Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Death of Tilikum

Jan 6, 2017

Tilikum, the most infamous orca in the world, has died.

In 2010 Tilikum was participating in a whale show at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, when he pulled a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the tank and held her under the water until she drowned. That incident was highlighted in the documentary film Blackfish which alleged the inhumanity of keeping orcas in captivity.

But Tilikum had a history in British Columbia long before the Florida tragedy. He was captured off Iceland in the early 1980s and brought to live at Sealand of the Pacific, a facility operated by marina owner Bob Wright in Oak Bay near Victoria. Sealand, which opened in 1969, gained instant fame the next year for exhibiting an albino orca named Chimo, captured off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Chimo was the only white orca in captivity and attracted enormous attention; at one point Wright reportedly turned down an offer of one million dollars for her. Unhappily she died of an infection in the fall of 1972, not unusual for Sealand where the animals seemed to die with depressing regularity.

Tilikum was one of the survivors, though his stay in Oak Bay was a troubled one. He never seemed to get on with two female orcas who shared the facility with him. Then, in 1991, he and the other whales drowned a young student, Keltie Byrne, who had slipped into the tank after a show. The reason for their behaviour was never explained; orcas generally are not aggressive animals, at least not toward humans. Not long after the death Sealand closed, leaving the Vancouver Aquarium the only facility in BC to keep captured marine mammals.

Tilikum moved to SeaWorld Orlando where seven years later he was involved in another death. This time a man drowned in the orca tank after sneaking into the facility at night. Eleven years later, came the death of the trainer. The fallout from that third incident led SeaWorld last year to get out of the business of orca displays and orca breeding, a step that the Vancouver Aquarium had taken years ago.

The full story of orca capture on the West Coast is in the book that I wrote with marine biologist Gil Hewlett, Operation Orca.