Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer

The film Blackfish probes the case of an orca that killed its trainer. Blame is assigned to SeaWorld—rightly so, in my view.

Watch the television premiere of "Blackfish," Thursday, October 24, at 9 p.m. EST on CNN.

The documentary Blackfish opened around the country on July 26, with more splash than usual for a small-budget production, thanks to a preemptive attack on the film by SeaWorld, the marine-park franchise, and the free publicity of the tempest that followed.

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the homicidal killer whale, and his most recent victim, Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer he crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed in 2010. The film is an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being.

In the week before advance screenings in Los Angeles and New York, SeaWorld sent out a "Dear Film Critic" letter that castigated the documentary as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate." Journalists and bloggers around the world, never averse to controversy, pricked up their ears. If the film's producers ever worried about insufficient funds for advertising, they can lay that fear to rest.

In a theater a month ago, toward the end of a long series of trailers for movies my girlfriend and I resolved not to see, the Blackfish trailer began. I sat up in my seat. Within the first few frames, well before the identity of this particular "blackfish" came up on the screen, I knew which orca he would be. Tilikum is a whale whose career I have followed for 13 years. Like many familiar with his history, I had not been surprised by Dawn Brancheau's death. We all had wondered when Tilikum would kill again.

Good Twin, Evil Twin

Blackfish and its themes set me to thinking again about Orcinus orca, the killer whale, the sea's supreme predator, and our strange, ambivalent view of this animal and the narratives we impose on it.

Here's one: Tilikum had a sort of twin, Keiko, the killer whale who played "Willy" in the movies. Both were captured as two-year-old calves off Iceland, Keiko in 1979 and Tilikum in 1983; both were motherless males abused by other whales in Canadian marine parks; both were moved to facilities farther south; both, on maturing, suffered the collapse of the dorsal fin, the floppy trademark of all captive bull orcas.

One twin grew up to be the most famous whale in history, if you rule out Moby Dick and the whale that swallowed Jonah. This twin gave daily audiences to thousands of human pilgrims, played himself in his own documentary films, and was a regular on the television news. He was beloved by children all over the world, who sent him great stacks of misspelled mash notes, get-well cards, valentines, confidential personal updates, and whimsical, anatomically incorrect killer whale illustrations in crayon and poster paint.

Through intermediaries on his staff of 22 humans, this whale franchised "Free Willy" dolls, trading cards, music tapes, storybooks, and vinyl magnetic products. For sale in the gift shop of his $7.5 million Oregon facility—a palatial tank with adjoining offices, all built just for him—were Keiko toys, Keiko games, Keiko postcards, and Keiko clothing. A pilgrim, after shuffling in long lines up to the tank window for 10 or 12 minutes in the whale's presence, could buy Keiko Blend Coffee and Keiko clothing. The pilgrim's four-year-old, if she insisted, could finagle a "beautifully illustrated 100% cotton T-shirt with special ocean habitat pocket and an adorable, realistic, soft toy Keiko that lives in the pocket habitat or comes out to play!"

The other twin grew up to be the protagonist in a saltwater Othello, a tragedy in which the Moor weighs 12,000 pounds and Desdemona gets eaten.

I first encountered Tilikum, the evil twin, while doing fieldwork on the good one. I am Keiko's biographer. My 2005 book, Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild, is an account of Keiko's life from his capture as a two-year-old through his Hollywood triumph to his semi-successful release to the wild. In the book I touch briefly on Tilikum.

Signs of Trouble

"Only once in history has a killer whale killed a human," I wrote. "That incident, in which Tilikum, a captive whale in British Columbia, pinned his trainer to the pool bottom, drowning her, is generally deemed to have been horseplay, just a misunderstanding, a simple failure of the whale to appreciate the difference between human breath-hold capacity and his own."

This was the explanation put forth by SeaWorld, which had bought Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific after he killed that first trainer, 20-year-old Keltie Byrne. (Sealand, which immediately went out of business as a consequence of Keltie's death, needed to liquidate its assets. Its orcas Haida II and her baby Kyuquot went to SeaWorld San Antonio. Nootka IV and Tilikum went to SeaWorld Orlando.) I had sense enough to question the horseplay theory. SeaWorld is a multibillion-dollar enterprise entirely dependent on the draw of its killer whales—orcas with reputations as playful and lovable, not murderous. I had little doubt the story had heavy spin.

"There is strong circumstantial evidence that Tilikum may have killed again," I went on. "He was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where a drunk climbed in over the wall one night and was found drowned in the whale's pool the next morning."

This second case, the 1999 death of Daniel Dukes, was more ambiguous, because there were no witnesses. The facility had cameras above and below water, but SeaWorld claims none captured the event. The SeaWorld theory was drowning and hypothermia. More details have come out since. This was a case of hypothermia in which the deceased was found the next morning draped over the back of Tilikum with his genitals bitten off.

The Veterinarian's Role

Most of what I know about the care of killer whales in captivity, and many of my insights into the culture at SeaWorld, I learned in interviews with Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko's physician. Back then, at the turn of the millennium, Cornell was in his mid-50s. For 14 years he had worked at SeaWorld, beginning as a veterinarian and rising through the ranks to senior vice president and zoological director, with responsibility for the entire animal collection in all of SeaWorld's parks. At the time, SeaWorld owned half the captive killer whales on the planet, and Cornell, until his departure in 1987, ministered to that flock. It was Cornell who, by intuition and experiment, had discovered the conditions and circumstances that would persuade orcas to breed in captivity, and he was obstetrician for the first birth. It was Cornell who had supervised SeaWorld's capture of orcas in Iceland.

Cornell had no love for the press, which swarmed all big Keiko events. No reporter's question irritated him more than a recurrent one: the suggestion that Cornell, as veterinarian, in restoring Keiko's health and fitness for a return to the wild, was doing some kind of penance. Was he making up, the reporter would ask, for all the orcas he had captured, all the orca families he had broken up? Cornell's features would freeze, and he would curtly dismiss this penance possibility and call for the next question.

But I wonder if it wasn't true. I can testify from listening to the deliberations of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation that no one was more dedicated to the goal of returning Keiko to the wild than Dr. Lanny Cornell. The vet, who began as a horse doctor, is a strong, stocky man, handsome in an aquiline, weathered, Marlboro-cowboy sort of way, tough and gruff and sardonic and opinionated.

His opinion of public relations at SeaWorld was low. He was baffled by how poorly his former company—under siege, even then, by a large segment of the press and public—went about representing itself to the world. SeaWorld, Cornell pointed out, did good, altruistic work in sea-mammal rescue and rehabilitation. But nobody knew. Somehow the PR people never got the word out.

SeaWorld had helped Cornell save Keiko's life. In the Mexico City theme park where Keiko lived and Free Willy was filmed, the whale was confined to a tank too cramped and warm. He was in terrible health, scarcely moving so as not to overheat, his pectoral fins warty with papilloma virus. SeaWorld experts advised that chillers would help solve the problem, and they sent those down. From SeaWorld San Diego, on hearing Cornell's report that Keiko's diet was poor, they trucked down high-quality fish. "He was eating fish that were not really stored properly," Cornell told me. "They would cut the heads off and gut the fish and feed him the fillets. What he was missing was bone and all the vitamins and minerals that come from the liver and the organs of an animal. It's very important for a wild predator to eat everything."

Keiko was not SeaWorld's whale; there was no profit for them in their good deed—not even as a public-relations coup.

SeaWorld's Letter of Denial

Public relations at SeaWorld remain dismal. In the case of Blackfish, the PR sin has been not been omission, but commission. SeaWorld must have known the content of Blackfish since at least January, when the film screened at the Sundance Festival, but for months the company simply kept quiet—the smart thing to do, obviously. Why risk the "banned in Boston" effect? Why publicize the efforts of the enemy? Then at the last moment the company changed course, sending out its letter to film critics ("In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following.").

This letter, SeaWorld's defense of itself and its attack on the integrity of the Magnolia Films documentary, is a tissue of obvious lies, detailed below.

Bullying: In its letter to film critics about Blackfish, SeaWorld challenges the implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau's death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word "bullying" is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to "rake" other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.

Tilikum, for starters, was not just a whale involved in Dawn Brancheau's death. Tilikum was the whale that killed her. "Bullying" is not meaningless when applied to the behavior of killer whales. "Bullying" is the correct term to use whenever one animal "in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy" (whether that hierarchy is orca, wolf, chimp, or human) asserts dominance over another. The term, indeed, is used only in those circumstances. And there is an obvious difference between the bullying and tooth-raking by wild whales in the ocean and tooth-raking by captive whales in a tank. Every killer whale expert I consulted, when I recited this SeaWorld claim, laughed sourly and pointed out the obvious: In the ocean a whale can get away.

Social structures: The letter also challenges the accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales, it says.

However, SeaWorld was built by breaking up killer whale families. Every orca colony in every SeaWorld facility began as a kind of orphanage. The founding fathers and mothers in each facility were plucked as calves from their pods, after long chases by aircraft and speedboats tossing bombs, with collateral deaths in nets of siblings and cousins. When Washington State banned SeaWorld from state waters for these practices, SeaWorld moved its collecting operation to Iceland.

Two of the Iceland captures, Tilikum and Keiko, on arriving as calves at their British Columbia and Ontario marine parks, were thrown in with orcas from the Pacific Northwest. The various tribes of orcas vocalize in very different patterns. The North Atlantic vocalizations of Tilikum and Keiko were as different from those of their Pacific tank-mates as Old Norse of Iceland is different from Haida or Tlingit or Kwakiutl. SeaWorld, says SeaWorld, "does everything possible to support social structures." What social structures? SeaWorld facilities hold scrambled nations and cultures of whales. The societies in these tanks are less like the intricate societies of wild orca clans than like the accidental assemblies you find in any drunk tank on Saturday night.

Training: The letter claims that SeaWorld has never used punishment-based training on any of its animals, including Tilikum, only positive reinforcement. And the behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale's natural range of behaviors.

SeaWorld, it's true, does primarily rely on positive reinforcement, though occasionally it resorts to punishment as a fallback, as former SeaWorld trainers testify in Blackfish, and as ex-trainers of my acquaintance have told me. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative, as the psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated long ago.

But the claim that the behaviors reinforced are "always within the killer whale's natural range of behaviors" is much more of a stretch. How is the "pec wave" within the natural range of orca behaviors? (The killer whale circles the tank on its side, waving its pectoral fin at the crowd.) How is the "bow" in any way natural? (The killer whale humps out of the pool onto the "slide-out" and curtsies by arching its back, the head flexed upward at one end, tailfin at the other.) Do orcas, somewhere along the spectrum of natural behavior, sometimes slide ashore and flex like Arnold Schwarzenegger to intimidate their victims?

And what is this all about, anyway, the Jungian meaning, this enormous, toothy predator trained to haul out and genuflect to an amphitheater full of Lilliputians? It's like a scene from Spartacus.

One behavior reinforced at SeaWorld is X-rated and never seen by the crowd, but Blackfish includes a somewhat expurgated version. It is video of Tilikum. He has been trained to lie on his back at the edge of the pool, extrude his penis, and donate sperm. Tilikum, the biggest orca in captivity, is also enormous in his equipment. The orca penis is not just big—it narrows to a tip that is prehensile and active. Aroused, the tip casts about, as if sniffing the water for clues. In the Tilikum video, the two female trainers struggling to manage the sperm donation seem to be losing a wrestling match with an anaconda.

How this scene could possibly play out under the ocean and in the killer whale's natural range of behaviors is hard to imagine.

There is something disheartening about this video, something degrading to the majesty of the killer whale, whether Tilikum feels it or not. And something deeply disquieting. Why, the viewer wonders, is this animal a sperm donor? Samantha Berg, one of the former SeaWorld trainers interviewed in Blackfish, expresses this well. She points out that any pit bull with tendencies like Tilikum's would have been euthanized long before his third homicide, and certainly never would have become the star of a breeding program. Tilikum is the most prolific sperm donor in the history of orca captivity. Today more than half of SeaWorld's orcas have Tilikum genes. It is truly beyond comprehension. What sort of short-sighted greed and recklessness is this?

The ponytail defense: The letter disputes the documentary's assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because the whale was driven crazy by his years in captivity. SeaWorld claims that Tilikum did not attack Dawn. It says that all evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.

SeaWorld's contention that Tilikum did not attack Dawn Brancheau is their most craven and unforgivable claim of the "Dear Film Critic" letter. Nothing SeaWorld says in explanation of the attack is true. Dawn's ponytail was not a novelty. Ponytails are commonplace on orca trainers, both women and men—a convenient style for people always in and out of the water. Footage from Blackfish shows Dawn on other days with her hair in a ponytail, happily working with Tilikum and other orcas. The whale did not pull her in by the ponytail, anyway. Video from Blackfish shows Tilikum grabbing her left arm. In court proceedings in the aftermath of her death, as Blackfish makes clear, the "spotter" who thought he had seen Tilikum seize the ponytail retracted that impression. That SeaWorld continues to suggest, three years later, that "all evidence" points to the ponytail is astounding.

The whale did not see the ponytail, or any other part of Dawn, "in his environment." Tilikum's environment is not Florida. Tilikum's environment is the cold, windy, herring-filled seas of Iceland from which he was yanked as a calf. There is no record, in all history, of an orca ever having harmed a human being in that environment, or anywhere else in the ocean. That world, the ocean, is where all killer whales belong and should be. Where Tilikum saw Dawn's ponytail, if he noticed it at all, was in the tank at SeaWorld. The only place killer whales ever kill and injure humans is here, in the confines of tanks like these.

Tilikum became so interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail, SeaWorld would have us believe, that he scalped and killed her. The autopsy report points to some impulse rougher than curiosity. In the words of Dr. Joshua Stephany, associate medical examiner for Orlando, Florida:

"Blunt force injuries of the head and neck: Avulsion of the scalp and associated galeal and subgaleal hemorrhage. Lacerations of the right ear. Abrasions of the left cheek. Fracture of the mandible, with associated laceration and hemorrhage of the oral mucosa. Fracture of the 7th cervical vertebra, with associated hemorrhage of the paravertebral musculature, epidural hemorrhage, and softening of the underlying spinal cord. Blunt force injuries of the torso: Abrasions of the upper left back. Fractures of the posterior aspects of the 9th through 11th left ribs. Fracture of the sternum at the level of the 2nd rib insertion. Liver lacerations. Hemoperitoneum (500 ml). Blunt force injuries of the extremities: Abrasions, lacerations, and contusions of the extremities. Complete avulsion of the upper left extremity with associated fracture of the proximal left humerus. Dislocation of the elbow. Dislocation of the left knee."

By "complete avulsion of the upper left extremity," Stephany means that Tilikum tore off Dawn's left arm. What he does not say is that the whale then swallowed it.

The Sea's Most Powerful Predator

Reading the autopsy report, I suddenly remembered—and then could not forget—several seconds of chilling documentary footage shot at Punta Valdez in Argentina: A bull orca materializes in a wave just off the beach, coming in fast, a transparent curl of water planing off his head. He lunges entirely out of the water, slides high up on the sand, seizes the hindquarters of a terrified bull sea lion galloping inland—a desperate rocking galumph, just a little too slow—and yanks the lion back into the sea.

For a moment the sea's surface is calm, both predator and prey vanished. Then, as punctuation, the killer whale breaks the surface and hurls the 700-pound sea lion 30 feet in the air.

There is no carnivore on the planet half so powerful as this one.

Killer whale people, in pondering Tilikum and where he went wrong, seem to center their suspicions on a 20- by 30-foot steel box at Sealand of the Pacific. In this cell, through his nights and a good portion of his days, Tilikum was confined with the facility's other orcas, emerging sometimes with rake marks in the morning. (Sealand was just a floating net pen. The owner, worried that animal-rights activists in scuba gear would cut the mesh and free the whales, installed this night box, in a pen that was small to begin with.)

"Psychotic," orca researcher Ken Balcomb, of Washington State, says in a Blackfish interview, searching for a word to describe how Tilikum came out of this experience. Balcomb's colleague to the north, Paul Spong, was uneasy with that word when I ran it by him. For 43 years, Spong has run OrcaLab, on Hanson Island in British Columbia. A psychologist at the start of his career, he is leery of applying terms from that lexicon to creatures that diverged from us 60 million years ago.

Almost all students of orca believe that they are deranged by captivity, some more than others. Tilikum's record puts him at one end of a continuum. There have been dozens of attacks on trainers by an assortment of orcas in the marine parks around the world. Blackfish shows video from several of these episodes at SeaWorld.

The scariest is the ordeal of a trainer, Ken Peters, in the jaws of Kasatka, a female born off Iceland in 1977, the same year as Keiko. Cameras above and below water show Kasatka taking Peters down to the bottom of the pool, again and again, by the foot. With each brief respite at the surface, Peters hyperventilates, knowing he is going down again. Kasatka finally releases his foot. Peters slides back along her body. On reaching her flukes, he swims sprinting to poolside. She turns back to catch him, but too late.

These are not bad whales. They just come with all the instincts of predators. My good twin, bad twin story is just a fable, and I probably should never have invented it. Tilikum, his trainers agree, was a joy to work with for most of his career. And Keiko, the good twin: I remember one training session in his Oregon facility, and the fear and tension on the trainer's face when he came out of the water. "Kake" (as the trainers nicknamed the whale) was just in a weird mood today, the man said, and the afternoon session was canceled.

What is remarkable about Orcinus orca in marine parks is not these rare episodes. What is remarkable is their monumental forbearance.

Ken Brower writes about the environment and the natural world. He is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine and has written three books for the National Geographic Society, among them "Realms of the Sea." He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read This Next

Watch these orcas turn the waves into a weapon
Why are these orcas killing sharks and removing their livers?
Watch humpbacks intervene as orcas attack a seal in Antarctica

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet