I gazed at the 12,300 pound killer whale hanging forlornly in the water, so huge he dwarfed his tank.
This is Tilikum (“Friend” in Chinook), Tilly, as they call him, the 33-year old bull orca, the largest in captivity, superstar of the blackfish breeding program, who sired 21 orcas and killed three people.
In 2010, Tilly grabbed his senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during a Sea World show, tore off her arm and ate it before proceeding to batter, drown and dismember her, shredding the woman’s liver, ripping away her scalp, breaking her leg, spine, breastbone and jaws.
A decade ago, handlers found Tilly with a dead man draped over his back. He bit off the genitals of the mentally-ill drunken intruder who sneaked into his pool during the night.
Earlier than that, Tilly and two pregnant orcas attacked a Canadian trainer who slipped and fell in their pool. Tilly played with the girl and held her down until she drowned.
Now, Tilly floated immobile at the end of the viewing window before my eyes. His almost seven foot tall dorsal fin flopped to one side from a lifetime of swimming counter clockwise in his cramped tank.
In the wild, orcas swim over 160 kilometers per day, mostly in a straight line, sculpting an erect dorsal.
Yet it was my first time to see an orca, the largest member of the dolphin family. And despite his bloody record, Tilly’s size, beauty and power took my breath away.
No wonder, indigenous folks revered killer whales as the mightiest animal in the ocean, custodian of the sea, benefactor of humans.
One thing bothered me. The killer whale can see and hear very well, despite the overly thick glass lining the window. When a bunch of tourists with shrieking kids pressed their faces against the partition, he dashed to attack, popping his jaws aggressively.
In the staging area, a handful of orcas from his family group or pod caromed about before the show, amusing themselves by splashing anybody they catch unawares.
Vendors and staff gave the pool a wide berth as mischievous killer whales shot back and forth like torpedoes, seeking an opening to soak humans with the freezing water and make them run away, shrieking.
Of course, orcas are playful and smart. That’s why they are the number one attraction in marine parks. They also have complex brains – the second biggest of marine mammals after sperm whales.
Their pod behaviors (they live in family groups numbering from 15 to 200 animals) vary so widely that scientists maintain they have different “cultures”.
Their size and intelligence make orcas most dangerous. The males reach 32 feet long and weigh 22,000 pounds with a life span of 30-60 years; the females weigh 16,500 pounds and live 50 to 90 years.
Significantly, there’s no record of wild orcas ever killing a human although 15 per cent of all orcas held in SeaWorld’s collection have lunged at trainers, pulled them in the water, held them at the bottom of the pool, head-butted and bit them, slammed them with tail flukes and breached on top of them.
Shortly before Tilly killed Dawn, another orca on loan from SeaWorld, Keto, violently rammed and killed his trainer in Loro Parque, Spain.
About half a hundred orcas now live in captivity and experts attributed their aggression to disease and stress but others clearly showed no cause.
“It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s big cats, elephants, bears or killer whales. When you deal with large mammals in a captive situation, they can turn on their trainers,” an exotic animal expert stressed.
Aggression is a trait of all animals, including humans. Like people, some killer whales may be more aggressive than others.
Because they live in complex social systems, orcas have good days and bad days. When they are pissed off, trainers can’t keep them from lashing out because they are free-thinking creatures.
Fact is, swimming with captive orcas is extremely dangerous business. Trainers know that. Hence, they prepare not for “if an attack will happen” but when.
However, Tilikum’s trainers stressed the orca was no insane or murderous fish. “Tilly was a joy to work with for most of his career,” they confirmed.
“He’s just a laid-back guy who’s kind of lazy, a misunderstood big kid,” says a local whale expert who interacted with him.
Looking at Tilly, I sincerely believe he’s not a bad orca. It’s just that he’s an apex predator and despite being lassoed in Iceland at two, dragged away from his mom, bullied and thrown in a tank with orcas of different cultures for 31 years, his instincts remain intact.
Even Dawn’s family made it very clear they don’t want the orca to be euthanized or harmed in anyway though he brutally tore Dawn apart. It’s not because he had not intended to kill but because he is a predator. A predator will always do what he does. It’s his nature and it can’t be helped.
But they can’t free him now. That’s a death sentence, pure and simple. They put Keiko – the orca star of the “Free Willy” film back in the wild and he sickened and died, aged 27, within one year after his release.
Like Tilly, Keiko was wild-caught in Iceland at age two. Despite years of preparation for setting him free, such as supervised swims in the open ocean, Keiko sought humans. Less than two months after they set him loose back in Iceland, he turned up in a Norwegian fjord, allowed kids to ride on his back and failed to re-integrate into the wild.
Today, even those who oppose keeping captive orcas recognize that for their own safety, the whales can’t just be thrown back into the sea. Instead, they lobby for larger, more natural settings, like sea pens — inshore areas of ocean that can be closed in by nets.
Sea World can’t make Tilly stop performing either. Aside from the fact that he’s a big money-maker, learning tricks and staging shows may be his last source of enrichment – that is, if his trainers don’t abuse him or deprive him of food (a common practice) to reinforce behaviours.
Temporarily, Sea World retired Tilly in 2010, but brought him back in the first quarter of 2011. Trainers don’t do water work with the orca anymore, as the court ordered. If they have to massage him, they use high-pressure water hoses instead of their hands.
Likewise, they began using removable guardrails on the platforms and are planning to install false-bottom floors to lift both trainers and whales out of the pools in less than a minute.
Tilly got sick but resumed performing in 2012 and still do todate.
For sure, the humans who interact with Tilly – with any orca or any exotic animal for that matter, take a huge risk.
But it’s part of the territory.
People who handle wild creatures always understand that risk.
They live and die for it.