A Brief History
On January 6, 2017, the infamous Killer Whale (also known as Orca), named Tilikum, the subject of the expose Blackfish that first aired in 2013 on CNN detailing the keeping and displaying of Killer Whales (Orcas) by Sea World, died of natural causes at the age of 35.
The whipping boy of the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld, was first opened in San Diego in 1964. Its success created a push to open a second park, and the location of Aurora, Ohio was chosen, with an opening in 1970. Called SeaWorld of Ohio, and later SeaWorld Cleveland, the park featured the first live Killer Whale show in the world, with the star being an Orca they called Shamu. The first Orca captured live and displayed at San Diego was also called Shamu, the name SeaWorld publicly called their performing Orcas. The tremendous success of SeaWorld Cleveland and especially of the Killer Whale show led to the opening of additional SeaWorld locations, each with their trademark Shamu Killer Whale show.
Once the first time an Orca was captured live in the 1960’s, animal capturing techniques allowed an increasing number of live captures to take place and populate the various SeaWorld parks in each park’s “Shamu Stadium” where the oversized dolphins were on display performing for packed crowds. By 1985 a breeding program of captured Orcas was developed by SeaWorld providing a steady stream of live Orcas for the shows.
In nature, male Orcas can live to 50 years or more (females 60-80 years), and in captivity they have lived for over 40 years. Tilikum was a 2 year old Orca when captured live in 1984. He died of an antibiotic resistant bacterial lung infection in January of 2017, but not before he had killed 3 people in separate incidents over the years, the basis for the Blackfish expose on SeaWorld and their Orcas. The alleged shorter lifespan of Orcas in captivity is a matter of debate. The relatively tiny living space provided for the captive Orcas is a major point of contention by critics such as PETA, as Killer Whales normally travel great distances every day in the wild. The close confines and unnatural surroundings is believed to have made some of the captive Orcas somewhat neurotic, and the aggression displayed by Tilikum in killing 3 of his trainers is often blamed on the circumstances of his confinement. Other incidents involving Orcas in captivity such as aggression toward each other and accidental death by ramming into the walls of the tank have occurred.
The deaths caused by Tilikum:
- 1990. Kiltie Byrne, age 21, a part-time worker at Sealand of the Pacific was dragged underwater and kept down by Tilikum while his 2 tank mates prevented rescuers from saving the young woman. Byrne drowned after being pulled under several times.
- 1999. Daniel Dukes, age 27, was a visitor to SeaWorld Orlando, where Tilikum had been transferred in 1992. Dukes hid in the park until closing time after dark, and decided to take a skinny dip with the captive Orca. He was found dead the next morning, having been beaten up by Tilikum, bitten, and drowned.
- 2010. Dawn Brancheau, age 40, a trainer with 15 years on the job had just completed a show when to the horror of the audience, Tilikum grabbed her ponytail and dragged her under the water, drowning the hapless trainer, who also suffered blunt force injuries. Although Dawn was the only actual trainer killed by an Orca, numerous others had suffered injuries and close calls over the years. (After all, Orcas are called Killer Whales.)
Public reaction to the Blackfish documentary was so profound that by 2016 SeaWorld had announced an end to their captive breeding of Killer Whales and an end to their showing off the beautiful sea mammals doing tricks. SeaWorld partnered with the Humane Society of the US to work out a plan for the ending of the Killer Whale shows, the last shows to take place in 2019.
Unfortunately, it is not feasible to release captured or captive bred Killer Whales into the wild, and the grand animals must be kept in captivity until they die naturally. There are over 50 Orcas in captivity around the world, about half of which are owned by SeaWorld.
The capture, captive breeding, display and demonstrations of Killer Whales/Orcas is not universally condemned. SeaWorld and their supporters claim the Shamu shows have reached millions of people and instilled a profound love of sea mammals among the public, resulting in conservation efforts and respect for the animals. Proponents of the programs claim that public education and opinion forming is of more value than the negative aspects of keeping such large, intelligent, and dangerous creatures pent up in small tanks. The initial response to the Blackfish expose by SeaWorld was a fierce counter-claim campaign, but relentless public pressure, including major performing artists cancelling appearances at SeaWorld locations led to the decision to end the Orca shows.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Should public attractions such as SeaWorld be allowed to keep and show captive Orcas? Should the captivity of such large (20 to 26 feet long and 3 to 7 tons) sea mammals be banned? Feel free to share your opinions on this contentious subject in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Howard, Brian Clark. “SeaWorld to end Controversial Orca Shows and Breeding.” National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160317-seaworld-orcas-killer-whales-captivity-breeding-shamu-tilikum/ (accessed 5 January 2018).
Hoyt, Erich. Orca: The Whale Called Killer. Camden House, 1990.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Milan Boers of Tilikum as “Shamu” at SeaWorld Orlando, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This image, originally posted to Flickr, was reviewed on by the administrator or reviewer Blurpeace, who confirmed that it was available on Flickr under the stated license on that date.