale which lived in the wild, named Granny by various research teams and organisations, is thought to have lived until 105. That speaks for itself.

If you love these amazing creatures – whether whales or dolphins – surely you would want them to be happy in the wild rather than forced into a tank to entertain us.

RIP Tilikum. May those in charge learn from your short life.


For more information, about Blackfish visit http://www.blackfishmovie.com/about

To find out more about the Born Free Foundation’s campaign for Sanctuaries not Tanks, please visit http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/zoo-check/captive-whales-dolphins/tanksnothanks/

To find out more about cetaceans like Tilikum, please visit the World Cetacean Alliance:  http://worldcetaceanalliance.org/

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