Tilikum Update: Orlando Sea World Death Continues to Reverberate; Questions Remain


It’s been three days since Orlando Sea World Trainer Dawn Brancheau died in an incident (was it an accident or attack?) involving Tilikum, a 30 year old bull Orca who weighs 12,000 pounds and was blamed for two previous deaths. What more do we know about what happened, and why?

Ric O’Barry, the former trainer of Flipper turned activist who was featured in the award winning documentary “The Cove” is claiming that warning signs were missed and is calling for a federal investigation into posslble violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Anyone who saw the bizarre Sea World news conference probably feels this isn’t a bad idea, because it’s hard to get a good feeling about Sea World management, given their performance in the presscon and other questionable ‘the show must go on’ decisions they have made in the aftermath of the tragedy. Poor old Jack Hannah has been putting himself out there as a punching bag for three days on CNN, bizarrely claiming that 92% of visitors to Sea World claim it’s the best experience in their life (he must be quoting some survey but it makes little sense).

Thad Lacinek, former head trainer at Sea World says that he believes Brancheau may have broken protocol by lying on a “slideout” (shallow underwater shelf) during her play with Tilikum, lettng her long ponytail (she was growing it out so she could cut it and donate to a cancer program) drifted into the water in front of Tilikum.

Unfortunately most of the debate thus far on TV has been between Hannah and one wild-eyed (or in one case, one-eyed) activist or another that within the first fifteen seconds degenerates into a shouting match with the activist shouting “whales shouldn’t be kept in bathtubs” and Hannah trying to outshout with his counter claims about how wonderful Sea World is and how Sea World has saved the Florida manatees and treats the whales wonderfully–citing the fact that they breed and eat as evidene that they are happy.

Here’s a link to a 7 minute video taken by a tourist who was in the audience and evidently shut off the camera minutes or perhaps seconds before Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau and pulled her under. My takeaway from this is that the interaction between Brancheau and Tilikum seemed to involve a lot of free-lancing by Brancheau doing things that really seemed designed primarily to get him fired up and playful — very much the way you’d play with a puppy or a cat and try to get them wound up. But doing that with a puppy is one thing, doing that with a 12,000 pound bull Orca who’s killed twice before seems a little, well, ill-advised. Watching it and seeing how she works to get him riled up, it’s not hard to imagine him getting carried away with play and grabbing her, pulling her under. But then again, Tilikum is a very intelligent creature who fully understands the limitations of what a human can endure. It’s hard to imagine he didn’t know what he was doing. Check out the video and form your own conclusion.

There have been some reports coming out that Brancheau–who clearly had enormous enthusiasm for what she was doing, and love for the animals she worked with–may have disregarded some of the protocols for dealing with Tilikum, whose main function at the facility was to be a stud (he’s fathered 8 calves) and was not a main focus of the shows. But just as quickly as that sort of speculation starts it gets swatted down by Sea World, allegedly out of respect for Brancheau.

Here is another tourist video that claims to have been taken a couple of hours before the incident, and claims to show Tilikum fighting with other Orcas and ignoring the show. The video has been picked up by some traditional media outlets and is being treated as legitimate, although I’m struck by how different the environment looks in this video, compared to the one of Brancheau interacting with Tillikum.

COMMENT: Because of the work I’ve done in the water with dolphins in the Bahamas filming Eye of the Dolphin and Beneath the Blue, I’ve been getting lots oe emails asking what I really think about this. I think that’s going to have to wait for another post, because I want to see if there is ever a real investigation. I’ll make a couple of observations, though. One is that the Alpha male in a pod of dolphins or Orca’s is quite a different creature in comparison to the much smaller females who are the focus of shows and “swim with” programs. For example at UNEXSO in the Bahamas, when we first went there in 2006 there were three alpha males — Bimini and Stripe, who got along and hung out together as a team, and Scarab. Every night when all the dolphins were put together into the huge main lagoon of UNEXSO (a natural body of water that’s 10 or 15 times larger than the Sea World lagoon — see picture), they would have to keep Scarab separated from Bimini and Stripe, alternating the nights when either Scarab or Bimini and Stripe would get to stay with the other 15 dolphins.
Also at UNEXSO, they didn’t use the Alpha males in the “swim with” program — although they did use them for the open water scuba diver program, in part because back then, Bimini and Stripe were the most reliable when it came taking them out in the open Ocean. I guess the point of this is that it seems a little strange to me that Brancheau would have been doing all the things she does ont the video which look very much like “teasing” the animal — and then, having gotten him riled up, she go into knee deep water water him and lay down and, it seems pretty much invited him to play with her. It just seems like she got overconfident and he got over excited. But that still leaves me wondering how Tilikum, as intelligent and experienced as he was, could lose signt of Brancheau’s relatively fragile human nature–with all that this implies for her ability to stay underwater and otherwise survive rough Orca play, if that’s what this was. I have too much respect for cetacean intelligence to believe that Tilikum didn’t know what he was doing; yet I don’t think it was an out and out attack, either. I will write more about this after I’ve had a chance to learn more and consult with some experts.

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~ by Michael D. Sellers on February 27, 2010.

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