25 min read

Blackfish Revisited

Blackfish tells the rather dark story of a captive orca named Tilikum. Tilikum and his pool mates at a marine park called Sealand were trained using group punishment, and Tilikum as the newest, youngest orca was often raked by the other orcas when he didn't get a behavior right. Tilikum and his pool mates spent much of the day locked in small metal cages, with food deprivation used to lure them into their cages. After killing a Sealand staff member, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld and ultimately goes on to kill 2 more people.

The backdrop to this includes the sad story of the capture of orcas in the Pacific Northwest. Then Blackfish goes on to show a collection of dangerous incidents of other orcas with people and orca on orca aggressions. These result in the death of another person and an orca. The moral is that orcas shouldn't be in captivity. The intermixing of humans and orcas is fundamentally dangerous. It's best to leave them free and unmolested in the wild.

Often when you dig into an historical event, you find many interesting complications. The author must make editorial choices. The history presented in Blackfish is no different. It has an interesting complication, a significant additional story beyond what was presented.

Since SeaWorld's founding, they have had 62 orcas in captivity. Of these 27 have a record of 1 or more incidents (1). Twelve of the 27 have only 1 or 2 incidents logged.

Tilikum has 4 logged incidents that resulted in the deaths of 3 people. His poolmates at Sealand, Nootka 4 and Haida 2, also sold to SeaWorld, have respectively 3 incidents and 1 incident. Kyuquot the child of Tilikum and Haida 2, born at Sealand then sold to SeaWorld, has 2 incidents. This is curious given that Nootka 4 and Haida 2 arrived at Sealand years before Tilikium and remained there longer in that same environment. Orcas have distinct personalities. Maybe Tilikum was more susceptible to the negative environment at Sealand or was more affected having been the least dominant orca?

The majority of incidents are attributed to a very few orcas. In fact 7 out of the 9 orcas with the greatest number of logged incidents are exactly those forming the backdrop of incidents and aggressions presented in Blackfish:

• Orkid – 17 incidents, female
• Kasatka – 12 incidents, female
• Kayla – 8 incidents, female, not shown in Blackfish
• Keto – 6 incidents, male, 1 human death
• Kandu 5 – 5 incidents, female
• Katina – 5 incidents, female
• Corky 2 – 4 incidents, female
• Tilikum – 4 incidents, male, 3 human deaths
• Tuar – 4 incidents, male, not shown in Blackfish In Blackfish, Katina is first mentioned as harassing Tilikum when he arrives at SeaWorld. She is shown giving birth to Kalina, the first captive born orca to survive. She is shown crying when Kalina is transferred to another park. Kasatka is shown crying for Takara, when she is transferred to another park. Kasatka is also shown repeatedly pulling trainer Ken Peters underwater. Kandu 5 is shown bleeding to death after a fight with Corky 2. Orkid, along with Splash, pull Tamerlee underwater, breaking her arm. Keto kills trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque. These are the bulk of the incidents depicted in Blackfish other than those directly involving Tilikum.

Was there some common factor in the history of these orcas, such as Tilikum's early years at Sealand? It turns out there was but probably not what you might expect.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's SeaWorld San Diego rotated 5 recently captured orcas through its dolphin petting pool while they were undergoing training to become performers. They were Kandu 5 (2), Canuck 2, Katina, Kasatka, and Kotar. Canuck 2 died while still in his petting pool days and had no recorded incidents. Kotar had only 2 recorded incidents but it was noted, "Kotar was a really aggressive whale. He hated animal care. He would lunge at us if we got too close to the side of the pool. It's like he knew when the animal care guys came down to Shamu stadium."(3) Orkid is Kandu 5's daughter. Keto is Kotar's son and Katina's grandson. Tuar is Tilikum's son and Katina's grandson. Kayla was the mother of petting pool grandchild/great grandchild Hayln but was not herself of petting pool lineage. Corky 2 lived for years with petting pool orcas and numbers of their children and grandchildren.

If you average incidents per orca by categories: Petting Pool Orcas, Children of Petting Pool Orcas, Grandchildren and Great-grandchildren of Petting Pool Orcas, and all other orcas, you get the following result:

What was life like in the petting pool? First the petting pool was about the size of a municipal swimming pool. Park visitors could bend over the pool wall resting their stomachs on top of the wall with the water in easy reach. The interior of the pool was completely open, so the cetaceans were free to interact with visitors or swim about with their own kind. There were 2 species of dolphins, a pilot whale, and usually 2 of the orcas at a time in the pool. There was a fish concession where a small tray of fish could be purchased to feed the cetaceans. The petting pool was just another exhibit available for the basic price of park admission. Visitors could stay there all day if they wished.

During peak tourist times, there could be several hundred people around the pool and it was difficult to get to the pool wall. When the cetaceans got saturated with people, they could stay in the pool's interior. During the winter months, there might be only a couple of visitors at the pool wall. SeaWorld's pool monitoring function seemed to be performed jointly by the tour guides and the fish concessionaire. It was somewhat sporadic.

The orcas had been recently captured. In the beginning the youngest were under 2 years old. By the end, the oldest was 5 years old. They ranged in body mass from about twice that of a large adult dolphin to about 3,500 lb. Their teeth were sharply pointed with the largest being about 1 ½ inches long.

They were completely free to interact with visitors other than the barrier of the pool wall. They were in fact very outgoing, friendly, and gentle. Little children played with them. Over those years, 10's of thousands of visitors had the opportunity to interact with these orcas. To our knowledge, no visitor was ever harmed.

These orcas established friendships with some repeat visitors. They could recognize their friends from among the crowds of hundreds and would come right to them when a friend showed up at pool side. Friends would talk to the orcas while rubbing their tongues and gums. The orcas would squeak, bubble, and gurgle back. The orcas would present themselves for belly rubs or would beach themselves in a shallow area for full rubdowns. They invented games to play with human friends. They had a sense of humor, and Kotar in particular was mischievous. He would sometimes slide up onto the pool wall hanging out far over the visitor's side then squirt a mouthful of water at the visitors.

The orcas seemed to greatly value trust. If a human friend was willing to allow an orca to mouth a hand or arm, the orca would gently pull his friend towards the water. They always let go when the friend resisted a little, sometimes at the very last instant before falling in. One friend experienced two orcas, each mouthing an arm, simultaneously pulling him into the pool.

When the orcas mouthed a friend, they closed their mouth slowly, allowing the friend to decide whether or not to participate. This seemed to be something the orcas did periodically both to test their friend's trust and as a friendly offer to join them in their world.

Respectful treatment of the orcas seemed to be another key to forming friendships. Their human friends mostly showed respect in what they did not do. They imposed no agendas on the orcas, notably opposite from what their trainers were doing. They did not feed the orcas in trying to buy a relationship. Food was part of the orca's training regimen. The orcas were also kept hungry so they would readily take fish sold to visitors at the concession. The orcas would take offered fish, but as soon as they cleaned out one visitor's fish they moved to the next. They stayed and played with those offering no fish, their friends.

It should be noted that during these petting pool years, recently captured orcas and untrained humans were quite free to explore each other however their curiosities directed. There was practically no, and sometimes actually no supervision. The interaction was physical and real friendships developed. The orcas experienced humans where the relationship was not based on agendas of training or performing. This circumstance was unique in the history of SeaWorld.

Eventually, these orcas completed their training and moved on to a life of full time performing, all that is except Canuck 2 who died while still in his petting pool days. Within 3 to 7 years of leaving their petting pool experience, these same orcas began to exhibit the dangerous behaviors, logging the incidents noted previously. These orcas went from a history of friendly and gentle behavior to being the major part of SeaWorld's most aggressive and incident prone orcas. Some of their children and children's children are also in this aggressive, incident prone group, although diminishing with succeeding generations.

We can't get inside these orcas' heads, but the most straight forward interpretation seems to be that the orcas who had once experienced human friendship, respect, and trust were the most negatively affected by the accumulated effects of life in captivity.

All of SeaWorld's orcas experienced growing from calves to adults. They all became outsized for their pools. They all experienced a life of relentless performances. Yet it was almost exclusively the ex-Petting Pool Orcas and some of their offspring who became so problematic. Their history was practically the opposite of Tilikum's.
The upside to this alternate story line is that there is a more fulfilling and positive relationship possible between orcas and humans than Blackfish posits. Humans and orcas can be quite good friends.

In the wild, orca pods for the most part benignly ignore humans. Even given opportunity, orcas don't hunt humans. There are no instances of orcas killing humans and only one instance of an orca harming a human. A major reason the orca capture industry worked is that orcas didn't attack humans in the water even as their children were being kidnapped. Once in captivity, orcas quickly became friendly to their captors, if only for a few years.

Even in the wild orcas occasionally have friendlier relations with humans:

• Solitary sociables, like L-98 Luna and A-73 Springer who got separated from their pods and sought out human friendships
• Dr. Ingrid Visser's friendly but arm's length relation with New Zealand pods
• Roberto Bubas' relation with orcas off the coast of Patagonia
• The "Killers of Eden" Australia who for 90 some years cooperatively hunted baleen whales with humans during the days of hand thrown harpoons and rowed whaleboats It is illegal under U.S. and Canadian laws for humans to fraternize with wild orcas. The likely rehabilitation and release to sea pens of SeaWorld's orcas provides the most substantial opportunity for establishing real friendships between humans and orcas. This is a real opportunity for the two species to learn about and from each other.
Commentary by Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network:

Experience teaches. The newly captured orcas given free rein to meet and greet at will in the petting pools at SW San Diego in 1979-1980 had been violently grabbed from their families and taken away from their native waters off Iceland. We can assume they were treated harshly, like wild beasts needing to be trained. A few months later they met some friendly human companions at a petting pool. There they found that humans can be kind and curious, and willing to build trust over time. Genuine affection seemed to flow both ways over the walls of the pools.

Then the petting pool visits ended, and the only interactions with humans reverted to the systematic dominance of rigorous training schedules and being shunted from pool to pool, with food deprivation used as leverage to force behavior all day long.

But those companions at the petting pool had shown those few young captives that not all humans practiced domination. The precocious young orcas had learned that humans didn't have to be like that.

These same orcas became the most hostile and aggressive of all the captives at SeaWorld. Did their experiences with their human companions at the pools teach them that humans were actually capable of being friendly, making the coercion practiced by the trainers seem just that much more onerous and frustrating? It's always risky to try to look into the mind of an orca, but sometimes there are enticing clues to how they think, and the histories of those petting pool captives may give us a window into how they learn and process information.


(1) All references to orca incidents are based on the table at http://www.orcahome.de/incidentanalysis.htm
(2) It is likely that Kandu 5 spent time in the petting pool, but we don't have definitive proof as yet. Kandu 5 and Canuck 2 were both captured in fall 1977 and both arrived at SeaWorld in Dec 1977. They began training together and likely spent time in the petting pool. Canuck 2 certainly did. Kasatka and Kotar arrived at San Diego in Oct 1978, then Kandu was sent to Aurora in Apr 1979. It is possible that all 4 were being rotated through the petting pool. At least Kandu and Canuck were tankmates and probably Kasatka and Kotar as well during their respective times in the petting pool. Cetacean Cousins' bio of Kandu 5 states, "Kandu probably spent some time at the "Petting Pool" along with other young orcas shortly after her transfer."
(3) "SeaWorld's Most Rewarding and Traumatic Job" by Tim Zimmermann in "Outside Online", 19 August 2014, interviewing Jim Horton.