Whale Wednesday: Spotlight on Tilikum

This is probably one of the most difficult blogs to write, especially as there is so much controversy surrounding this one particular whale. However, I’m not just going to skip over him, because he’s a whale in captivity, after all… and that’s what this blog series is about!

This week on Whale Wednesday, we’re looking at the life of SeaWorld’s most infamous whales, Tilikum.


His Capture and Early Life

Tilikum was captured and taken away from his pod off the coast of Iceland near Togi in November 1983. It was approximated that he was 2 years of age at the time of his capture. He was transferred to a marine zoo near Reykjavik until a marine park decided that they wanted him.

Steve Huxter | The Voice of the Orcas
Image by Steve Huxter |Tilikum covered in lanolin before the long journey to Victoria

It wasn’t long before Tilikum found himself at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada. He was placed in a small tank with the facility’s two other orca, Haida 2 and Nootka 4. According to resources, the pool was no more than 100 foot by 500 foot and only 35 feet deep.

After performing throughout the day, Tilikum, Nootka and Haida would be crammed into a “module” which was nowhere big enough to store 3 orcas. This caused tension between the orcas, and as Tilikum was still learning about his new captive life and not knowing certain behaviours, the other orcas would rake Tilikum to vent their frustration, often forcing him to remain in the module and not letting him out.

It was here that Tilikum was involved in the first incident that lead to him becoming one of the most infamous whales in history… the death of trainer Keltie Byrne.

I’m going to say now that I won’t be going into the details surrounding any of the deaths that are linked to Tilikum. If you are interested, there are various resources that document them, including the documentary Blackfish which interviews trainers and witnesses and covers the incidents in detail.

After Keltie’s death, the three whales were sold to SeaWorld, who gave the impression that they wouldn’t be performing with the orcas in shows…

Heading to SeaWorld

Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando in January of 1992 and he has remained there ever since- thats 24 long years.

He is considered as the most successful breeding bull orca in captivity, and according to reports has sired 21 calves, including his first calf, Kyuquot who was born as a result of Tilikum and Haida 2 breeding while at Sealand of the Pacific.

As of 1999, SeaWorld upped it’s breeding programme a notch and began training Tilikum to produce semen samples to artificially inseminate female captive orcas all around the world. It is estimated that nearly half (40-44%) of SeaWorld’s collection of whales are somehow linked back to Tilikum.

While at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum became the star of the show; lugging his massive 12,000 pound, 22 foot body around the pool, and was rather adept at being able to create a huge splash. He is the currently the largest orca in captivity in the whole world.

However, while at SeaWorld, Tilikum has notably been the only orca involved in the deaths of two people, one park visitor who climbed into his tank in 1999 after the park closed, and the more prolific death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Following Dawn’s death, the life of Tilikum drastically changed. No one was allowed to go in the water with him and he would often be kept on his own or later penned in with his grandson, Trua.

This lack of interaction with other whales and sudden disappearance of his trainers attention appears to have taken its toll on Tilikum. He can often be seen floating listlessly at the surface of the pool, sometimes not moving for hours on end, with only a hospipe and a brush used to give him any sort of tactile interaction to keep his trainers safe.

Although Tilikum has appeared in shows since the 2010 incident (and therefore the OSHA ruling of no waterwork with any whale) his appearances seem few and far between, often with Trua now fulfilling his role as the big splash in the show.

How To Identify Tilikum

Tilikum is easy to identify, due to his incredibly collapsed dorsal fin which leans right over on the left side of his body. His tail flukes curl in severely and his huge pectoral fins give him away instantly- and of course his gigantic size.

In the left false eye-patch, you will also notice that he has 2 small, black spots near the front of the white patch at the top.

As Tilikum is the main whale who the documentary Blackfish talks about, I would highly recommend that you give it a watch if you’d like to find out more about his life. There’s far too much to fit into just one blog, and I feel more people should know about this whale in particular.

Want to talk whales with me? Drop me a comment on this post, or over on my Facebook and Twitter pages-I’d love to hear from you!


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