Examining Killer Whales after the Tragic SeaWorld Attack

(Images via: South Villa Orlando, Flickr, Wikimedia)

Since the sad and shocking death of a SeaWorld trainer who was attacked by a killer whale earlier this week, much speculation has ensued about what would happen to Tilikum, the 12,000 pound orca in question. Earlier today, SeaWorld’s president announced that Tilikum will not be euthanised or punished for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who suffered multiple injuries and drowned after being grabbed by the ponytail and dragged into the water by the whale during a session of SeaWorld’s Shamu Believe Show on Wednesday.

In a press conference this morning, SeaWorld added that the controversial Tilikum, which had been linked with two prior human deaths, will continue to be featured in the park’s upcoming shows, set to resume on Saturday. While a review of the killer whale attack is ongoing, SeaWorld said that trainers will not be allowed to swim with any of the park’s killer whales, which have been cast into a national spotlight following this tragedy.

The Misleading Name of the Killer Whale


(Images via: Yale, Yukul, Nature Crusaders)

Here are a few surprising facts about killer whales before examining this week’s stunning attack in more detail. Killer whales, or orcas, are not actually whales but the world’s largest dolphins. Powerful predators that stalk seals, sea lions, and even other whales and sharks for food and survival, killer whales are generally not seen as a threat to humans. While there have been several killer whale attacks on humans in confined settings over the years, these situations have often been described as isolated and rare incidents.

So What May Have Prompted the Killer Whale Attack?

(Image via: Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/Associated Press)

While SeaWorld has not admitted human error on behalf of Brancheau (seen above), her mentor has indicated that she likely made a mistake by getting too close to the whale’s face. According to some reports, Brancheau was lying in rather than standing in an area meant to interact with the whale. It is suspected that Brancheau’s hair may have brushed Tilikum’s face and even its mouth, which may have confused the whale and caused it to attack the trainer. Sadly, this event happened in front of an audience that was initially unsure what was occurring until the orca started violently thrashing the trainer.

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Tilikum’s Controversial Past Adds to Mystery

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Even before this week’s attack, SeaWorld trainers reportedly were not supposed to be in the water with Tilikum due to the killer whale’s history. Tilikum was one of three killer whales that drowned a SeaWorld trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1991. Eight years later, a dead man was found floating on Tilikum’s back. It was later determined that the man sneaked into the whale’s tank and drowned. With the whale’s history in light of this week’s death, there has naturally been some people who’ve wondered if Tilikum is a danger to its trainers and should be killed. Apparently, SeaWorld does not feel that this is the case, as evident in its decision to keep the killer whale a part of its shows and its explanation that the circumstances surrounding all three deaths varied.

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Early Reaction to SeaWorld’s Handling of Tilikum

(Images via: Thunda Funda, Answers in Genesis, SMH)

According to those close to Brancheau, she would have never wanted Tillikum to be harmed, thus suggesting that she would have been happy with the park’s decision. Likely not as happy with the decision, PETA and other organizations have argued that this killer whale attack is further evidence of the dangers of taking animals out of their natural habitats, and then called for Tilikum to be released gradually into the wild, a scenario that others say is not viable since the whale has become so dependent on humans for its survival. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to monitor when Tilikum is incorporated back into SeaWorld’s shows and to gauge how killer whales in general are viewed in terms of audience attendance and public opinion. Also worth noting, SeaWorld has said that Tilikum has not been separated from the park’s other orcas since the attack, although the whale was not present in a glass tank of killer whales that was directly behind today’s press conference.

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