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A Story About a Famous Orca Whale That Wished He Wasn’t Famous

September 29, 2016

It’s quiet under the water.

Floating effortlessly inches beneath the surface of the tank, the lone orca whale lists lazily, his muscles completely relaxed.

It’s his frayed nerves that are on edge.

A large clap on the surface of the water proves that anxiety to be warranted. Hungry and agitated, he jerks into motion toward the vibration, happy for the nourishment yet unsure how to treat the lifeless morsel tossed into his gaping jaws. He quickly realizes how hungry he was, however, as the handout stops after a single bite, and he realizes he needs to wrench his aching body out of the water if he expects to eat again.

From a New Perspective

One of the most common reasons people enter the marine biology industry is the empathy they felt immediately upon seeing an orca whale in captivity for the first time. While it was undoubtedly an astonishing experience, most of us felt a pang of guilt as we watched these massive creatures perform cheap parlour tricks for long-dead food.

Most scientists believe it’s the simple presence of stress and anxiety that pushes captive orcas over the edge to attack their trainers or other animals. Whether you’re a naturalist guiding a whale watching tour in the wild or a layman without first-hand knowledge of the characteristics of these animals, these examples of orca aggression make a pretty strong case for the dangers of holding killer whales in captivity.

But fortunately, times they are a ‘changin’.

Famous Orca Whales of the Last Hundred Years

The most famous orca whale of the 21st century is undoubtedly Tilikum, the unfortunate star of the provocative documentary Blackfish and the subject of intense scrutiny following the death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau in a horrific incident at Seaworld in 2010.

How will history remember Tilikum? As a murderous psychopath that turned on his trainer for no apparent reason? As a calculated killer sending a message to all of humanity?

Or simply as a wild animal acting upon instincts acquired over a millennia of evolution?

These are questions we’ll never fully answer. We can only hope to surround the issue with knowledge, dialogue, and hopefully, measures to ensure this never happens again.


Killer whales in captivity are similar to men and women in jail except they’ve been captured without committing a crime. They don’t require rehabilitation. They’re confined in tight spaces with aggressive adversaries vying for dominance. They’re fed unnatural diets that lack the thrill of the chase that flows through their veins, a chase that can only be satisfied in the wild.

There have been many incidents of orca attacks in captivity. But none with the gravitas of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau.

Freedom In the Open Water

He’s an orca whale no one knows about save for a few curious onlookers in a distant tour boat. He lives to swim through the chilly waters of coastal British Columbia, coordinating thrilling chases with his transient orca counterparts.

It’s dinner time again, both for the enormous mammal in the open ocean and for the human beings watching in awe-stricken silence from a safe distance. He’s aware of the visitors, but if he wanted to he would be far away in a moment. They’re not interfering with the ritual of the hunt, so he pays them little heed.

This is his domain.




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