With the news that SeaWorld is ending its captive orca breeding program, many are wondering what’s going to happen to the resident whales.
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, CEO Joel Manby said none of the captive orcas will be released into the wild as they would not survive. Instead, the whales will live out their days at SeaWorld and that includes Tilikum.
Tilikum the orca is one of SeaWorld Orlando’s most famous residents and also its most controversial, having been allegedly responsible for the death of three people.
Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld in 1992 after his home in B.C. was closed down.
He is still the largest orca in captivity, weighing 12,500 pounds.
He was caught near Iceland in 1983 and eventually ended up at Sealand of the Pacific, an aquarium in South Oak Bay, near Victoria. The aquarium opened in 1969 and housed a number of orcas captured from the wild, but most died after being in captivity.
Tilikum was held at the aquarium, along with two other females, Nootka IV and Haida II, and the three of them were responsible for the death of Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old trainer, in 1991. Byrne slipped and fell into a pool after a show and the three whales reportedly did not let her get out of the pool and she drowned.
Sealand closed shortly after the incident and all three of the whales were sold to SeaWorld in 1992.
Steve Huxter was Tilikum’s trainer at Sealand of the Pacific. He said over the past few decades the general public’s perception of orcas have changed, partly due to Sealand and SeaWorld.
“In 1994 and 96, both [Oak Bay and Victoria governments] enacted bylaws that forbids performing animal acts within municipal boundaries,” he said.
“When Tilikum left us he was a stressed animal, but all the same, he was a passive, a very gentle animal,” added Huxter. “He was the favourite among the staff, although we didn’t like to have favourites.”
He said he believes captivity changed Tilikum. “When [he] left Sealand he had a perfect set of teeth,” said Huxter. “Now his teeth are just worn down nubs because he’s been so bored over the years he’s chewed at the gates and the side of the pool.”
He said to see what has happened to Tilikum makes him sad and angry. “It’s not his fault, any of these killer whales in captivity, it’s not their fault they’re acting out. They’re acting out because we put them in that position.”
It was announced in March that Tilikum is sick from a bacterial infection in his lungs and has been resistant to treatment so far.