In our fifth and final blog on whales who’ve captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people, we take a closer look at Tilikum.   

The male orca featured in the compelling 2013 documentary Blackfish, which did a huge amount to sway people’s opinions against keeping orcas in captivity in marine theme parks.  

Tilikum’s story is a sad one, filled with so many instances where he suffered throughout his life. Ultimately, though, his story helped to create a ripple effect where marine theme parks came under greater scrutiny and public opinion has shifted.  

Early life, capture and captivity 

Tilikum was born in the waters off Iceland, likely sometime around December 1981. He was part of an extended pod of orcas, who stayed around Iceland. He would have been very close with his mother and other relatives, as orcas have very deep bonds with their familial pods.  

In November 1983, when he was just two years old, he was taken from the water along with two other orcas (Nandu and Samoa).  

Orcas don’t part easily with their children. As the abduction took place, male orcas in the group attempted to divert the humans while the female orcas and juveniles tried to swim the other way. Unfortunately a spotter plane relayed the whereabouts of the mothers and their offspring and that’s what led to the three orcas being taken.  

Tilikum, Nandu and Samoa were confined for a year at Hafnarfjörõur Marine Zoo near Reykjavík, Iceland.  

After being forcibly separated from his pod, Tilikum then had to endure being split up from the two other orcas. They were both sold to a facility in Brazil where Nandu died in 1988. Samoa was resold to SeaWorld, where she died in 1992 from a fungal infection, at the young age of 12.   

Sealand of the Pacific 

Tilikum was sold to Sealand of the Pacific, located on Vancouver Island in Canada. The plane trip from Iceland to the west coast of Canada was a long and presumably arduous one for the young orca. We can only imagine what that experience would have been like for an animal who belongs in the open water.  

In Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum was placed in a tank that was woefully inadequate for a whale of his size (and he was still growing at the time). The tank was just 30 metres by 18 metres with a depth of just under 11 metres.  

His companions were two Pacific Northwest orcas, Haida II and Nootka IV. Tilikum was from Iceland so it should have been considered at the outset that there would be issues around communication.  

Haida II and Nootka IV were also older female orcas who had become accustomed to each other and their own space, something that a three-year-old male orca was naturally going to disrupt.  

The film Blackfish documents the bullying that was inflicted on Tilikum by the two whales and what created this harassment (lack of space, differences in communication, gender and age).  

It also shows that when Tilikum did not perform to the satisfaction of the trainers, food was deprived from all three orcas. This obviously created an unbearable tension between the three captive animals.   

Often times, Tilikum was forced to retreat into a smaller medical pool, to avoid being physically raked by the other two (raking is when whales use their teeth against the skin of another whale). Trainers would keep him there for his own protection for extended periods of time.  

In February 1991, a young trainer at the aquarium, Keltie Lee Byrne, slipped and fell into the whale pool. Witnesses said she screamed and panicked when she realised one of the whales (later identified as Tilikum) was holding her foot in his mouth and dragging her underwater.  

Rescue attempts were unsuccessful as the whales initially refused to let Keltie go, and when she was retrieved from the water, it was sadly too late. The 20-year-old’s death was later ruled an accident.  

No fatal attacks on humans by orcas had ever been recorded before this. And, tragically, this was not the be the last one involving Tilikum. 

After the birth of a calf to Haida II, Tilikum was kept in the smaller medical pool 24 hours a day. Even when the gate to the main pool was left open and Tilikum ventured out, he would quickly get chased back by the two female orcas, who felt protective of the calf.  

For weeks before he moved to SeaWorld Orlando in 1999, he stayed confined in this small space measuring seven metres wide and 3.6 metres deep. At the time, he was six metres long, meaning there was barely enough room for him to turn around.  



It had become clear that Sealand of the Pacific could no longer look after Tilikum (incidentally, it eventually closed for good in November 1992). And he was an attractive prospect to other marine theme parks because of his ability to sire lucrative orca calves.  

So, in 1992, Tilikum and Nootka IV were sold to SeaWorld Orlando, and Haida II and her baby Kyuquot were sold to SeaWorld Antonio. Tilikum faced another plane trip, this time from the west coast of Canada right down to the south east tip of the United States.  

He would go on to spend 24 years at SeaWorld, in a tank that was much smaller and nothing like the expanse of sea he swam in off Iceland. Tilikum was well known for his large size, measuring 6.7 metres long and weighing in at 11,800 lbs (5.3 tonnes). He was twice as large as the next orca being held in SeaWorld Orlando.  

Tilikum is said to have sired 14 calves in the years he was at SeaWorld. Blackfish reveals how he was trained to roll onto his back so that employees could masturbate him with a gloved hand and then collect semen to forcibly impregnate female orcas with.  

During his lifetime, he was bred a total of 21 times with 11 of his offspring dying before he did.  

Tilikum was trained to perform as part of the Shamu show but aside from those shows, he lay listlessly at the surface or the bottom of the tank for extended periods.  

Unsurprisingly, the effects of captivity, bullying, and lack of stimulation showed themselves. He sometimes displayed aggression towards humans and he bit the gates and concrete sides of the tank (causing damage to his teeth). PETA reported that he was charged and raked by other orcas so severely that he sometimes bled, shivered and needed to be kept out of shows.  

The orca was unable to swim any meaningful distance or dive. It’s calculated that he would needed to have swum the circumference of the tank more than 1,900 times in a single day to match the distance he’d have swum in the wild in a single day.  

In 1999, Tilikum again came under the spotlight in regard to a human’s death. A 27-year-old man, Daniel Dukes, stayed in the SeaWorld park after hours and entered into the pool.  

In the morning, he was found dead on Tilikum’s back and an autopsy concluded that he had drowned. There was evidence, though, of numerous injuries on his body.  

Death of Dawn Brancheau 

On 24 February 2010, Tilikum was performing as part of the ‘Dine with Shamu’ show. This live performance involved some guests dining downstairs and seeing orcas through an underwater window.  

Trainer Dawn Brancheau (who worked at SeaWorld for 15 years) was standing alongside the pool, interacting with Tilikum.   

Reports on what happened next differ. Some say the 40-year-old slipped and fell into the pool while others (including SeaWorld) say that Tilikum grabbed her by her long ponytail and dragged her under the water.  

It quickly became clear that Tilikum was not going to let Dawn go and kept her from reaching the surface. A sense of shock and dread took over the Shamu stadium. Onlookers at the underwater window and those seated in the auditorium were ushered away from the awful spectacle that lay before them.  

 As Tilikum swam back and forth between pools with Dawn in his mouth, SeaWorld workers tried to save her. Tilikum was captured into a net but still refused to let her go.  

A rising platform was used to remove him from the water and eyewitness reports say that even after Tilikum was lifted, Dawn still could not be freed from his mouth until employees pried open his mouth. Paramedics worked on the trainer but it became clear that Dawn had died while in the water. A later investigation showed that she died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.  

Dawn’s death drew international media headlines. Concerns were raised over how safe it was to work so closely with wild animals, and also what led Tilikum to act so aggressively towards a person.  

There was talk, in the aftermath, of euthanising Tilikum but ultimately that wasn’t the course taken.  

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) carried out an investigation in 2010 into safety regulations at the SeaWorld facility.  

The investigation slapped SeaWorld with safety violations and $75,000 in fines. It also determined that SeaWorld had wilfully violated employee safety by putting their trainers in the water in close interaction with the captive orcas.  

Tilikum returned to performing a year later. 



In July 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released. It particularly got traction after CNN started to air it in the U.S. Viewers were drawn in by the shocking, never-before-seen footage, and interviews with trainers and experts. Several former trainers spoke up about what they saw as lack of safety consideration for those working at the park, and about what they’d observed with Tilikum over the years.  

The film centred on the attack on Dawn, but focus was also dedicated to going back in time to explain exactly what Tilikum’s life had been like since he was taken from his family. The picture painted is that Tilikum had become affected by psychological trauma, perhaps even psychosis, due to what had happened to him. 

You can read more about this in a PETA report on the effects of captivity on Tilikum and orcas generally at SeaWorld.  

Tim Zimmerman, a writer with Outside magazine and producer on Blackfish, said, “I think that’s the most amazing thing that comes out of Tilikum’s story. He killed three human beings. And yet when you learn about his life story, he does become the victim and you do sympathise with him.” 

Blackfish also featured other attacks on trainers (one attack shown involves trainer Ken Edwards being repeatedly pulled underwater by an orca in an incident that lasts 12 minutes).  

The death of trainer Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque in Tenerife is also detailed in the documentary. He died due to grave injuries inflicted by the orca Keto. 

The film sparked huge reaction and a groundswell of support for the plight of whales kept in captivity. It also reached a wider audience when it was added to Netflix in late 2013. 

After the documentary’s release and following protests by PETA and other groups, attendance at SeaWorld theme parks dropped. The company’s profits fell (rumoured to be in excess of $10 million), it lost promotional deals and had to cut jobs. 

SeaWorld had chosen not to participate in Blackfish and has disputed many elements of the film, saying it conveys falsehoods and manipulates viewers emotionally.  

See the Blackfish trailer:

Tilikum’s death 

Tilikum continued to be mostly kept in a medical pool, to keep him from attacks from other orcas. Apart from performing in shows, he is said to have been listless, again lying at the bottom or top surface of the water.  

On 8 March 2016, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum’s health had deteriorated and he was being treated for a bacterial lung infection. Just a week later, the company announced that it was going to stop breeding orcas in captivity, meaning that the orcas currently in the marine theme parks would be the last.  

Animal activists welcomed the news but said the company should organise for the rehabilitation and release of the whales it currently has in captivity.  

In January 2017, at the estimated age of 36, Tilikum died of bacterial pneumonia.  

Lisa Lange, senior vice president for PETA, summed it up well at the time of his death, “From the moment, he was taken from his ocean family, his life was tragic and filled with pain, as are the lives of the other animals who remain in SeaWorld’s tanks and exhibits.” 

Check out previous blogs 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: The Thames Whale 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Keiko 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Migaloo 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tokitae