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Tilikum (killer whale)

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Tilikum (c. December 1981[1] – January 6, 2017), nicknamed Tilly,[2] was a captive orca. 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 Orlando, Florida.[3] Tilikum was heavily featured in CNN Films' 2013 documentary Blackfish.

Tilikum (orca) (Shamu).jpg
Tilikum during a 2009 performance at SeaWorld
SpeciesOrcinus orca
Bornc. December 1981
Died (aged 35)
Orlando, Florida
Years active1983–2016
Offspring21 (10 alive as of January 2017)
Weight12,500 lb (5,700 kg)

Tilikum became notorious for his involvement in the deaths of three people: a trainer at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific, a man trespassing in SeaWorld Orlando, and a SeaWorld Orlando trainer.

He sired 21 calves, of which ten are still alive.


Tilikum was a large bull orca; the largest in captivity.[4] He measured 22.5 feet (6.9 m) long and weighed about 12,500 pounds (5,700 kg).[5] 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.


In the Chinook Jargon of the Pacific Northwest, his name means "friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people".[6]


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, 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 orcas named Haida II and Nootka IV. Tilikum was at the bottom of the social structure, and Haida II and Nootka IV behaved aggressively towards him, including forcing him into a smaller medical pool where trainers kept him for protection.[7]


While orca attacks on humans are rare, as of 2013 four humans have died due to interactions with an orca. All such incidents happened with captive orcas,[8] and Tilikum was involved in three of those.

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 orcas submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing.[7] At one point, she reached the side and tried to climb out, but the orcas pulled her back into the pool. Other trainers threw her a life-ring, but the orcas kept her away from it. She surfaced three times before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool.[9][10][11][12][13]

Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, Florida on January 9, 1992.[14][failed verification] Sealand of the Pacific closed soon afterward.[15]

Second death

On July 6, 1999, a 27-year-old man, Daniel P. Dukes, was found dead over Tilikum's back.[16] Dukes had visited SeaWorld the previous day, stayed after the park closed, and evaded security to enter the orca tank unclothed. An autopsy found numerous wounds, contusions, and abrasions covering his body that were caused by Tilikum.[17] 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][17][18][19]

Third death

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer.[20][21] 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 by her ponytail and pulled her into the water.[22][23][24] Brancheau's autopsy indicated death by drowning and blunt force trauma.[25]

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. 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.[26] In December 2011, he was put on hiatus from the shows following an undisclosed illness. He resumed performing at SeaWorld Orlando in April 2012.[27]


Tilikum had 21 offspring in captivity, 11 of which were alive as of November 2013.[28]

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. 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. Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, Florida, on January 9, 1992. Sealand of the Pacific closed soon thereafter.

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 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 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."[29] 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".[30]

Tilikum and the captivity of other orcas is the main subject of the documentary film Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.[31] 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.[32][33]

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.[34][35] On January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died early in the morning.[36][37] The cause of death was bacterial infection.[38]

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, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, is Dying". National Geographic. March 10, 2016.
  5. ^ "Tilikum". Cetacean Cousins. Archived from the original on August 13, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  6. ^ Watson, Kenneth (Greg) (July 2002). "Chinook Jargon". White River Journal. White River Valley Museum. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  7. ^ a b "Inside Seaworld – The Tilikum Transaction". PBS Frontline.
  8. ^ Ross McD. "Blackfish: 6 things you need to know about killer whales".
  9. ^ Hoyt, Eric (1992). "The Performing Orcas – why the show must stop". Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
  10. ^ Zimmerman, Tim (2011). "The Killer in the Pool". The Best American Sampler 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 336.
  11. ^ "Trainer dragged to death by whales". Toronto Star. February 21, 1991.
  12. ^ Helm, Denise (March 4, 2010). "Tilikum incident still haunts Wright". Oak Bay News.
  13. ^ "Sealand opens its doors for first show since drowning". The Vancouver Sun. March 4, 1991.
  14. ^ "SeaWorld Memorandum" (PDF).
  15. ^ "Oak Bay Marine Group timeline". Archived from the original on June 24, 2012.
  16. ^ "Corpse Is Found on Whale". The New York Times. July 6, 1999. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  17. ^ a b Bonner, Stayton (July 7, 1999). "Daniel Dukes' Medical Examiners Report". Scribd. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
  18. ^ Greene, Leonard (February 27, 2010). "SeaWorld whale mauls and kills trainer in front of audience". New York Post. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  19. ^ "Park Is Sued Over Death of Man in Whale Tank". The New York Times. September 29, 1999. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  20. ^ "SeaWorld trainer killed by killer whale". CNN. February 25, 2010. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  21. ^ Ed Pilkington (February 25, 2010). "Killer whale Tilikum to be spared after drowning trainer by ponytail". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 11, 2010.
  22. ^ Ed Pilkington. "Killer whale Tilikum to be spared after drowning trainer by ponytail". the Guardian.
  23. ^ "People in the News". The Week UK. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  24. ^ "New details emerge in death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer in orca incident". Los Angeles Times. February 24, 2010. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  25. ^ "Autopsy report" (PDF). Autopsy report. Office of the Medical examiner, district nine, FL. Retrieved February 9, 2014.
  26. ^ "He's so dangerous trainers can't work with him directly... but SeaWorld puts Tilikum the whale who killed his trainer back on show". Daily Mail. March 30, 2011. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  27. ^ "SeaWorld Tilikum sick". Orlando Sentinel. December 22, 2011. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  28. ^ Fielding, James (November 17, 2013). "SeaWorld whale that 'killed' three still being used to breed, former worker claims". Express UK.
  29. ^ "Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm" (PDF). TMZ. December 7, 2010.
  30. ^ Gina Serpe (December 8, 2010). "Tommy Lee Is Against Whale Masturbation. Who Isn't?". E! News.
  31. ^ Kinosian, Janet. "Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite gets in deep with 'Blackfish'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  32. ^ Duke, Alan. "Barenaked Ladies' SeaWorld gig is off after viewing 'Blackfish'". Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  33. ^ David, John P. "Blackfish Backlash Continues". The Huffington Post. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  34. ^ "Caring for Tilikum The Killer Whale". Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  35. ^ "Tilikum, Subject of Documentary 'Blackfish,' Very Ill – SeaWorld of Hurt". SeaWorld of Hurt. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  36. ^ "SeaWorld: Tilikum, orca that killed trainer, has died". WFLA-TV. January 6, 2017.
  37. ^ Press, Associated (January 6, 2017). "SeaWorld: Tilikum, orca that killed trainer, has died". WFLA-TV. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  38. ^ "Tilikum the SeaWorld orca's cause of death revealed". Global News. Retrieved February 4, 2017.

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