A Playful Killer

Tilikum is an orca who became “hot” after the release of the movie “Blackfish”. This bull killer whale has been involved in the deaths of 3 humans and although it is believed to have been caused by him being in captivity, some say he is dangerous to anyone who comes near him. The theory of him being frustrated of being held in a concrete tank isn’t that strange if you consider there has never been an incident involving a wild orca.

Wild killer whales have been named kind, gentle and even life savers. One story mentions wild orcas protecting humans from sharks and those who have been close to one of these animals in their natural habitat all lived to tell the tale. So is it possible that Tilikum got frustrated? That maybe he cannot adept to his life in captivity?

The last victim of “Tilly” as some call him was Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer who worked with him at the SeaWorld park of Florida. On February 24, 2010 Tilikum had grabbed Dawn by her arm, pulled her into the pool and killed her. A little over 10 years before that he had killed a man called Daniel Dukes who had entered the pool Tilikum was in after the park closed for the night. His first victim was a part time worker of Sealand of the Pacific named Keltie Byrne. On February 20, 1991 during a show she slipped into the pool where Tilikum was performing with two other orcas.

It would be easy to assume that it was in the nature of this large male killer whale to kill these 3 people. That maybe Tilikum was already a real killer before he got captured. Even today, after years of study and all the proof that has been collected about killer whales and their kind personality, some people do still fear orcas. The image created around them by humanity of them being merciless killers still sticks to them. But had Tilly always been this aggressive towards humans? And if so, why was there never decided to stop having people around him? At SeaWorld they knew he had killed someone before he was transferred there in 1992. Still they decided to keep him and use him for their shows. Incidents involving their killer whales are reported and enclosed in the animal’s profile.

Tilikums profile reads:
“During times of frustration due to social stress in the environment, Tilikum has exhibited aggressive behavior by mouthing the stage, vocalizations, tightening body posture, banging gates, a deep fast swim and sometimes lunging toward control trainer. It is important to remember his previous history and potential. He was involved in the accidental drowning of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991.”

When Tilikum killed Keltie in 1991 he had been in Sealand for nearly 10 years. According to the trainers that worked with him he was fun to work with, they loved their Tilly.
Steve Huxter who worked closely with him remembers him as being a playful orca. The former supervisor of Sealand had seen the bull killer whale arrive at the Canadian marine park when Tilly was only around two years of age. He has seen the juvenile grow into a large adult killer whale and was still at Sealand when Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld. And although it has been over 20 years since he worked with him, Steve has happy memories of Tilikum during his time at the park.

The nets that prevented the orcas to escape their pool at Sealand hung in the waters of Vancouver. This meant that small wildlife as well as seaweed could penetrate the pool the killer whales were in. Tilikum proofed to be a playful guy when one day he took a bit of seaweed in his mouth and spat it out during a trained technique where he usually would just spit out water. The seaweed was thrown back in the pool and the bull orca took this as a new found game. Whenever the ocean plant was thrown back in the pool he would fetch it like a dog playing with a ball. It was decided that the new learned game the orca displayed could be used during the show to entertain the children that would visit the park. They would let a child throw the seaweed into the pool and Tilly would return it to the delighted kid.

Of course this became a very popular item in the shows but at some point Tilikum had decided to make the game more interesting for both him and the children. It could have been that he grew tired of performing the same game over and over or it could be that he just wanted to test the small humans that would cheerfully run around his pool. Whatever it was, it was the orca himself that changed the gameplay. One day, during a show, a child was selected to “play” fetch with Tilly. As usual the seaweed was thrown into the pool and Tilikum would get it, take it in his mouth, and spit it out in front of the child to pick it up and throw it in again. This time however, the orca would swim to the opposite side of the pool and spit the plant out on that side. The child would run to the other side of the pool to reclaim the seaweed and throw it back in the pool. Once again Tilikum picked it up but would now swim to the side the child originally started the game from.

This went on for some time and it looked like the orca was “training” this young human to perform the game the way he wanted it to be played. Tilikum learned that he could control these cheering creatures by having them chase him from one side of the pool to another. One time he tried to change the game a bit more by picking up a nontoxic jellyfish and spitting it at the chosen child. He soon found out that the small humans did not want to risk picking up a jellyfish and he switched back to seaweed.

Christopher Porter who was also a trainer for Sealand of the Pacific in the 90’s has a similar experience. While Tilikum and Nootka were the more “playful” orcas in the park, Haida would seldom interact with trainers. She was the matriarch within the park’s “pod” and performing was a build in routine more than a cheerful interaction. She would mind her own business while the other two whales were trying to get attention from their trainers. One day Christopher watched as after one of the many shows Haida spy hopped high up in the air (the docks of Sealand were 3 to 4 feet higher than the surface of the water) and looked him in straight in the eyes. In her mouth she was holding herring that came from her last bucket of fish. She seemed to be offering the herring to Christopher. Although the other killer whales at Sealand were known to play with their food, Haida would never be seen playing with a herring. It was food and that was exactly what she used it for.

"After standing stunned for a bit, as it is a bit intimidating to take a herring from a 16,000 pound animal, she spy hopped again. I could see she was insistent that I take the fish. I took the fish and threw it behind her and was shocked to see her pick it up and spy hop and offer it to me again. I picked it up again and we played that game till I got worried the sea gulls would steal the fish from her. I left by giving it to her thinking that we just had a fun playful conversation.”

- Christopher Porter.

For years Christopher had seen Haida’s interaction as a game that she wanted to play with him. Only a few years ago, while he was taking a trip down memory lane with his daughter, he figured he had been wrong all along. He now understood that Haida was telling him she wanted more food in the only way she could think of.