Tilikum, the killer Orca whale, was responsible for at least three horrific deaths during his 36-year life span.
The most infamous death occurred when Tilikum pulled trainer Dawn Brancheau under water by her ponytail in front of a crowd at SeaWorld. But it was not his first fatal confrontation with a human being. In fact, Tilikum’s second victim was found draped over the whale’s back.
The killer whale, which was featured in the documentary, Blackfish, died at SeaWorld on January 6 after suffering from a persistent bacterial infection.
SeaWorld Cares said in a statement that the whale died surrounded by trainers and other staff, and that he was on the tail end of the expected life span for such a whale. The Humane Society said in a statement that SeaWorld had discontinued breeding the killer whales after the documentary discussed the problems of keeping killer whales in captivity.
Here’s what you need to know about deaths attributed to the famous whale:
Trainer Dawn Brancheau
Tilikum was best known for causing the death of a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau.
Brancheau, 40, “was interacting with Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when he pulled her from a platform and held her under the water,” reported the New York Daily News.
The family sought to have the death video kept from the public, but a tourist did capture Brancheau’s final moments alive in an amateur video you can watch above.
News organizations eventually abandoned their quest to inspect and publicize images from a surveillance video feed that captured Brancheau’s death.
Brancheau’s death was violent. ABC News reported, “Tilikum broke its trainer’s jaw, fractured part of her vertebra and dislocated one of her elbows and a knee.” The whale had pulled Brancheau by her long ponytail so forcibly that part of her scalp was torn off, according to ABC News. You can read the autopsy report here; warning, it’s graphic.
Trainer Keltie Byrne
According to CNN, Byrne, 20, “had slipped and fallen into the orca tank” at Sealand. There were three whales in the tank: Tilikum, Haida and Nootka.
CNN described Byrne as “an exceptionally strong swimmer,” but, as another person tried to pull her back out of the tank, a whale “grabbed her back foot and pulled her under. And then the whales — they bounced her around the pool a whole bunch of times, and she was screaming for help.”
You can read the report from the coroner’s inquest into Byrne’s 1991 death here.
The report says that, after conducting a whale show, the trainers had initiated a “play” session at the whale pool. Byrne picked up coolers used to carry fish and walked along the pool. “For reasons undetermined, she fell into the whale pool,” the report said.
The whales moved her away from the pool’s edge. “Rescue attempts with safety equipment by fellow staff members were thwarted by the whales,” continued the report. For 10 minutes, the whales repeatedly submerged Byrne “for varying intervals” but she appeared unconscious.
Trainers tried to distract the whales and otherwise gain them under control, including using a large net. Eventually, Byrne’s body was removed from the pool with a net, but she was already dead.
An inquest jury made a series of recommendations, including that staff members should be assigned to actively monitor safety, Sealand should develop a system to securely isolate one or more whales in the pool, and life lines should be attached around
Dukes, 27, was a drifter known to love nature when he was found dead, draped over Tilikum’s back.
Somehow, wrote the Orlando Sentinel, Dukes snuck into “the whale’s 1.5 million-gallon tank,” although no one was sure why or how. Before he dove into the tank, “Dukes left few clues behind. A marijuana cigarette was found inside his pile of clothes with a worn-out Florida Department of Motor Vehicles identification card,” reported the newspaper.
Dukes, who was most recently living in a Hare Krishna temple in Florida, did not survive the SeaWorld swim.
You can read Dukes’ medical examiner’s report here.
Other Famous Whale Attacks
Tilikum is not the only whale at SeaWorld to have attacked a trainer. In 2006, another whale attacked a trainer, but the trainer in that incident survived. You can watch the video above.