Some time in 1981 or thereabouts, a male orca was born into the cold deep waters off the coast of Iceland. He was watched over by his mother and female relatives, learning the language and culture of his pod, developing bonds strong enough to last the rest of his life.
On January 6th, 2017 that same orca died, isolated and alone in a shallow pool in an Orlando theme park. There was no family to mourn his passing, no deep water for his body to sink into, continuing the natural cycle of life in the ocean. There was only four white walls, marking the confines of his world.
He was called Tilikum.
Involved in 3/4 of the deaths of humans by orca world-wide Tilikum’s name, which means “friend”, seems like a cruel irony. Humanity had not been a good friend to Tilikum. His life, so emotively portrayed in the documentary film “Blackfish” is one of loss and cruelty.
For 8 years of his life Tilikum spent over 14 hours a day in a small metal-sided pool that hardly had the room for him to turn around in. He would often come out of the pool in the mornings with blood running from wounds inflicted on him by the two female orca he had to share it with. All three orca were exposed to an extreme level of sensory deprivation in their night time pool. Humans exposed to the same conditions become mentally disturbed.
Following their involvement in the death of Keltie Byrne, Tilikum and his tank mates were moved to Orlando. There his life undoubtably changed. SeaWorld tried its best to keep their cetaceans mentally stimulated, the tanks were larger and had better veterinary care. However, an animal that has complex social structures, unique dialects and cultures, and can swim 100s of miles a day cannot be easily entertained. Who knows how many hours he spent motionless at the surface of his pool because there was nothing else better to do?
Unable to let any trainers get in the water with Tilikum, SeaWorld saved him for dramatic portions of shows, such as splashing visitors in the front rows with water displaced from his 5,700 kg body. That, and donating sperm for the captive breeding programme were his two specialities. Over his life, Tilikum sired 21 calves. Only 11 of them are still alive today.
His new life was arguably uneventful, and probably boring. Then in 1999 the body of Daniel Dukes was found draped across Tilikum’s back one morning. There is no footage of the event, but the popular theory is, just like Keltie Byrne years before, a human in the pool was nothing more than a novel toy to the bored animal and he was simply held underwater for longer than he could hold his breath.
11 years later Tilikum dragged experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau into his tank. Did he do it as an act of aggression, or was he simply curious about another novel stimuli that had been presented to him? We will never know for sure. What we were left with was the tragic death of a trainer and the isolation of her killer.
To the best of my knowledge Tilikum has had no physical human contact since that day, and has spent most of his time in a pool by himself. Various illnesses have prevented him from preforming for long periods of time, and when it was announced in March 2016 that he had a lung infection I knew it was only a matter of time before Tilikum, like hundreds of captive orcas before him, died in an unnatural setting. The announcement of his death in early 2017 saddened me, but did not surprise me. Although I hoped otherwise, I knew it was only ever going to end that way.
Tilikum was arguably the most famous captive orca who started off life in the wild, but he is not the only one. Lolita is said to be the loneliest orca in the world, not having had contact with any of her own kind since 1980, and Morgan is a Norwegian orca, captured off the coast of Denmark, living in Tenerife and claimed to be owned by an American company.
Humanity failed Tilikum, it does not have to fail others. Keiko shot to fame as the orca to star in “Free Willy”. Following a rehabilitation programme he lived in the ocean for 5 years, hunting for himself and swimming thousands of miles before eventually passing away. Sea sanctuaries like the ones proposed by Dr. Ingrid Visser and The Whale Sanctuary Project are not only plausible solutions to cetacean captivity, but they are close to being a reality.
I have a dream that one day I will work at a rehabilitation centre for cetaceans (possibly even The Whale Sanctuary itself) as an educational guide.
Before Tilikum died my daydreams went something like this: I imagined myself standing on top of a hill, taking a breather in between educational sessions and looking down into the vast natural pens. I would see a glint of sunlight off a shiny black object and suddenly a jet of mist would appear, meters high, as enough oxygen to stay underwater for 15 minutes was expelled. No dorsal fin would cut through the surface of the water; once collapsed dorsal fins don’t right themselves. But as that animal sunk beneath the surface of the ocean I would smile, knowing that Tilikum was back where he belonged and would be able to live his final years in peace.
I will never see Tilikum swim free now, but perhaps I can see at least one of his children restored to the world their father was cruelly torn from.