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Tilikum (orca)

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Tilikum during a 2009 performance at SeaWorld
SpeciesOrca (Orcinus orca)
Bornc. December 1981
Died6 January 2017(2017-01-06) (aged 35)
Orlando, Florida, US
Years active1983–2016
Known forInvolvement in the deaths of three people
  • Haida II
  • Nootka IV
  • Katina
  • Gudrun
  • Kalina
  • Taima
  • Takara
  • Kyuquot (son)
  • Calf (son)
  • Taku (son)
  • Nyar (daughter)
  • Unna (daughter)
  • Sumar (son)
  • Tuar (son)
  • Tekoa (son)
  • Nakai (son)
  • Kohana (daughter)
  • Ikaika (son)
  • Skyla (daughter)
  • Malia (daughter)
  • Sakari (daughter)
  • Makaio (son)
(7 alive as of May 2024)
Weight12,500 lb (5,700 kg)

Tilikum (c. December 1981[1] – 6 January 2017), nicknamed Tilly,[2] was a captive male orca who spent most of his life at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. He was captured in Iceland in 1983; about a year later, he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.[3] He was subsequently transferred in 1992 to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he sired 21 calves throughout his life.[3]

Tilikum was heavily featured in CNN Films' 2013 documentary Blackfish, which claims that orcas in captivity suffer psychological damage and become unnaturally aggressive.[4] Of the four fatal attacks by orcas in captivity, Tilikum was involved in three: Keltie Byrne,[5] a trainer at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific; Daniel P. Dukes, a man trespassing in SeaWorld Orlando;[6] and SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.[7]


Tilikum was the largest orca in captivity.[8] He measured 22.5 feet (6.9 m) long and weighed about 12,500 pounds (5,700 kg).[9] His pectoral fins were 7 feet (2.1 m) long, his fluke curled under, and his 6.5-foot-tall (2.0 m) dorsal fin was collapsed completely to his left side.[10]

His name, in the Chinook Jargon of the Pacific Northwest, means "friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people".[11]


Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando (2009)


Tilikum was captured when he was two years old, along with two other young orcas, by a purse-seine net in November 1983, at Berufjörður in eastern Iceland.[3] After almost a year in a tank at the Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo, he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, in Oak Bay, a suburb of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada.[3] At Sealand, he lived with two older female orcas named Haida II and Nootka IV. As a result of orcas' matriarchal social structure, Tilikum was abused by Haida II and Nootka IV who behaved aggressively towards him, including forcing him into a smaller medical pool where trainers kept him for protection.[12]


While orca attacks on humans in the wild are rare, and no fatal attacks have been recorded,[13] as of 2024 four humans have died due to interactions with captive orcas.[5][14][15][16] Tilikum was involved in three of those deaths.

First death[edit]

Keltie Lee Byrne (December 6, 1970 – February 20, 1991) was a 20 year-old Canadian student, animal trainer and competitive swimmer. She had been working with orcas Tilikum, Nootka IV, and Haida II at Sealand of the Pacific to earn extra money.[17] On February 20, 1991, Byrne was working a shift when she slipped and fell into the whale pool. Witnesses recalled that Byrne screamed and panicked after realizing that one of the whales was holding her foot and dragging her underwater.[18] According to the coroner's report, rescue attempts were thwarted by the whales, who refused to let Byrne go even after she was believed to have fallen unconscious in the water. Her corpse was later retrieved with a large net, after which she was determined to be deceased. Her death was ruled an accident.[19][20]

Shortly after the accident, Sealand management made the decision to sell all of its orcas to SeaWorld and, eventually, to close the park entirely. On January 3, 1992, SeaWorld applied to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a temporary emergency permit to bring Tilikum to the United States due to concerns for his health. He had been the subject of systematic aggression from Nootka and Haida after the latter gave birth to a calf, Kyuquot, on December 24, 1991, and was confined in a small medical pool that was only slightly larger than he was. The application was approved on January 8, 1992, and Tilikum was immediately moved to SeaWorld Orlando.[21]

Byrne's death attracted renewed attention after the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which discusses Tilikum's involvement in Byrne's death as well as the deaths of Daniel P. Dukes and later Brancheau. The latter two deaths occurred after Tilikum had been sold by Sealand of the Pacific to SeaWorld.[22] Experts interviewed for Blackfish stated that it was unclear what drove Tilikum and the other whales to attack Byrne, but suggested that years of abuse and cruelty towards Tilikum, including allowing the other whales to rake Tilikum's skin with their teeth until he bled, had made him an aggressive whale. Steve Huxter, head of animal training at Sealand at the time, said, "They never had a plaything in the pool that was so interactive. They just got incredibly excited and stimulated."[23] No official motive of the three whales has ever been established, as the case was over twenty years old by the time it resurfaced in relation to the death of Dawn Brancheau.

Second death[edit]

Daniel P. Dukes was a 27-year-old man from South Carolina and his death was the second of three attributed to Tilikum. SeaWorld claimed that Dukes was a vagrant who climbed into Tilikum's pool and drowned, while the coroner's report, along with animal rights advocates for Tilikum, have pointed out that Dukes's corpse was found severely mutilated by the whale. Dukes was generally regarded by the media as a trespasser and nuisance rather than a direct victim of Tilikum, although this perception has been challenged with the release of the documentary Blackfish.[24]

Little has been published in the media regarding the early life of Dukes. A known drifter with a love of nature and environmentalism, he was known for acts of petty theft and general vagrancy.[25][24] These details were often brought up by SeaWorld. At some point on the night on July 6, 1999, Dukes, who had hidden inside the park after it closed, went to the whale pool where Tilikum was held. The following morning, his body was discovered in the water by SeaWorld staff, draped over Tilikum's backside as the whale swam around. As SeaWorld claims to have no security tape footage of the pool on that night, it is unclear exactly what transpired.[26] According to the Orange County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) report, a 911 call was received from SeaWorld at 7:25 a.m., at almost the exact time that Dukes's body was spotted. OCSO immediately dispatched Detective Calhoun who arrived at SeaWorld eight minutes later. Dukes's corpse was retrieved and later identified.[27]

Dukes's parents filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld two months after their son's death. The lawsuit was later dropped.[28]

The 2013 documentary Blackfish was the first media to explore Dukes's death extensively.[24] The lack of early coverage of his death later became noted for the way that the media and investigators handle the deaths of homeless and mentally ill individuals, particularly the lack of dignity ascribed to such cases. The Dolphin Project argued against SeaWorld's unflattering description of Dukes as a filthy man with poor hygiene spotted at the park mumbling oddly to himself, stating that "Daniel Dukes was a troubled individual with a history of petty thefts, and questionable decisions but as a human being, no death is meaningless. Unwittingly, Dukes will forever be remembered as Tilikum's second victim and SeaWorld's first major incident."[29]

The case of Dukes's death has become a frequent example in arguments over the welfare of marine mammals in captivity. Marine mammal trainer Ric O'Barry argued that Dukes was probably not near Tilikum's tank with any form of malicious intent, but instead that the nature-loving man was "fascinated" by the whale and wanted to visit it. He further argued, "I think the whale probably pulled [Dukes] down, held him underwater. I don't think they know how often we breathe. The problem is that the whales have nothing better to do," O'Barry explains. "They're bored. We literally bore them to death. It's like you living in the bathroom for your life."[26]

Third death[edit]

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer.[30][31] Brancheau was killed following a Dine with Shamu show. The veteran trainer was rubbing Tilikum as part of a post-show routine when the orca grabbed her and pulled her into the water.[31][32][33] SeaWorld stated that Tilikum had grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail, although some witnesses reported seeing him grab her by the arm or shoulder. He scalped her, then bit off her arm during the attack.[34][35] Brancheau's autopsy indicated death by drowning and blunt force trauma.[36] Brancheau's death resulted in a contentious legal case over the safety of working with orcas and the ethics of keeping live whales and other marine mammals in captivity.[37][38][39]

Return to performing[edit]

Tilikum returned to performing on March 30, 2011. High-pressure water hoses were used to massage him, rather than hands, and removable guardrails were used on the platforms, as OSHA restricted close contact between orcas and trainers, and reinforced workplace safety precautions after Brancheau's death.[40] He was paired with his grandson Trua and was often seen performing alongside him during the finale of the new One Ocean show. He had on occasion been kept with his daughter Malia, or both Trua and Malia at the same time.[citation needed] In December 2011, he was put on hiatus from the shows following an undisclosed illness, and resumed performing in April 2012.[41]

Declining health and death[edit]

SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that Tilikum's health was deteriorating, and it was thought he had a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia. In May 2016, it was reported Tilikum's health was improving.[42][43] On January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died early in the morning.[44] The cause of death was reported as a bacterial infection.[45]


Tilikum sired 21 offspring in captivity, seven of which are alive as of April 2024.[46]

While at Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum sired his first calf when he was about eight or nine years old. His first son, Kyuquot, was born to Haida II on December 24, 1991. Kyuquot and his mother were transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio in January 1993, a year after Tilikum was moved to Seaworld Orlando. Kyuquot has remained at the San Antonio park ever since.

Following his arrival at SeaWorld, Tilikum sired many calves with many different females. His first calf born in Orlando was to Katina. Katina gave birth to Taku on September 9, 1993. Taku died on October 17, 2007.

Among Tilikum's other offspring are: Nyar (1993–1996), Unna (1996–2015), Sumar (1998–2010), Tuar (1999), Tekoa (2000), Nakai (2001–2022), Kohana (2002–2022), Ikaika (2002), Skyla (2004–2021), Malia (2007), Sakari (2010) and Makaio (2010).

In 1999, Tilikum began training for artificial insemination. In early 2000, Kasatka who resided at SeaWorld San Diego was artificially inseminated using his sperm. She gave birth to Tilikum's son, Nakai, on September 1, 2001. On May 3, 2002, another female in San Diego, named Takara, bore Tilikum's calf through artificial insemination. Tilikum was also the first successful, surviving grandfather orca in captivity with the births of Trua (2005), Nalani (2006), Adán (2010) and Victoria (2012–2013).


On December 7, 2010, TMZ reported that SeaWorld's president, Terry Prather, received a letter from PETA and Mötley Crüe member Tommy Lee referencing SeaWorld's announcement regarding limiting human contact with Tilikum. In the letter, Lee refers to Tilikum as SeaWorld's "Chief sperm bank" and asserts that the relevant process constitutes continued human contact. The letter implores SeaWorld to release Tilikum from his tank, stating, "I hope it doesn't take another tragic death for SeaWorld to realize it shouldn't frustrate these smart animals by keeping them [confined] in tanks."[47] On December 8, 2010, the SeaWorld VP of Communications responded to Lee's letter via E! News, stating that PETA's facts were not only inaccurate, but that SeaWorld trainers also "do not now, nor have they ever entered the water with Tilikum for this purpose".[48]

Tilikum and the captivity of orcas is the main subject of the documentary film Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013[49] and caused a drop in SeaWorld attendance and revenue.[50] The film and a subsequent online petition led to several popular musical groups cancelling performances at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens' "Bands, Brew & BBQ" event in 2014.[51][52]

In popular culture[edit]

Aside from Blackfish, a number of books have been written about Tilikum:

  • Kirby, David (2012). Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1250002020.
  • Zimmerman, Tim (2014). Killer in the Pool. New Word City. ISBN 978-1-61230-163-1.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Document shown in documentary Blackfish states "born 12/1981".
  2. ^ Cave, Damien (February 26, 2010). "Intentions of Whale in Killing Are Debated". The New York Times.
  3. ^ a b c d Zimmermann, Tim (July 30, 2010). "The Killer in the Pool". Outside Online. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  4. ^ "Tilikum, the orca featured in Blackfish doc and blamed for deaths of 3 people, has died". CBC. January 6, 2017.
  5. ^ a b "The Trio of Deaths – Keltie Byrne". Dolphin Project. February 21, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  6. ^ Savino, Lenny (July 8, 1999). "Man In Whale Tank Was Drifter". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  7. ^ Howard, Brian Clark (January 6, 2017). "Why Tilikum, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, Was Infamous". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on August 2, 2019. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  8. ^ Zimmermann, Tim (March 10, 2016). "Tilikum, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, is Dying". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on March 11, 2016.
  9. ^ "Tilikum". Cetacean Cousins. Archived from the original on August 13, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  10. ^ "Dorsal Fin Collapse". SeaWorld Fact Check. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  11. ^ Watson, Kenneth (Greg) (July 2002). "Chinook Jargon". White River Journal. White River Valley Museum. Archived from the original on November 20, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  12. ^ "Inside Seaworld – The Tilikum Transaction". PBS Frontline.
  13. ^ "Killer Whale Attacks". Whale Facts. April 5, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  14. ^ Batt, Elizabeth (March 7, 2017). "Trio of Deaths: The Portrayal of Daniel Dukes". Dolphin Project. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  15. ^ Batt, Elizabeth (February 20, 2017). "Seven Years On: Revisiting the Death of Dawn Brancheau". Dolphin Project. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  16. ^ "Footage Shows Captive Orca Ramming Its Head Against Gate". Planet Experts. April 27, 2016. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  17. ^ Lavender, Jane. "Three SeaWorld orcas 'driven mad by captivity' ganged up to kill student, 20, in horrifying attack". www.mirror.co.uk. Mirror UK. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  18. ^ Kuo, Vivian. "Orca trainer saw best of Keiko, worst of Tilikum". www.cnn.com. CNN News. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  19. ^ Messier, Dianne. "Verdict of Coroner's Inquest" (PDF). theorcaproject.files.wordpress.com. The Orca Project. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  20. ^ "The Death of Keltie Byrne". www.teenink.com. TeenInk.
  21. ^ "Inside Seaworld - The Tilikum Transaction". PBS.
  22. ^ Fisher, Gavin. "Tilikum's former trainer says dying orca was once 'gentle, passive'". www.cbc.ca. CBC News. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  23. ^ Bellotti, Alex. "'Psychotic' life of SeaWorld orca Tilikum - 'forced drugs', bullied and deadly games". www.mirror.co.uk. Mirror UK. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  24. ^ a b c Blackfish (documentary). Magnolia Pictures. 2013.
  25. ^ Savino, Lenny (July 8, 1999). "Man In Whale Tank Was Drifter". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  26. ^ a b Edward, Ericson Jr. (July 15, 1999). "Water torture". Orlando Weekly. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  27. ^ Batt, Elizabeth. "Trio of Deaths: The Portrayal of Daniel Dukes". www.dolphinproject.com. The Dolphin Project. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  28. ^ "Park Is Sued Over Death of Man in Whale Tank". The New York Times. Associated Press. September 21, 1999. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  29. ^ Batt, Elizabeth. "Trio of Deaths: The Portrayal of Daniel Dukes". www.dolphinproject.com. The Dolphin Project. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  30. ^ "SeaWorld trainer killed by killer whale". CNN. February 25, 2010. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  31. ^ a b Pilkington, Ed (February 25, 2010). "Killer whale Tilikum to be spared after drowning trainer by ponytail". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  32. ^ Ferran, Lee; Goldman, Russell (February 24, 2010). "SeaWorld Curator: Ponytail Likely Caused Fatal Killer Whale Attack". ABC News. Archived from the original on May 15, 2016. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  33. ^ "New details emerge in death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer in orca incident". Los Angeles Times. February 24, 2010. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  34. ^ Soltis, Andy (March 3, 2010). "30-minute nightmare in orca's death grip". New York Post.
  35. ^ Rapp, Goldie (January 17, 2017). "Tilikum is dead, but his story lives on". Putnam County Record. Archived from the original on April 10, 2020.
  36. ^ "Autopsy report for Dawn Brancheau" (PDF). Office of the Medical examiner, district nine, FL. Retrieved February 9, 2014.
  37. ^ Garcia, Jason. "Blackstone chief blames Brancheau for own death, contradicting Seaworld". www.orlandosentinel.com. Olando Sentinel. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  38. ^ Mooney, Mark. "SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Whale Had Fractured Jaw and Dislocated Joints". abcnews.go.com. ABC News. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  39. ^ "'The Killer in the Pool': A Story that Started a Movement". Outside Online. July 30, 2010. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  40. ^ "US Labor Department's OSHA cites SeaWorld of Florida following animal trainer's death". Occupational Safety and Health Administration. August 23, 2010. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  41. ^ Garcia, Jason (December 22, 2011). "SeaWorld whale Tilikum battles illness". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  42. ^ "Caring for Tilikum The Killer Whale". SeaWorld Cares.com. Archived from the original on March 10, 2016. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  43. ^ "Tilikum, Subject of Documentary 'Blackfish,' Very Ill". SeaWorld of Hurt. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  44. ^ "SeaWorld: Tilikum, orca that killed trainer, has died". WFLA-TV. Associated Press. January 6, 2017. Archived from the original on February 4, 2017. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  45. ^ "Tilikum the SeaWorld orca's cause of death revealed". Global News. Retrieved February 4, 2017.
  46. ^ "Captive Orcas". Inherently Wild. Retrieved April 2, 2024.
  47. ^ "Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm" (PDF). TMZ. December 7, 2010.
  48. ^ Serpe, Gina (December 8, 2010). "Tommy Lee Is Against Whale Masturbation. Who Isn't?". E! News. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
  49. ^ Kinosian, Janet. "Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite gets in deep with 'Blackfish'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  50. ^ "Seaworld's Profits Drop 84% After 'Blackfish' Documentary". Time. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  51. ^ Duke, Alan. "Barenaked Ladies' SeaWorld gig is off after viewing 'Blackfish'". CNN. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  52. ^ David, John P. "Blackfish Backlash Continues". The Huffington Post. Retrieved December 27, 2013.

External links[edit]