Saying Farewell to Tilikum

January 24, 2017

Saying Farewell to Tilikum


Tilikum. From Flickr under Public Domain License

Tilikum the orca, perhaps most infamous for his starring role in the shocking documentary Blackfish, passed away on January 6, 2017. Thus far, the official cause of death has not been released, yet a serious bacterial lung infection that took a significant toll on the quality of his last year of life was likely the cause.

In November of 1983 at the age of 2, Tilikum was captured in the wild seas of Iceland. Stolen from his family, Tilikum was quickly sold and transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. Trapped in an appallingly small enclosure, he was forced to perform tricks for food and faced bullying from other whales in the minuscule prison. After nearly ten years at Sealand, Tilikum committed his first crime; dragging Sealand trainer Keltie Byrne to the bottom of the orca’s pool and drowning her.

One would think that after such an incident, the training of orca, and specifically Tilikum, would be seen in a new light. This was not the case. Almost immediately after Sealand closed their doors, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum with the intention to use him for their captive breeding program and Shamu show. He was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where his sperm was utilized to increase the number of SeaWorld Orcas. Nearly 54% of Orcas in SeaWorld are now part of Tilikum’s genetic lineage.

After this move, Tilikum remained in SeaWorld Orlando for the final 21 years of his life. These years were wrought with controversy, as he took the lives of two more individuals. In 1999, Daniel P. Dukes snuck into SeaWorld after hours. The next morning, he was found brutally murdered within Tilikum’s enclosure. In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a highly experienced SeaWorld trainer, was pulled under, attacked, and killed by Tilikum. Following Dawn’s death, Tilikum was shortly kept in isolation, but later returned to performing at the SeaWorld Orlando show.

Those of us that have had the privilege to study whales or dolphins in the wild know it is an experience to cherish. In captivity however, these animals fail to exhibit the same types of social relationships and behavior that they have in the wild. There is not a single documented case of a wild orca killing a human. As shown through the tragic case of Tilikum, whales in captivity suffer from mental distress, physical illness and shorter lifespan than they would live in their wild ocean homes. Unusual behavior such as gnawing on their concrete enclosures, cessation of swimming, and inability to speak to each other through sound and echolocation result in an unnatural and terrifying existence for the orca in containment. Orcas are far too intelligent, sophisticated, and socially and behaviorally complex to be kept in concrete prisons. Tilikum’s death at the extremely young age of thirty-six yet again reminds us of the need to shift our views of orcas in captivity.

Orcas in captivity must become a part of our history – not a tragic part of our future.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society