In February 2010, handler Dawn Brancheau was in another show at SeaWorld in Orlando, one of the largest water parks in the world, by the pool. The benches were full, as was the restaurant terrace overlooking the central pool. The star of the moment was Tilikum, the largest orca living there.
Dawn had worked with Tilikum for several years. In one of the routines, she leaned over the pool while Tilikum peered. The companion caressed the giant of the seas in the head, as she had done in so many other shows. From one moment to the next he falls violently into the pool.
SeaWorld argues that it was pulled from the ponytail. But witnesses disagreed with this version, saying that Tilikum’s jaw pulled her arm or shoulder. What is certain is that Dawn has gone into hiding with the strength of an animal she has always known. In a panic, other guards try to convince Tilikum to free Dawn. The animal, weighing 5.7 tons, keeps the handler underwater, even if he manages to get him to another pool, which is smaller and far from the public, in order to calm him down.
45 minutes pass before Dawn is released by Tilikum. Only hours later, the body is removed from the tank. The autopsy revealed death from drowning and trauma. Dawn’s spine was broken, as were the bones in her chin and ribs. The knee and elbow were dislocated. The animal had completely torn off its scalp. The news shocked the world, but life in the park went on.
This could be an isolated case. However, when Gabriela Cowperthwaite began the investigation, she found that there was more news of other attacks, some lawsuits were never resolved, and a pattern that SeaWorld was beginning to notice. And there was more: this was not the first death caused by Tilikum. It was actually the third.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s research was the beginning of Blackfish (Orca – Animal Fury in Portuguese), a 2013 documentary that is currently part of the Netflix catalog. Among the thousand and one novelties arriving on the platform, it’s worth opening the chest and exploring what else there is to discover. “Blackfish” is one of those hidden gems, a documentary by those who open the conversation about the impact a film can have beyond the screen.
Tilikum is the protagonist.
Tilikum was captured at a young age off the coast of Iceland in 1983. Orcas are animals that have been used to travel great distances in the ocean, but Tilikum almost always grew in captivity. It was in 1992 when it arrived at SeaWorld in Orlando and became synonymous with terror when Blackfish revealed its past.
It is important to know that although known as the killer whale, there is virtually no record of orca attacks on humans in their natural habitat. The animal is a predator, but usually has seals in one of its favorite dishes. He is an intelligent hunter who is able to program the surprise attack near the coast (return to sea with the current) and attack in groups, breaking blocks of ice until the captured victim has nowhere else to run. We are still learning more about these animals, but we know that fortunately humans are not their target.
That is why the Tilikum register is impressive. The animal was the protagonist of three deaths for years without noticing anything. According to the documentary, Tilikum was involved in another death at a Canadian water park 19 years before Dawn’s death. It was February 1991 before he moved to Orlando.
Keltie Byrne was far less experienced than Dawn. I was only 21 years old and worked part time at Sealand. He stumbled by the pool and fell in. When she tried to leave, one of the orcas pulled her. It wasn’t a quick death. The different orcas were excited and one of them held them underwater for a few seconds. When she returned to the surface, Ketley yelled for help, but was again submerged. In the end, he didn’t survive what happened in the tank that contained Tilikum and two other orcas. Although witnesses are unsure, it is believed that Tilikum was responsible.
“Blackfish” has multiple testimonials and experts, former handlers and hunters who caught the orcas that were still bred for water parks. With them we created a biography of an animal that was kept closed every night for years, with the other two orcas in a six by nine meter tank, in the dark and without space or stimulation. The next morning several traces of prosthesis were seen on the animals. Tilikum was two years old when, still docile, he was brought into these surroundings. He grew up there to move to Orlando. After the attack, Sealand closed. Tilikum was sold.
There were already episodes at SeaWorld that should have triggered the alarm. Tilikum reappeared as the protagonist in most of these episodes. In some cases, the water park has destroyed images indicating potentially dangerous behavior. But on July 6, 1999, another case made the news. A 27-year-old man, Daniel P. Dukes, decided to hide and stay in the park after hours. His naked body was found in Tilikum’s pool the next day. The cause of death? Hypothermia. But the version seems short to explain everything.
Neither cameras nor guards will have spotted the man. And the coroner’s report pointed to other injuries, including bites all over her body. The genitals will have been pulled out. It is not known if this happened to him during his lifetime or if the animal was bored and had fun with a corpse. What is certain is that Daniel was not found floating. It was on Tilikum’s back as if the animal was showing what it had done to its prey.
The Blackfish Effect
Most orcas that grow in captivity see their dorsal fins collapse at some point, which is rare in the wild. Since only puppies are collected, the capture is often accompanied by families who make vocal noises while the puppies are being picked up. “It was like kidnapping a child from its mother,” we heard at one point in the comment from one of the hunters, reminiscing remorsefully about his work.
In uncovering all of this, the documentary resulted in what is known as the “Blackfish Effect”. SeaWorld saw sales decline over the next several years. They had to change some procedures and work in public relations. The organization has always accused the film of being propaganda. But among the testimonials and videos we heard, we found that a narrative had long been installed: If a goalkeeper was injured, it was the keeper’s fault. And at that point it was admitted that something had happened.
In 2018, SeaWorld was back on yesterday’s sales. For all that, the documentary is still a landmark today, with a dark story about how things can go wrong in captivity with giant animals that without our intervention would have miles of seas around them to escape when a moment of tension arises.
After Dawn’s death in 2010, Tilikum took part in public shows less and less. That doesn’t mean it was no longer valuable to the water park. Tilikum was the father of 21 chicks in his life. About half are still in captivity. Their genes span different generations of SeaWorld orcas.
On January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced his death: a bacterial infection. It is a cause of death that is not uncommon in whales. But it is more common among those who live in captivity. Especially with orcas, whose average life expectancy in captivity is around 30 years. They can live at large in the oceans for about 80 years, as much as the average life expectancy of people in developed countries.