In the wild, killer whales (also called orcas) rarely harm people. There’s one case of an orca seemingly trying to knock a man off the polar ice into the water to eat him, and several cases of orcas sinking small craft. The only orcas to carry out fatal attacks, however, have been captives in aquariums. The most dangerous captive to date is a big bull named Tilikum, and his life in captivity was one of abuse. He was captured as a calf and kept at Sea Land of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia. There he and the aquarium’s other two orcas were herded into a small steel cage at night. This cage allowed them little sensory stimulation. It also kept Tilikum from escaping when his peers became violent. Such violence is usually minor in the wild, a way of establishing a whale’s place in the pod. In the open ocean, a whale can keep his distance from aggressive pod-mates. Tilikum didn’t have that option. He often emerged from the cage in the morning bleeding, the older whales having raked his body with their teeth.
In 1991, Tilikum attacked a 20-year-old marine biology student and part-time animal trainer. He seized Keltie Byrne by the foot and dragged her into the pool. The other two orcas in his pool joined in the attack. They seemed to treat Byrne as a toy, dunking her and keeping her from reaching the side of the pool. When other trainers tossed her a flotation ring, the whales kept her from reaching it. Because she was a strong swimmer, she managed to surface and scream for help three times before the whales drowned her. Her body remained in the pool for hours. The whales continued to play with it. They would not allow other humans to fish it out.
Tilikum was sold to the SeaWorld aquarium in Orlando, Florida, where he continued to perform. One morning his keepers found a naked corpse draped across his back. The corpse was bruised and scraped literally from head to foot. Its scrotum and one testicle had been torn off. An autopsy revealed that these injuries had occurred after the man’s death by drowning. An investigation identified the man as Daniel Dukes, 27. Dukes had visited Sea World the day before as a paying customer, then apparently hidden inside so he could remain overnight. How he ended up in the whale tank is unknown; almost certainly, he chose to enter it. Perhaps, like many people, he hoped to commune with the animals. The fact that he was stripped and castrated may mean Tilikum perceived him as a rival; in fact, other species of toothed whales have attacked men in the groin.
Tilikum continued to work at SeaWorld, though he usually performed without trainers in the pool. Instead, the trainers directed him from poolside, feeding him fish as a reward when he did his work well. In February, 2010, a SeaWorld employee told a 911 dispatcher, “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” As it turned out, the caller was mistaken; Tilikum had killed a trainer named Dawn Branchaeu, but had not eaten much of her.
She had just completed a show during which she led Tilikum through various tricks, such as waving to the audience. As she was on the edge of the pool petting and talking to him, Tilikum seized her by the arm and dragged her into the pool. Witnesses saw her sandals float away, knocked off her feet by the sudden motion. Brancheau swam for the surface; Tilikum struck her like a torpedo to keep her in the water. She tried again. This time Tilikum swam at her with his mouth agape, seized her by the neck and shoulder, and plunged. He thrashed her from side to side. Meanwhile, other employees were stringing nets, trying to herd him into a smaller pool so they could get her away from him. Tilikum dodged them. He changed his grip on the body to avoid having it taken away. They had seen him be equally possessive with toys tossed into his pool. They slapped the water, a signal requesting him to follow their orders. He ignored the slaps and seemed to become frantic in his efforts to keep the body. At one point he surfaced with Brancheau in his mouth. Her head lolled; she had a broken neck. An autopsy later showed that Tilikum had also broken her sternum, two ribs, and her jaw. And he had scalped her. Her scalp and hair were found at the bottom of one of the pools Tilikum had been herded through, along with the whistle Brancheau used during performances.
Eventually the workers managed to get Tilikum into a pool with a bottom that could be raised. As they raised it, Tilikum was stranded. They held him with nets and approached to take the corpse from his mouth. After they had done so, they realized her left arm was missing. They had to return one more time to fish the severed arm from the belly of the beast.
Tilikum died in captivity January 6, 2017, at the estimated age of 36—a full life span for a male orca.