Tilikum (killer whale)

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Tilikum (orca) (Shamu).jpg
Tilikum during a 2009 performance at SeaWorld
SpeciesKiller whale (Orcinus orca)
Bornc. December 1981
Died (aged 35)
Orlando, Florida
Years active1983–2016
Known forInvolvement in the deaths of three people
Offspring21 (10 alive as of January 2017)
Weight12,500 lb (5,700 kg)

Tilikum (c. December 1981[1] – January 6, 2017), nicknamed Tilly,[2] was a captive killer whale who spent most of his life performing at SeaWorld Orlando. He was captured in Iceland in 1983 at Hafnarfjörður, near Reykjavík. About a year later, he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.[3] He was subsequently transferred in 1992 to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.[3] He sired 21 calves, of which ten are still alive as of 2017.

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


Tilikum was the largest killer whale 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]


In the Chinook Jargon of the Pacific Northwest, his name 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 killer whales, by a purse-seine net in November 1983, at Berufjörður, Iceland.[3] After almost a year in a tank at the Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo, he was transferred to Sealand of the Pacific,[3] in Oak Bay, a suburb of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada. At Sealand, he lived with two older female killer whales named Haida II and Nootka IV. As a result of their 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 killer whale attacks on humans in the wild are rare, and no fatal attacks have been recorded,[13] as of 2019 four humans have died due to interactions with captive killer whales.[14][15][16][17] Tilikum was involved in three of those deaths.

First death

On February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, slipped and fell into the pool containing Tilikum, Haida II, and Nootka IV while working as a part-time Sealand of the Pacific trainer. The three whales submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing.[12] At one point, she reached the side and tried to climb out, but the whales pulled her back into the pool. Other trainers threw her a life-ring, but the animals kept her away from it, ignoring the trainer's recall commands.[18] She surfaced three times before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool.[19][20][21][22][23]

Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando on January 9, 1992.[24] Sealand of the Pacific closed soon afterward.[25]

Second death

On July 6, 1999, a 27-year-old man, Daniel P. Dukes, was found dead over Tilikum's back in his sleeping pool.[26] Dukes had visited SeaWorld the previous day, stayed after the park closed, and evaded security to enter the tank unclothed. An autopsy found numerous wounds, contusions, and abrasions covering his body, and his genitals had been bitten off,[27][28] all allegedly caused by Tilikum.[29] Despite numerous cameras around and inside the pool that are supposed to monitor the well-being of the whales, SeaWorld claims the event was not captured.[30] The autopsy concluded that Dukes' cause of death was drowning. The medical examiner reports that no drugs or alcohol were found in Dukes' system.[3][29][31][32]

Third death

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer.[33][34] Brancheau was killed following a Dine with Shamu show. The veteran trainer was rubbing Tilikum as part of a post-show routine when the killer whale grabbed her by her ponytail and pulled her into the water.[35][36][37] Some witnesses reported seeing Tilikum grab Brancheau by the arm or shoulder. He reportedly scalped her then bit off her arm and swallowed it[38][39] during the attack.[40][41] Brancheau's autopsy indicated death by drowning and blunt force trauma.[42]

Return to performing

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 has restricted close contact between orcas and trainers and reinforced safety precautions on the workplace after Dawn Brancheau's death.[43] 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. He resumed performing in April 2012.[44]


Tilikum had 21 offspring in captivity, 11 of which were alive as of November 2013.[45]

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 24th, 1991. Just a few months prior to the birth of Kyuquot, Tilikum was involved in the first incident involving a death. Seaworld requested an emergency transfer of Tilikum to their facility.

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 9th, 1993. Taku died on October 17th, 2007.

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

In 1999, Tilikum began training for artificial insemination (AI). 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 1st, 2001. On May 3rd, 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."[46] On December 8th, 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".[47]

Tilikum and the captivity of other killer whales is the main subject of the documentary film Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013[48] and caused a drop in SeaWorld attendance and revenue.[49] 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.[50][51]

Declining health and death

SeaWorld announced in March 2016 Tilikum's health was deteriorating, and it was thought he had a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia, a common cause of death in captive and wild whales and dolphins. In May 2016, it was reported Tilikum's health was improving.[52][53] On January 6th, 2017, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died early in the morning.[54][55] The cause of death was reported as a bacterial infection.[56]

See also


  1. ^ Document shown in documentary Blackfish states "born 12/1981"
  2. ^ "Intentions of Whale in Killing Are Debated". The New York Times. February 26, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e 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. ^ "The Trio of Deaths – Keltie Byrne". Dolphin Project. February 21, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  6. ^ Staff, Lenny Savino of The Sentinel. "MAN IN WHALE TANK WAS DRIFTER". OrlandoSentinel.com. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  7. ^ "Why Tilikum, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, Was Infamous". National Geographic News. January 6, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  8. ^ "Tilikum, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, is Dying". National Geographic. March 10, 2016.
  9. ^ "Tilikum". cetacousin.bplaced.net. Cetacean Cousins. Archived from the original on August 13, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  10. ^ "SeaWorld Fact Check - Dorsal Fin Collapse". www.seaworldfactcheck.com. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  11. ^ Watson, Kenneth (Greg) (July 2002). "Chinook Jargon". White River Journal. White River Valley Museum. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  12. ^ a b "Inside Seaworld – The Tilikum Transaction". PBS Frontline.
  13. ^ "Killer Whale Attacks". Whale Facts. April 5, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  14. ^ "The Trio of Deaths – Keltie Byrne". Dolphin Project. February 21, 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  15. ^ "Trio of Deaths: The Portrayal of Daniel Dukes". Dolphin Project. March 7, 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  16. ^ "Seven Years On: Revisiting the Death of Dawn Brancheau". Dolphin Project. February 20, 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  17. ^ "Footage Shows Captive Orca Ramming Its Head Against Gate". Planet Experts. April 27, 2016. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  18. ^ Zimmermann, Tim (July 30, 2010). "The Killer in the Pool". Outside Online. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  19. ^ Hoyt, Eric (1992). "The Performing Orcas – why the show must stop". Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
  20. ^ Zimmerman, Tim (2011). "The Killer in the Pool". The Best American Sampler 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 336.
  21. ^ "Trainer dragged to death by whales". Toronto Star. February 21, 1991.
  22. ^ Helm, Denise (March 4, 2010). "Tilikum incident still haunts Wright". Oak Bay News.
  23. ^ "Sealand opens its doors for first show since drowning". The Vancouver Sun. March 4, 1991.
  24. ^ Troubled orca's early history - CNN Video, retrieved August 14, 2019
  25. ^ "Oak Bay Marine Group timeline". Archived from the original on June 24, 2012.
  26. ^ "Corpse Is Found on Whale". The New York Times. July 6, 1999. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  27. ^ "Blackfish: A killer whale gone very bad". Macleans.ca. July 8, 2013. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
  28. ^ Hargrove, John (January 10, 2017). "Life and death of Tilikum: "Notorious" orca's death yet another cry for help for captive killer whales". Salon. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
  29. ^ a b Bonner, Stayton (July 7, 1999). "Daniel Dukes' Medical Examiners Report". Scribd. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
  30. ^ "Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer". National Geographic News. August 4, 2013. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  31. ^ Greene, Leonard (February 27, 2010). "SeaWorld whale mauls and kills trainer in front of audience". New York Post. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  32. ^ "Park Is Sued Over Death of Man in Whale Tank". The New York Times. September 29, 1999. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  33. ^ "SeaWorld trainer killed by killer whale". CNN. February 25, 2010. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  34. ^ Ed Pilkington (February 25, 2010). "Killer whale Tilikum to be spared after drowning trainer by ponytail". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  35. ^ Ed Pilkington. "Killer whale Tilikum to be spared after drowning trainer by ponytail". the Guardian.
  36. ^ "People in the News". The Week UK. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  37. ^ "New details emerge in death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer in orca incident". Los Angeles Times. February 24, 2010. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  38. ^ "Blackfish: when killer whales attack". The Telegraph. November 10, 2015. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
  39. ^ Schiavo, Amanda (November 13, 2013). "SeaWorld Killer Whale: 4 Things To Know About Tilikum And The Captive Cetacean Controversy [VIDEO]". Latin Times. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
  40. ^ Soltis, Andy (March 3, 2010). "30-minute nightmare in orca's death grip". New York Post.
  41. ^ Rapp, Goldie (January 17, 2017). "Tilikum is dead, but his story lives on". Putnam County Record.
  42. ^ "Autopsy report" (PDF). Office of the Medical examiner, district nine, FL. Retrieved February 9, 2014.
  43. ^ "US Labor Department's OSHA cites SeaWorld of Florida following animal trainer's death | Occupational Safety and Health Administration". www.osha.gov. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  44. ^ "SeaWorld Tilikum sick". Orlando Sentinel. December 22, 2011. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  45. ^ Fielding, James (November 17, 2013). "SeaWorld whale that 'killed' three still being used to breed, former worker claims". Express UK.
  46. ^ "Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm" (PDF). TMZ. December 7, 2010.
  47. ^ Gina Serpe (December 8, 2010). "Tommy Lee Is Against Whale Masturbation. Who Isn't?". eonline.com. E! News.
  48. ^ Kinosian, Janet. "Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite gets in deep with 'Blackfish'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  49. ^ "Seaworld's Profits Drop 84% After 'Blackfish' Documentary". Time. Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  50. ^ Duke, Alan. "Barenaked Ladies' SeaWorld gig is off after viewing 'Blackfish'". Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  51. ^ David, John P. "Blackfish Backlash Continues". The Huffington Post. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  52. ^ "Caring for Tilikum The Killer Whale". seaworldcares.com. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  53. ^ "Tilikum, Subject of Documentary 'Blackfish,' Very Ill – SeaWorld of Hurt". SeaWorld of Hurt. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  54. ^ "SeaWorld: Tilikum, orca that killed trainer, has died". WFLA-TV. January 6, 2017.
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  56. ^ "Tilikum the SeaWorld orca's cause of death revealed". Global News. Retrieved February 4, 2017.

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