Death at SeaWorld: Inside the Abduction of Tilikum, the Whale That’s Killed Three Times

TakePart writer David Kirby shares from his book on its one-year anniversary.

Tilikum whale

Tilikum, the notorious killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs during the show ‘Believe’ in Orlando on September 3, 2009. (Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

It has been an honor and pleasure to have written the tragic and moving story of Tilikum, the three-time killer orca, and of the continuing saga of killer whales in captivity.

Today, July 2, my book Death at SeaWorld—Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, appears in paperback, just in time for summer beach reading.

I have selected the chapter called “Capture” to excerpt here. The section is speculative, written from Tilikum’s perspective, but based on factual events about the taking of Tilikum, when he was two, from his mother’s side in the waters off Iceland. It ends with Tilikum grabbing the first of three people he would kill in his 30 years in captivity. My hope in sharing this is that it lends readers some understanding of how captivity can turn orcas into killers.

Excerpt from Death at SeaWorld:

The East Fjords of Iceland are sliced from some of the most rugged and breathtaking chunks of earth found on the planet. Here, along this supremely isolated stretch of coast, as far across the island from Reykjavik as one can journey, a sawtooth pattern of bays and deep-water fjords were carved into the volcanic stone by retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age.

Each year, large numbers of Icelandic orcas descend on this end of the island and its sheltered fjords, the preferred overwintering grounds of Atlantic herring, their favorite meal.

Imagine for a moment you are a young killer whale, a male, about two years old, maybe nine feet long, swimming alongside the safety of your mother through cold choppy seas, a generous stratum of blubber insulating you from the chill.

You began eating fish a year ago but still try to coax your mom into squeezing a bit more fatty white milk into the water near your probing rostrum. Once in a while she acquiesces. But she has made it clear that your nursing days are drawing to a close. If you want to eat, well, here you are at the mouth of a narrow fjord filled with silvery herring. Eat already. As the youngest sibling, you get the traveling spot next to your mother, which you won’t relinquish until she has another calf, in a few more years (Icelandic males might stay with their mother for life; scientists are unsure). For now, you are the center of attention.

There is enough fish for everybody. But you are puzzled by those odd dark blobs bobbing on the surface. You don’t know what boats are yet, or realize the lacy curtains draping from their bows trap herring. You are dying to satisfy your curiosity, but your mom keeps you in line.

Your world is primarily acoustic, filled with the sounds of sea. It’s a never-ending symphony of clicks, whistles, squeals and yelps from your own family, backed by a chorus beneath the waves: The clicks of other orcas; the horsing around of dolphins; the rolling of stones on the ocean floor; the eerie song of a humpback whale, a hundred miles out to sea.

When not engrossed in the ocean’s music, you splash about in the chop of a blustery afternoon, or play with your siblings, your food, and kelp. When you “spy-hop” (pop up vertically to have a look around), your excellent eyesight sees settlements, sheep and volcanic formations like nothing underwater. The sunsets are spectacular.

You’re a happy whale. (Science says animal contentment cannot be measured, though SeaWorld officials state they “know” their orcas are happy, an illogical inconsistency).

Then one morning, the world as you know it comes to an end. As your pod forages for herring near Berufjördur, a painfully loud clackityclack-clack reverberates through the water. One of the blobs, a boat, you are about to learn, approaches. Your family senses something is wrong. They turn away from the boat. Your mother shrieks. Danger! Flee! Gripped with terror, you try to catch up with her.

Then you’re stopped. You kick your flukes furiously, trying to propel through the water, but you cannot swim. You have darted into the lacy curtain. So has your entire family. Your family swims around the perimeter, but there’s no exit. You’re in there for hours, flailing about with nowhere to go.

Suddenly, you are snagged in another net. You cry out in fear, calling for your mother. Creeee! Eeeeeee! The net is pulled through the water, closer to the boat. Your heart races and you surface to breathe. What is going on? Where is your mom?

Then you hear her. You have never heard this wretched wail before: Mournful, ragged, spiked with terror. Your other relatives join the remonstration. You answer their cries with your own chaotic vocalizations as you’re hauled up on a sling, now suspended in the air. The harsh wind on your wet skin feels alien and frightening. You can hear your family’s cries as they mill about.

This morning you were happy. Now you are trapped in hell.

The sling is lowered onto the deck and you’re placed in a large tub of seawater. Men in parkas and wool hats yell to each other in vocalizations that are deep, fearsome, and indecipherable. You miss your mother already. She has never been more than a few feet from your side. You can hear her, calling for you in despair, next to the hull in the open sea. Then you hear a mechanical roar and you are moving across the water.

Over the engine’s din you can make out the wails of your family. Freed from the nets, they’re following the boat. You wonder when this will end so you can be reunited with your pod, your herring and kelp.

That will never happen.

You chug along. Eventually your mother tires and stops following. You no longer hear your family. You’re alone, sick with worry. Men yell again as your tub is put on a flatbed and driven another two hours. You’re lifted by another sling; this time lowered into a small tank inside a shed. You cannot see the sky and there’s little sound. You have never heard such silent water.

Two other orcas share your tank, one male, one female, about your age, but you don’t know them. When they begin making sounds, you cannot recognize their vocalizations. They seem as confused and dejected as you.

A year goes by. Humans coax you into jumping from the water and touching your rostrum to a ball. It gives you something to do, and they give you fish each time.

More humans come to stare, pointing, laughing and producing flashes that bother your eyes. Then your tank mates disappear, one at a time. Finally, your day comes. You’re put into another tub and loaded onto a cargo plane.

Hours later, you’re in a watery enclosure thousands of miles away. You don’t know it, but you are in a different ocean; the Pacific. The small pool you are in is netted off from a bay and surrounded by floating docks, on which lots people and flashing lights have gathered to gawk. Beyond the nets, you hear killer whales out in the strait.

There are two other orcas here, older, larger, and female. Both came from Iceland, but you don’t recognize their vocalizations. You miss your mother and think one of these females will be kind, comfort you. But they’re too busy fighting for dominance. Humans call them names: “Nootka” and “Haida.” Before long, you are being called “Tilikum.”

You are subdominant. The only time Nootka and Haida pay attention is when they harass you, rake you with their teeth and chase you around the tank. You wanted succor; now you just want escape. You are denied both.

Most nights, you and the females are locked in an indoor metal tank barely large enough to accommodate you. Humans call this the “module.” You quickly learn to despise it. They often lock you up in there for 14 hours on end. There’s barely room to turn around, let alone escape your cellmates. You cut and scratch yourselves on the metal sides. When the females are feeling aggressive, your life becomes hell. Your skin is perpetually covered in scars.

One night when Nootka is particularly hostile, she swings her head at you, jaws agape, only to smash her rostrum into the metal wall. Her head starts hemorrhaging and blood spouts from her blowhole. Other mornings, when let out of the tomblike structure, part of your fluke looks like hamburger.

If you refuse to enter the module, which you sometimes do, humans cut back on your dead fish (you sorely miss live fish. In fact, there seems to be a food shortage. You’re kept in a state of perpetual peckishness. But you learn that if you jump out of the water as taught, you can tamp down hunger, though it never fully goes away. Eventually, you cannot wait to perform.

This goes on for seven years. You mature. You grow. Your dorsal fin sprouts and then flops over. You get horny. Nootka and Haida, though dominant over you, still want to breed. You oblige them. By the time you’re 10, they’re both pregnant. Your life is so different from what you remember in Iceland. You yearn for winters in Berufjördur, for your mother. Humans are okay, but why do they lock you up with such overbearing females each night?

You become unsettled. You get neurotic, aching for change. Then one afternoon, a trainer dips her foot in the water. You have never seen this before. You are bored. You grab her foot.

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