This post is weird and embarrassing. But so be it.
My brain does this thing where every now and then it gets stuck on something. Usually it’s something random that has nothing to do with my life. But next I thing I know, I suddenly go all Civil War Re-enactory on it and I find myself researching it obsessively.
Then, yes, I’ll talk about it this thing too much … until I realize that I sound like a nut. I then attempt to reverse course in mid-conversation because what on earth am I doing walking around knowing what kind of mug General Grant drank his ale out of after the Battle of Whoozeewhutsit?
There’s just no reason to know some things. Yet here I am, ready to answer your questions about ghosts in Eastern State Penitentiary, the Manson murders, Nancy Spungen, The Hotel Chelsea, the murder of Hae Min Lee, Robert Durst, the Duggar family (I TOLD YOU THIS POST WAS EMBARRASSING), and a host of other things I can’t think of right now …
Wow. That’s sort of murdery list, huh? Well, then I guess the one I’m going to talk about today fits right in.
A Whale of an Obsession
<insert collective groan over that subhead here>
Back in 2005, my brain got stuck on Tilikum, SeaWorld’s famous/infamous killer whale.
At that time, having not yet completed the triad of deaths that catapulted him to international fame, Tilikum was not a household name.
Of course, thanks to Blackfish, now everyone knows Tilkum’s tragic story.
And just last week, SeaWorld has released the news that Tilikum is extremely ill and is probably dying.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. I don’t know Tilikum personally – he wouldn’t recognize me if we ran into each other at the Orlando Publix — but I feel like I’ve had a relationship with him for the last 11 or so years. He, maybe more than just about anything on my weird list of obsessions, has occupied a lot of my brain space.
This all started when I was planning my first grown-up trip to SeaWorld. I’d been there once before – in 1983 on a trip with my family. I became enthralled with killer whales after seeing “Shamu” and “Namu” on that trip. When planning my trip in 2005, I was curious to find out if I’d be seeing the exact same whales I’d seen as a child.
That innocent little Google search led down an Internet rabbit hole that I never expected.
I first stumbled onto some information about injuries to killers whales in captivity. I’d had no idea that these creatures – which appeared so gentle and friendly – could be so vicious to each other when they were removed from their natural environments.
But, of course, that wasn’t all. I also found information about multiple incidents in which killer whales had attacked people. In fact, there had been two deaths in two different parks.
If you’ve seen Blackfish, you know how a trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell into a tank at SeaLand of the Pacific in Canada and never came back out.
The second death took place right at SeaWorld Orlando, where we were planning to visit. A supposed drifter named Daniel Dukes allegedly jumped into a killer whale tank after hours. He was found dead the next morning. The company said he’d died of hypothermia. However, his body had been badly mutilated — to the point that his genitals were even ripped off.
This was all pretty shocking. Keep in mind, back in 2005, the Blackfish narrative did not exist yet, so it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the death in Canada and the death in Orlando involved the same whale.
But once the dots connected, it took my breath away.
It had been Tilikum both times. And Tilikum was currently performing at SeaWorld Orlando. This was the whale we were going to see on our visit.
Terrified and Fascinated
As we filed into Shamu Stadium in August of 2005, I was pretty amped up. I was so excited for my little daughter to see the whales – and to see them myself – but I was also very conflicted about seeing Tilikum.
Even before we arrived, I drew the same conclusion many people have now drawn: This poor guy was probably not a killer by nature, but rather by circumstance. But still, there was something that seemed off about sitting in a stadium and applauding Tilikum when two people were dead.
He closed the show that day. At 12,000 pounds, he was about a third bigger than the other whales we had been watching, and his part of the act was clearly designed to showcase his enormity.
He swam around the front of the pool and swiped gallons of water onto the people in the front rows. They squealed with delight.
I, too, was delighted by him. It’s hard not to be delighted by killer whales. But I didn’t get the sense that anyone else realized that this giant, lovable crowd-drenching galoot had killed two people. Had any anyone else noticed that Tilikum was the only whale to perform without a trainer in the pool? Did they wonder why?
After the show, we went to see Tilikum in the underwater viewing area. There was a big window that looked into his tank. He swam in fast circles. Really fast. He’d cruise past the window and then, it seemed, before I had a chance to turn my head to anticipate his next loop, there he was again. One small swoosh of his tail was all it seemed to take. I wondered if he’d been trained to swim at the window level.
It was hypnotic. I could’ve watched him for hours.
His Place in My Head
When we got home, I thought about Tilikum a lot (because, hi, my brain is super weird). When I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t count sheep. Instead, I’d picture him swimming endless circles in his pool.
Tail thump, woooosh, tail thump, woooosh.
I even wrote a short story for Gotham Writers’ Workshop about a young girl who prays for a flood to overtake Orlando so Tilikum could swim out of his tank.
Then, oddly enough, during Hurricane Katrina, that very thing happened to some dolphins in Gulfport, MS. I had spent that week obsessively watching TV, as my former city drowned. I barely slept at all that week. I tried to imagine Tilikum, only that time he followed me into my dream … I fell into his pool, just like Keltie Byrne had. But Tilikum and I were friends … I was trying to save him with my flood, so certainly he wasn’t going to come for me, right? But then I saw his black and white shape at the bottom of the pool pointed in my direction. He was heading my way fast. I woke up before he got to me.
Not an Accident
In 2010, I heard that a trainer had supposedly fallen into a killer whale tank and drowned at SeaWorld Orlando. I didn’t need the news report to tell me whose tank she had supposedly slipped into.
It was no surprise at all when SeaWorld changed its story about the accident after guests starting coming forward and stating that Tilikum had grabbed Dawn Brancheau.
I devoured all the information I could. The police interview with Laura Surovik, Brancheau’s best friend and the person who was ultimately able to get Tilikum to give up Brancheau’s body, is both touching and chilling.
Tim Zimmerman did some excellent reporting for Outside magazine, which was later the basis for his book Killer in the Pool. David Kirby wrote Death at SeaWorld, which presented a pretty comprehensive look at how killer whales behave in the world vs. how they are forced to adapt to life in captivity.
Violated by Aliens
Of course, then came Blackfish. The movie covered a lot of familiar ground for me, but it also presented a lot of material I hadn’t seen before.
One scene in particular really disturbed me — the one in which SeaWorld trainers are harvesting sperm from Tilikum.
First off, it has to be said that seeing an erect killer whale penis is totally, totally shocking. I mean, it’s maybe six feet long and it’s shaped like a curly fry.
But the thing that killed me is … you know, here is this creature that scientists believe may be even more intelligent than humans. And there he was, all 12,000 pounds of Tilikum, lying on the side of a pool, being attended to by bunch of tiny humans in black and white wet suits who were manipulating his babymaker and collecting his semen.
I couldn’t help but imagine the human equivalent of that – you’ve been captured by tiny aliens who then dress up in people costumes and poke around your genitals.
If killer whales are smart as scientists think they are, Tilikum was very aware of what was going on.
John Hargrove, one of the trainers featured in Blackfish, released an absolutely fascinating book last year called Beneath the Surface. In it, he makes the alien comparison as well. While he was not on the team that helped harvest sperm, he was on a team that artificially inseminated many of the females. The last time he had to do it, he just kept whispering “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” to the whale.
What Do You With A Dead Whale?
So what now?
Tilikum may be living out his final days. If all things were possible … and real life could play out just like the movies … I’d like to imagine Tilikum going back to the ocean one more time. It could be some great inter-generational, inter-species buddy pic, where one of the former trainers kidnaps old Tilikum out of his makeshift hospice tank in the middle of the night, drapes a bathrobe over him, and throws the big guy in a killer whale-sized wheelchair pointed toward open water … even if Tilikum got five minutes in the ocean, maybe he could die with a little peace.
But life is not like that. The waters of Florida are too warm for killer whales. I recall reading somewhere (have to dig this up …) that Iceland, where Tilikum is from, has said that it doesn’t want any more captive whales released there because gawd knows what sort of bacteria they might introduce into the water. Besides, the trip alone would probably kill him.
It’s pretty clear that Tilikum is going to die in the pools at SeaWorld Orlando, where’s he lived for decades, and where he’s taken two lives. Dr. Jeff Ventre, one of the trainers who appeared in Blackfish, writes that they have unsubstantiated information that a crane is at the ready so Tilikum can be lifted out of the pool after he dies. Ventre also gives a sad account of what Tilikum is likely to experience at the very end, and how trainers could be in extreme danger during at that time.
What will they do with his body? I’ve read some disturbing things online but I don’t know if they’re true so I won’t repeat them. Certainly, SeaWorld has a protocol for disposing of very large carcasses.
But I imagine the world will be watching especially closely to see what they do with Tilikum. Will they bury him? Create a shrine? A life-size bronze statue? Is it appropriate to memorialize a whale who has such a violent history with humans? Are there ordinances about burying whales? I have no idea about any of this.
At this point, there’s probably not a right answer for what to do with him. And, let’s face it, SeaWorld has already been so very off-the-mark with poor Tilikum. To let such a dangerous animal continue to perform for the public has been pretty tasteless. It’s like bringing your life-of-the-party pal to someone’s house … everyone loves him until he gets too drunk, barfs on the new rug, and tries to impregnate the dog. All that stuff cancels out the good times you were having prior to then.
SeaWorld was completely tone deaf to that. Instead of acknowledging that Tilikum was suffering and attending to his physical and psychological needs in a meaningful way, they just threw a lampshade back on his head.
It’s not fun to applaud a killer, even if it’s one you that you can empathize with.
Personally, I’d like to see Tilikum buried at sea. Yes, it’s too little too late. It would be the irony of ironies to return him to the ocean after he’s gone. And he’s probably so full of antibiotics and other potentially harmful crap that dumping him in the water would be toxic to other creatures. So this is another fantasy of mine that would never happen.
Scientists have found whale skeletons that they believe have been on the ocean floor for years. These often become habitats for other creatures. Some scientists speculate that … just maybe … there could be “whale graveyards” where high numbers of whales have all perished due to whaling or stranding.
So let’s indulge in another fantasy for a moment. Imagine that Tilikum’s body got returned to his home waters. His corpse is discovered by his pod. They recognize him as one of theirs — maybe some of the really old ones even remember the baby whale that was taken from them when he was only two years old. They wonder … could it be?
The pod decides to take this long-lost family member home. They scoop him up and, as one, they thump-swoosh, thump-swoosh until they deliver him to their pod’s final resting place. Then, far at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by family, Tilikum may finally rest, in a place human eyes have never seen.
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