National Geographic News
A trainer at SeaWorld with orcas.

There have been dozens of attacks on trainers by orcas in marine parks around the world. These are not bad whales; they just come with all the instincts of predators, says the author.

Photograph by Sandy Huffaker, New York Times/Redux

Kenneth Brower

for National Geographic

Published August 3, 2013

Watch the television premiere of "Blackfish," Thursday, October 24, at 9 p.m. EST on CNN.

The documentary Blackfish opened around the country on July 26, with more splash than usual for a small-budget production, thanks to a preemptive attack on the film by SeaWorld, the marine-park franchise, and the free publicity of the tempest that followed.

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the homicidal killer whale, and his most recent victim, Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer he crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed in 2010. The film is an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being.

In the week before advance screenings in Los Angeles and New York, SeaWorld sent out a "Dear Film Critic" letter that castigated the documentary as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate." Journalists and bloggers around the world, never averse to controversy, pricked up their ears. If the film's producers ever worried about insufficient funds for advertising, they can lay that fear to rest.

In a theater a month ago, toward the end of a long series of trailers for movies my girlfriend and I resolved not to see, the Blackfish trailer began. I sat up in my seat. Within the first few frames, well before the identity of this particular "blackfish" came up on the screen, I knew which orca he would be. Tilikum is a whale whose career I have followed for 13 years. Like many familiar with his history, I had not been surprised by Dawn Brancheau's death. We all had wondered when Tilikum would kill again.

Good Twin, Evil Twin

Blackfish and its themes set me to thinking again about Orcinus orca, the killer whale, the sea's supreme predator, and our strange, ambivalent view of this animal and the narratives we impose on it.

Here's one: Tilikum had a sort of twin, Keiko, the killer whale who played "Willy" in the movies. Both were captured as two-year-old calves off Iceland, Keiko in 1979 and Tilikum in 1983; both were motherless males abused by other whales in Canadian marine parks; both were moved to facilities farther south; both, on maturing, suffered the collapse of the dorsal fin, the floppy trademark of all captive bull orcas.

One twin grew up to be the most famous whale in history, if you rule out Moby Dick and the whale that swallowed Jonah. This twin gave daily audiences to thousands of human pilgrims, played himself in his own documentary films, and was a regular on the television news. He was beloved by children all over the world, who sent him great stacks of misspelled mash notes, get-well cards, valentines, confidential personal updates, and whimsical, anatomically incorrect killer whale illustrations in crayon and poster paint.

Through intermediaries on his staff of 22 humans, this whale franchised "Free Willy" dolls, trading cards, music tapes, storybooks, and vinyl magnetic products. For sale in the gift shop of his $7.5 million Oregon facility—a palatial tank with adjoining offices, all built just for him—were Keiko toys, Keiko games, Keiko postcards, and Keiko clothing. A pilgrim, after shuffling in long lines up to the tank window for 10 or 12 minutes in the whale's presence, could buy Keiko Blend Coffee and Keiko clothing. The pilgrim's four-year-old, if she insisted, could finagle a "beautifully illustrated 100% cotton T-shirt with special ocean habitat pocket and an adorable, realistic, soft toy Keiko that lives in the pocket habitat or comes out to play!"

The other twin grew up to be the protagonist in a saltwater Othello, a tragedy in which the Moor weighs 12,000 pounds and Desdemona gets eaten.

I first encountered Tilikum, the evil twin, while doing fieldwork on the good one. I am Keiko's biographer. My 2005 book, Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild, is an account of Keiko's life from his capture as a two-year-old through his Hollywood triumph to his semi-successful release to the wild. In the book I touch briefly on Tilikum.

Signs of Trouble

"Only once in history has a killer whale killed a human," I wrote. "That incident, in which Tilikum, a captive whale in British Columbia, pinned his trainer to the pool bottom, drowning her, is generally deemed to have been horseplay, just a misunderstanding, a simple failure of the whale to appreciate the difference between human breath-hold capacity and his own."

This was the explanation put forth by SeaWorld, which had bought Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific after he killed that first trainer, 20-year-old Keltie Byrne. (Sealand, which immediately went out of business as a consequence of Keltie's death, needed to liquidate its assets. Its orcas Haida II and her baby Kyuquot went to SeaWorld San Antonio. Nootka IV and Tilikum went to SeaWorld Orlando.) I had sense enough to question the horseplay theory. SeaWorld is a multibillion-dollar enterprise entirely dependent on the draw of its killer whales—orcas with reputations as playful and lovable, not murderous. I had little doubt the story had heavy spin.

"There is strong circumstantial evidence that Tilikum may have killed again," I went on. "He was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where a drunk climbed in over the wall one night and was found drowned in the whale's pool the next morning."

This second case, the 1999 death of Daniel Dukes, was more ambiguous, because there were no witnesses. The facility had cameras above and below water, but SeaWorld claims none captured the event. The SeaWorld theory was drowning and hypothermia. More details have come out since. This was a case of hypothermia in which the deceased was found the next morning draped over the back of Tilikum with his genitals bitten off.

The Veterinarian's Role

Most of what I know about the care of killer whales in captivity, and many of my insights into the culture at SeaWorld, I learned in interviews with Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko's physician. Back then, at the turn of the millennium, Cornell was in his mid-50s. For 14 years he had worked at SeaWorld, beginning as a veterinarian and rising through the ranks to senior vice president and zoological director, with responsibility for the entire animal collection in all of SeaWorld's parks. At the time, SeaWorld owned half the captive killer whales on the planet, and Cornell, until his departure in 1987, ministered to that flock. It was Cornell who, by intuition and experiment, had discovered the conditions and circumstances that would persuade orcas to breed in captivity, and he was obstetrician for the first birth. It was Cornell who had supervised SeaWorld's capture of orcas in Iceland.

Cornell had no love for the press, which swarmed all big Keiko events. No reporter's question irritated him more than a recurrent one: the suggestion that Cornell, as veterinarian, in restoring Keiko's health and fitness for a return to the wild, was doing some kind of penance. Was he making up, the reporter would ask, for all the orcas he had captured, all the orca families he had broken up? Cornell's features would freeze, and he would curtly dismiss this penance possibility and call for the next question.

But I wonder if it wasn't true. I can testify from listening to the deliberations of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation that no one was more dedicated to the goal of returning Keiko to the wild than Dr. Lanny Cornell. The vet, who began as a horse doctor, is a strong, stocky man, handsome in an aquiline, weathered, Marlboro-cowboy sort of way, tough and gruff and sardonic and opinionated.

His opinion of public relations at SeaWorld was low. He was baffled by how poorly his former company—under siege, even then, by a large segment of the press and public—went about representing itself to the world. SeaWorld, Cornell pointed out, did good, altruistic work in sea-mammal rescue and rehabilitation. But nobody knew. Somehow the PR people never got the word out.

SeaWorld had helped Cornell save Keiko's life. In the Mexico City theme park where Keiko lived and Free Willy was filmed, the whale was confined to a tank too cramped and warm. He was in terrible health, scarcely moving so as not to overheat, his pectoral fins warty with papilloma virus. SeaWorld experts advised that chillers would help solve the problem, and they sent those down. From SeaWorld San Diego, on hearing Cornell's report that Keiko's diet was poor, they trucked down high-quality fish. "He was eating fish that were not really stored properly," Cornell told me. "They would cut the heads off and gut the fish and feed him the fillets. What he was missing was bone and all the vitamins and minerals that come from the liver and the organs of an animal. It's very important for a wild predator to eat everything."

Keiko was not SeaWorld's whale; there was no profit for them in their good deed—not even as a public-relations coup.

SeaWorld's Letter of Denial

Public relations at SeaWorld remain dismal. In the case of Blackfish, the PR sin has been not been omission, but commission. SeaWorld must have known the content of Blackfish since at least January, when the film screened at the Sundance Festival, but for months the company simply kept quiet—the smart thing to do, obviously. Why risk the "banned in Boston" effect? Why publicize the efforts of the enemy? Then at the last moment the company changed course, sending out its letter to film critics ("In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following.").

This letter, SeaWorld's defense of itself and its attack on the integrity of the Magnolia Films documentary, is a tissue of obvious lies, detailed below.

Bullying: In its letter to film critics about Blackfish, SeaWorld challenges the implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau's death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word "bullying" is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to "rake" other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.

Tilikum, for starters, was not just a whale involved in Dawn Brancheau's death. Tilikum was the whale that killed her. "Bullying" is not meaningless when applied to the behavior of killer whales. "Bullying" is the correct term to use whenever one animal "in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy" (whether that hierarchy is orca, wolf, chimp, or human) asserts dominance over another. The term, indeed, is used only in those circumstances. And there is an obvious difference between the bullying and tooth-raking by wild whales in the ocean and tooth-raking by captive whales in a tank. Every killer whale expert I consulted, when I recited this SeaWorld claim, laughed sourly and pointed out the obvious: In the ocean a whale can get away.

Social structures: The letter also challenges the accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales, it says.

However, SeaWorld was built by breaking up killer whale families. Every orca colony in every SeaWorld facility began as a kind of orphanage. The founding fathers and mothers in each facility were plucked as calves from their pods, after long chases by aircraft and speedboats tossing bombs, with collateral deaths in nets of siblings and cousins. When Washington State banned SeaWorld from state waters for these practices, SeaWorld moved its collecting operation to Iceland.

Two of the Iceland captures, Tilikum and Keiko, on arriving as calves at their British Columbia and Ontario marine parks, were thrown in with orcas from the Pacific Northwest. The various tribes of orcas vocalize in very different patterns. The North Atlantic vocalizations of Tilikum and Keiko were as different from those of their Pacific tank-mates as Old Norse of Iceland is different from Haida or Tlingit or Kwakiutl. SeaWorld, says SeaWorld, "does everything possible to support social structures." What social structures? SeaWorld facilities hold scrambled nations and cultures of whales. The societies in these tanks are less like the intricate societies of wild orca clans than like the accidental assemblies you find in any drunk tank on Saturday night.

Training: The letter claims that SeaWorld has never used punishment-based training on any of its animals, including Tilikum, only positive reinforcement. And the behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale's natural range of behaviors.

SeaWorld, it's true, does primarily rely on positive reinforcement, though occasionally it resorts to punishment as a fallback, as former SeaWorld trainers testify in Blackfish, and as ex-trainers of my acquaintance have told me. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative, as the psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated long ago.

But the claim that the behaviors reinforced are "always within the killer whale's natural range of behaviors" is much more of a stretch. How is the "pec wave" within the natural range of orca behaviors? (The killer whale circles the tank on its side, waving its pectoral fin at the crowd.) How is the "bow" in any way natural? (The killer whale humps out of the pool onto the "slide-out" and curtsies by arching its back, the head flexed upward at one end, tailfin at the other.) Do orcas, somewhere along the spectrum of natural behavior, sometimes slide ashore and flex like Arnold Schwarzenegger to intimidate their victims?

And what is this all about, anyway, the Jungian meaning, this enormous, toothy predator trained to haul out and genuflect to an amphitheater full of Lilliputians? It's like a scene from Spartacus.

One behavior reinforced at SeaWorld is X-rated and never seen by the crowd, but Blackfish includes a somewhat expurgated version. It is video of Tilikum. He has been trained to lie on his back at the edge of the pool, extrude his penis, and donate sperm. Tilikum, the biggest orca in captivity, is also enormous in his equipment. The orca penis is not just big—it narrows to a tip that is prehensile and active. Aroused, the tip casts about, as if sniffing the water for clues. In the Tilikum video, the two female trainers struggling to manage the sperm donation seem to be losing a wrestling match with an anaconda.

How this scene could possibly play out under the ocean and in the killer whale's natural range of behaviors is hard to imagine.

There is something disheartening about this video, something degrading to the majesty of the killer whale, whether Tilikum feels it or not. And something deeply disquieting. Why, the viewer wonders, is this animal a sperm donor? Samantha Berg, one of the former SeaWorld trainers interviewed in Blackfish, expresses this well. She points out that any pit bull with tendencies like Tilikum's would have been euthanized long before his third homicide, and certainly never would have become the star of a breeding program. Tilikum is the most prolific sperm donor in the history of orca captivity. Today more than half of SeaWorld's orcas have Tilikum genes. It is truly beyond comprehension. What sort of short-sighted greed and recklessness is this?

The ponytail defense: The letter disputes the documentary's assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because the whale was driven crazy by his years in captivity. SeaWorld claims that Tilikum did not attack Dawn. It says that all evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.

SeaWorld's contention that Tilikum did not attack Dawn Brancheau is their most craven and unforgivable claim of the "Dear Film Critic" letter. Nothing SeaWorld says in explanation of the attack is true. Dawn's ponytail was not a novelty. Ponytails are commonplace on orca trainers, both women and men—a convenient style for people always in and out of the water. Footage from Blackfish shows Dawn on other days with her hair in a ponytail, happily working with Tilikum and other orcas. The whale did not pull her in by the ponytail, anyway. Video from Blackfish shows Tilikum grabbing her left arm. In court proceedings in the aftermath of her death, as Blackfish makes clear, the "spotter" who thought he had seen Tilikum seize the ponytail retracted that impression. That SeaWorld continues to suggest, three years later, that "all evidence" points to the ponytail is astounding.

The whale did not see the ponytail, or any other part of Dawn, "in his environment." Tilikum's environment is not Florida. Tilikum's environment is the cold, windy, herring-filled seas of Iceland from which he was yanked as a calf. There is no record, in all history, of an orca ever having harmed a human being in that environment, or anywhere else in the ocean. That world, the ocean, is where all killer whales belong and should be. Where Tilikum saw Dawn's ponytail, if he noticed it at all, was in the tank at SeaWorld. The only place killer whales ever kill and injure humans is here, in the confines of tanks like these.

Tilikum became so interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail, SeaWorld would have us believe, that he scalped and killed her. The autopsy report points to some impulse rougher than curiosity. In the words of Dr. Joshua Stephany, associate medical examiner for Orlando, Florida:

"Blunt force injuries of the head and neck: Avulsion of the scalp and associated galeal and subgaleal hemorrhage. Lacerations of the right ear. Abrasions of the left cheek. Fracture of the mandible, with associated laceration and hemorrhage of the oral mucosa. Fracture of the 7th cervical vertebra, with associated hemorrhage of the paravertebral musculature, epidural hemorrhage, and softening of the underlying spinal cord. Blunt force injuries of the torso: Abrasions of the upper left back. Fractures of the posterior aspects of the 9th through 11th left ribs. Fracture of the sternum at the level of the 2nd rib insertion. Liver lacerations. Hemoperitoneum (500 ml). Blunt force injuries of the extremities: Abrasions, lacerations, and contusions of the extremities. Complete avulsion of the upper left extremity with associated fracture of the proximal left humerus. Dislocation of the elbow. Dislocation of the left knee."

By "complete avulsion of the upper left extremity," Stephany means that Tilikum tore off Dawn's left arm. What he does not say is that the whale then swallowed it.

The Sea's Most Powerful Predator

Reading the autopsy report, I suddenly remembered—and then could not forget—several seconds of chilling documentary footage shot at Punta Valdez in Argentina: A bull orca materializes in a wave just off the beach, coming in fast, a transparent curl of water planing off his head. He lunges entirely out of the water, slides high up on the sand, seizes the hindquarters of a terrified bull sea lion galloping inland—a desperate rocking galumph, just a little too slow—and yanks the lion back into the sea.

For a moment the sea's surface is calm, both predator and prey vanished. Then, as punctuation, the killer whale breaks the surface and hurls the 700-pound sea lion 30 feet in the air.

There is no carnivore on the planet half so powerful as this one.

Killer whale people, in pondering Tilikum and where he went wrong, seem to center their suspicions on a 20- by 30-foot steel box at Sealand of the Pacific. In this cell, through his nights and a good portion of his days, Tilikum was confined with the facility's other orcas, emerging sometimes with rake marks in the morning. (Sealand was just a floating net pen. The owner, worried that animal-rights activists in scuba gear would cut the mesh and free the whales, installed this night box, in a pen that was small to begin with.)

"Psychotic," orca researcher Ken Balcomb, of Washington State, says in a Blackfish interview, searching for a word to describe how Tilikum came out of this experience. Balcomb's colleague to the north, Paul Spong, was uneasy with that word when I ran it by him. For 43 years, Spong has run OrcaLab, on Hanson Island in British Columbia. A psychologist at the start of his career, he is leery of applying terms from that lexicon to creatures that diverged from us 60 million years ago.

Almost all students of orca believe that they are deranged by captivity, some more than others. Tilikum's record puts him at one end of a continuum. There have been dozens of attacks on trainers by an assortment of orcas in the marine parks around the world. Blackfish shows video from several of these episodes at SeaWorld.

The scariest is the ordeal of a trainer, Ken Peters, in the jaws of Kasatka, a female born off Iceland in 1977, the same year as Keiko. Cameras above and below water show Kasatka taking Peters down to the bottom of the pool, again and again, by the foot. With each brief respite at the surface, Peters hyperventilates, knowing he is going down again. Kasatka finally releases his foot. Peters slides back along her body. On reaching her flukes, he swims sprinting to poolside. She turns back to catch him, but too late.

These are not bad whales. They just come with all the instincts of predators. My good twin, bad twin story is just a fable, and I probably should never have invented it. Tilikum, his trainers agree, was a joy to work with for most of his career. And Keiko, the good twin: I remember one training session in his Oregon facility, and the fear and tension on the trainer's face when he came out of the water. "Kake" (as the trainers nicknamed the whale) was just in a weird mood today, the man said, and the afternoon session was canceled.

What is remarkable about Orcinus orca in marine parks is not these rare episodes. What is remarkable is their monumental forbearance.

Ken Brower writes about the environment and the natural world. He is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine and has written three books for the National Geographic Society, among them "Realms of the Sea." He lives in Berkeley, California.

199 comments
De Lin
De Lin

Please for the Orcas and all captive dolphins who's families were slaughtered so they could ship these to seaworld and other countries watch this film. You do not know until you watch. These are mammals and they stay together always. They are constantly touching and staying close for the connection and comfort of each other.  They have stong feelings and gentleness that is undying. If you get an Orca that is mean it is because we have made it that way. It would take a lot.  They will not leave each others side even in the fear of death. fish don't do this. These beautiful sweet beings do this and need our protection and compassion. Please do not buy into the bias or lies that you hear from the government of countries that kill or capture them. Search your heart and let it guide you in what is right. They deserve to be free and not captured or killed by any country. Watch "The Cove"  and "The Whale" and then decide. For them to get an Orca or dolphin they pick the ones they want and kill the rest so when you see one in captivity, their family likely slaughtered.. love and peace to all.

Autumn Connor
Autumn Connor

To be honest, haven't watched blackfish as I'm against biased movies and the fact that sea world does rehabilitate a lot of animals and release them back into the wild is amazing, but I remember reading about how (I think Iceland's government?) will not let the orcas be released back into the wild as for fear of the captured whales spreading disease/infection? To the other wild orca population... I'm pretty sure I also read that dawn brancheau has worked with tilly for 8 years or so and was well acquainted with this whale.. My thoughts to why tilly had pulled her into the water are somewhat to that of an animal who does not want the attention from a person/owner to go away- for example when I'm petting my cat , if I stop petting her she will turn and bite my hand or swat at me- not because she is trying to maliciously hurt me, but because she doesn't want me to stop petting her. I actually read letters from a couple visitors that were there when the incident happened stating that "Dawn and tilly were nose to nose before she stood up" and then tilly proceeded to pull her into the water. I think dawn passed away doing what she loved to do (or she wouldn't have been a trainer for so long) and that if she were still alive to this day she would still want to be tilly's trainer.

Chuhui Dienhart
Chuhui Dienhart

Don't know what to say. Glad that I never went to sea world but then what about the "zoo"? For us to see the actual animals are more important than their freedom? Hard to say, but most of us never went to England but we know England and some of the younger kids follow up with their prince charming without keeping him in a cage. HumanMind...endless greed. We see then we want to touch and then we like to have them in our backyard as a pet.

Renu Ramesh
Renu Ramesh

Great article about Blackfish & treatment of orcas in captivity by Nat Geo

Bill Hanley
Bill Hanley

Check out  National Geographic's "Opinion - Sea World vs. the whale who killed his trainer"

Wayne Rogers
Wayne Rogers

Didn't see Blackfish, but this article confirms my original thoughts! Boycott SeaWorld!

Ben Y
Ben Y

This is definitely a biased article (hence why the title starts with OPINION:, seriously people, lets stop talking about "truth and reliability" when the first word of the article title tells you it's subjective).  Orcas are kept in separate pens only with those they generally get along with (this is illustrated in the film and then dismissed later in the film).  As for the orcas "getting away" we know orcas in the wild have the same raker marks on them and a subordinate orca on it's own won't fare very well, they almost always stick with their groups. 


The capture techniques shown in the video and discussed in this article were those that took place before the Marine Mammal Act in 1972 and subsequent environmental laws that were put into place (yes including international laws for whomever is going to bring up that MMA applies to the US).  I don't think anyone denies that those capture techniques were cruel.


The assertion that orcas don't kill people in the wild is only true in that encounters are very rare (and seriously, how many times have you heard of a "wild orca encounter experience" there's a reason we don't do that).  The fact is they kill seals which are very similar in size and appearance to us and play with them in a manner that is quite similar to those seen in the killer whale attacks.  And this is why I think they shouldn't be in captivity, because they're naturally dangerous animals that are pretty much impossible to stop when they decide they want to do something.


Within a normal range of behaviors means not having the whale exposed to anything it wouldn't be exposed to in the wild such as prolonged exposure outside of the water, reacting to extremely loud noises or disturbing stimuli etc.  Whales turn on their sides on the surface, they frequently breach and slide onto the surface, all their actions are simply extensions of normal behavior that are in response to a command.  That's what they mean by within a normal range of behavior and all it takes to figure it out is a quick google check.  


The fact that Ken Brower didn't bother to look that up (or did and ignored it) pretty much demonstrates that he was here to make arguments against Sea World.  He also ignored a lot of legitimate claims the Sea World letter made about Blackfish including deliberate alterations or omissions on details of the attack, the questionable reputations of the majority of the film's trainers and scientists and the use of outdated footage meant to represent current practices.  However, again this is an opinion article and I'm just as biased as the author so lets not take it as fact because it's in an established magazine.


The pony-tail defense is the only thing I think the author is spot on about, it's incredibly stupid.  That's really all there is to say about that.


There are so many other "facts" and distortions of the truth throughout the film that it should be regarded as it is, bad propaganda.  It's too bad because I think the message behind the film is a good one: these are very dangerous animals.  But their insistence that the attacks were because "Sea World is evil and everything Sea World has done is the worst thing ever for these normally gentle creatures" completely tore down any legitimacy this film had.

Ben Y
Ben Y

This is definitely a biased article (hence why the title starts with OPINION:, seriously people, lets stop talking about "truth and reliability" when the first word of the article title tells you it's subjective).  Orcas are kept in separate pens only with those they generally get along with (this is illustrated in the film and then dismissed later in the film).  As for the orcas "getting away" we know orcas in the wild have the same raker marks on them and a subordinate orca on it's own won't fare very well, they almost always stick with their groups. 


The capture techniques shown in the video and discussed in this article were those that took place before the Marine Mammal Act in 1972 and subsequent environmental laws that were put into place (yes including international laws for whomever is going to bring up that MMA applies to the US).  I don't think anyone denies that those capture techniques were cruel.


The assertion that orcas don't kill people in the wild is only true in that encounters are very rare (and seriously, how many times have you heard of a "wild orca encounter experience" there's a reason we don't do that).  The fact is they kill seals which are very similar in size and appearance to us and play with them in a manner that is quite similar to those seen in the killer whale attacks.  And this is why I think they shouldn't be in captivity, because they're naturally dangerous animals that are pretty much impossible to stop when they decide they want to do something.


Within a normal range of behaviors means not having the whale exposed to anything it wouldn't be exposed to in the wild such as prolonged exposure outside of the water, reacting to extremely loud noises or disturbing stimuli etc.  Whales turn on their sides on the surface, they frequently breach and slide onto the surface, all their actions are simply extensions of normal behavior that are in response to a command.  That's what they mean by within a normal range of behavior and all it takes to figure it out is a quick google check.  


The fact that Ken Brower didn't bother to look that up (or did and ignored it) pretty much demonstrates that he was here to make arguments against Sea World.  He also ignored a lot of legitimate claims the Sea World letter made about Blackfish including deliberate alterations or omissions on details of the attack, the questionable reputations of the majority of the film's trainers and scientists and the use of outdated footage meant to represent current practices.  However, again this is an opinion article and I'm just as biased as the author so lets not take it as fact because it's in an established magazine.


The pony-tail defense is the only thing I think the author is spot on about, it's incredibly stupid.  That's really all there is to say about that.


There are so many other "facts" and distortions of the truth throughout the film that it should be regarded as it is, bad propaganda.  It's too bad because I think the message behind the film is a good one: these are very dangerous animals.  But their insistence that the attacks were because "Sea World is evil and everything Sea World has done is the worst thing ever for these normally gentle creatures" completely tore down any legitimacy this film had.

Jessica Dobek
Jessica Dobek

I have to believe National Geographic is a pretty reliable source.

Pamala Dixon
Pamala Dixon

As I watched Black Fin images of african slaves, often with backs that have been mangled by a whip,over and over until a tapestry of scar tissue is formed.  Families of slaves were broken, children, mothers and fathers sold for profit.  They were even "bred" in captivity treated like sires and mares.

I came away from it ashamed that I had once paid for the honor of seeing an Orca "step and fetch-it"

After I saw Black Fin I watched a documentary on Orcas in the wild.  How can anyone claim that the orcas in tanks without the family bonding, without an ocean to roam are not being ill-treated.

Sea World should rehabilitate their Orcas to their original home and close their doors.  Every penny they make is off the slave labor of an orca.  They should be ashamed.

There was a time when Americans of African descent were considered less then human.  Many of the terms used were not so very different than the terms used by Sea World.  Do we need an "Underground Railway" to move them out of captivity?

Yes, we do.

Pasquale Bottiglieri
Pasquale Bottiglieri

Unfortunately, the tailored responses issued by the Sea World organization concerning the capture and display of Orca for public entertainment and the series of tragedies that have so far occurred as a result have indicated that corporate addiction to profit my be severe enough in this case to rule out corporate common sense. As a result, we may not have seen the last of these saddening tragedies. However, as public awareness increases, pass through liability may become a legal reality for those making the decisions to continue with this, to say the least, unethical, perhaps immoral, and highly dangerous display of unfettered corporate greed. At the very least, public awareness, for which we must thank the likes of National Geographic, Kenneth Brower and the makers of the documentary Blackfish, hopefully will remove the incentive, the profit, from this and similar capital ventures.

Cindy Law
Cindy Law

I just can't stop thinking something needs to be done to stop Sea World, it's affiliates, and all other water parks. I wanted to know more so I turned to National Geographic and now I am even more fired up!

tiras Prothro
tiras Prothro

This is a real question. Why do white people feel like they have to play God over people and animals? smh.

didi magnin
didi magnin

Of course Orcas were never meant to spend their lives in swimming pools, be separated from their families - I saw the mother weeping when they took her daughter away. When you see orcas in the wild attacking sealions - then you understand their frustration. When will parks like Seaworld stop showing these magnificent animals to stoopid hoominz????

Molly Emery
Molly Emery

Who is this idiot Jacki Blue? Another marketing SeaWorld puppet paid to write supportive posts? Does she realize how ignorant she sounds? She continues to embarrass herself, her intelligence and her moral being. Good God let's stick her in a tiny glass cage, impregnate her, take away her baby and throw her some dead food to keep her in line... and then let's read her comments again in 25 years.

Riveting article, nothing I didnt know already, but worth the read anyhow.  SeaWorlds arrogance disgusts me. I believe its only a matter of time before society "evolves" as it always does, and demands ending these barbaric and sickening proceedures, practices, attitudes and behaviors.


One day, our young people will look back and say “I can’t believe we used to do that” when they look at old pictures of what used to be SeaWorld.

Thank you Ken Brower and thank you National Geographic for keeping an open forum. Maybe SeaWorld will write you a desperate letter as well.

Tui Allen
Tui Allen

Thank-you for writing this very thoughtful analysis of orcas in captivity. I've been inside the minds of wild cetaceans for many years now while writing as I do from the point of view of dolphins. It makes me feel for them more strongly than you might ever think possible. They belong free in a clean ocean and the tragedy and cruelty of captivity must stop. See my novel Ripple (in Amazon) to see what these animals are like and how they are supposed to live.

Judy Davis
Judy Davis

This was a hard film to watch.  I came away with the thought that this is what happened years ago to the slaves. As a society we saw how wrong this was and stopped it.  These Orcas are nothing more than SeaWorlds slaves.  I always wanted to see these animals perform, however, no, I will never go see them perform.  SeaWorld is most interested in revenue then human lives and orcas lives.  This needs to stop.

John Barr
John Barr

I'm apposed to cruel treatment of animals as anyone should be, however, to those apposed to animals in captivity, I do have a question. Does this also extend to our pets as well? Are they not kept in captivity? And do we not keep them for our amusement?  Explain the difference.  I hear all this talk about keeping animals in captivity, and how wrong it is, then one must assume that means Rover, or what ever the name of your dog is, cats, fish, your pet turtle, parakeet, and any other domesticated animal you keep around for your amusement.  Can't have double standards here can we? Nope.... My condolences to Dawn's family. May Dawn's soul rest in peace and have eternal joy in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Carolyn MacDonald
Carolyn MacDonald

stop the capture of these magnificent animals.  Leave them in the ocean where they belong.

Sharon Burgos
Sharon Burgos

Wanted to point out a slight inconsistency.  I've read the detail about Tilikum swallowing Dawn's left arm, however, I just read the official autopsy report and it clearly details specific injuries to her left forearm and wrist and notes a ring on her pinky finger.  It doesn't really mention the upper left extremity in great detail, only that it is avulsed (torn away). Given this, I'm not sure one can say that Tilikum swallowed her left arm or partially "ate" her as I've seen stated elsewhere.

Sharon Burgos
Sharon Burgos

Sea World profits from slavery, like all circuses and zoos. 

Human beings haven't evolved enough to recognize it as such when it involves other species, that's all.

Think about the movie Roots - those of you from that era - and then think about Blackfish.  The parallels will not escape you.  

It's shameful and no amount of rationalizing about why it's okay will make it so.

Lisa Lammon
Lisa Lammon

If Tilikum was bulling Dawn,    maybe he thought she was  bulling  HIM!  maybe....   day after day after day after day after day after day after day  after day  

Renuka Singh-Allino
Renuka Singh-Allino

An excellent piece by Kenneth Brower.  I learned more about Tilikum & the abuse he's enduring at the hands of SeaWorld.  Tommy Lee wasn't wrong when he wrote SeaWorld an open letter asking that they cease sexually abusing Tilikum.  Tilikum is nothing but a sperm donor to SeaWorld & living his life in solitary confinement.  It is time for all of this to end & for SeaWorld & other marine parks, including the one in my own backyard (Six Flags Discovery Kingdom), to release captive orcas & dolphins into sea pens so they can live out their lives in as natural an environment as possible.

Dylan P
Dylan P

Sea world needs to be shutdown! there keeping the whales in a bad environment and same with the dolphins. they need to be set free! Every time a trainer gets killed its Sea worlds fault not the whales. I cant wait till the owners of sea world loose everything  

Lottie Godwin
Lottie Godwin

@Ben Y If you keep your comments brief then people will read them more carefully. I have skimmed, and it seems like you are a mad pro-SeaWorld person. I don't have time to read an entire other article on this by a person who is not renowned for environment journalism, so if I have the wrong end of the stick, it's your own fault. 

Your final remark that the journalist is simply anti-SeaWorld is a bit too hasty. Watch the documentary Blackfish again and see the trainer of Tilikum who describes T's ordeal at the centre BEFORE he went to SeaWorld. Both th journalist here and those of Blackfish documentary explicitly acknowledge that the experience of captivity which most probably deranged poor Tilly happened in the night-pen of the previous centre. I have checked out SeaWorld's websites and to be honest they do not show particularly well-informed opinions on sealife. I do hope keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is ruled illegal in California, as recently proposed. I trust that if SeaWorld really is as caring as it wants to be seen, then it will continue it's "charity" and "rescue" work regardless.

Julie Dulak
Julie Dulak

@Ben Y  Before you tilt all this as Sea World having evolved to "current practices" by asserting that #Blackfish used "outdated footage", I ask you, are you aware of Sea World's current litigation to circumvent the Wild-Caught prohibition by enjoining with the Georgia Aquarium to IMPORT 18 WILD CAUGHT Beluga whales for DISPLAY?! Sea World has appealed the decision, as they are focused on obtaining these creatures! http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/sci_res_pdfs/17324_denial_letter_final.pdf

Lottie Godwin
Lottie Godwin

@Ben Y Comments should really be brief by definition. So I won't respond to every single thing you wrote, but your last remark that Blackfish or the author of this article only want to say that SeaWorld is evil and is the worst thing ever for these creatures - this is not quite right. Both the documentary and this article carefully brings up the point that Tilikum's youth was marred by being stolen from his mother as a child, and then kept in a tiny pen for most of his childhood where he couldn't get away from two females who raked him persistently at night. Both sources have been careful to say that this was not at SeaWorld, but before he went to SeaWorld, at a different centre. Many people against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity are not of this opinion just to hate on SeaWorld, which is a large part of but not the entire problem. Please watch Blackfish - it shows previous trainer of Tilikum who described his ordeal in the night-pen. He was in tears about it - and he worked the industry.

Margaret Braginetz
Margaret Braginetz

@Pamala Dixon  Too bad your shame came after your contribution.  A little education goes a long way BEFORE laying down your coin.  The second you purchased your ticket you became a participant in Keiko's tragedy and Sea World's success. 

James Soley
James Soley

@Pamala Dixon WOW I thought and said the same thing.  Its just as bad as slavery.  Orcas may not be human beings but studies and MRI's show am extremely advanced brain with capable of emotions and behaviors similiar to that of a human.

Brande Mora
Brande Mora

@Pasquale BottiglieriAh, well...it's a wonder that CNN even purchased this film at all - OR- chose to share it immediately after purchase.  No, CNN chose to wait until SWEEPS week to reveal this gem of a "documentary" to the public.  Oh, did I mention where they sent employees and execs for a team building exercise earlier that year (while in possession of this film)?  That's right - Sea World.  "My hypocrisy only goes so far" ~Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. 

P.S. "Video from Blackfish shows Tilikum grabbing her left arm." is a bold faced lie.  No such video even exists, nor would it be allowed to be viewed from the family or Sea World.  I know it's only ONE thing I can find that is false so far - but ONE thing makes me question an entire article and its contents.


Same with any "documentary."

Ben Y
Ben Y

@Cindy Law  It's an opinion article by someone who is admittedly not an expert.  Why are so many people on this site incapable of actually interpreting an article and thinking for themselves?

Ben Y
Ben Y

@tiras Prothro  Racism and ignorance go hand and hand.  Thank you for demonstrating that with such an incredibly low word count.

James Soley
James Soley

@tiras Prothro Hey imbicile do you see all the posts by "white people" who are outraged by what SeaWorld is doing to these whales?  So not all white people play god over animals..  While you're playing the race card why dont you figure out why Africans "black people" from one tribe try to eradicate "black people" from another tribe?  Genocide is just like playing god.  If you dont know what I'm referring to just look up the Hutus and the Tutsis tribes.  They chopped off little childrens arms and legs off.  All said and done 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu militia using clubs and machetes. 

Amberly Mcsweeney
Amberly Mcsweeney

@tiras Prothro Not all white people are like that but I do understand where you are coming from because it seems these bad guys are always white and its such a disappointment these poor whales should never have been ripped from their families and homes and for what our amusement yes they  are beautiful creatures and I would love to be that close to one but if it meant taking away their freedom it wouldn't be worth it and as for race don't even get me started on that I'm white myself but I dont understand why just cause someone was different they were to be treated so differently hating someone upon the color of their skin its awful and its still happens today the continuous hate because we either cant let go of the past and try to forgive and in the same sense how can you expect one to forgive such awful things all i know is i think everyone has some good and some bad no one is perfect and that's not based off the color of anyone's skin the words of martin luther king says it all.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

and for people out there who want to say well he was a wife beater you know what maybe he was like I said nobody is perfect not saying it was ok that he beat his wife if that's true im just saying we are all flawed in some way but those words that he said should be something we all live by everyday cause hating isn't enforcing change its only continuing this vicious cycle anyways just my rambles and thoughts i really hope i didn't offend anyone those weren't my intentions at all I just wanted people to see that not everyone white thinks the way you might think they do and not trying to defend all whites because I do agree with you on so much  but ive also learned that the only way to change this world for the better is to simply move forward learn to love and forgive because its not about them its about you and if you carry hate with you based apon someone else's mistakes then your gonna end up hating the way they did and its continues to grow if we want change we have to be that change Love is everything thats why jesus took that cross he took it for our sins because he had that love and when it comes down to it love and forgiveness is what makes a change again sorry for my rambles haha :)

Julie Mason
Julie Mason

@John Barr  

Good points have been raised here about the difference in domestic and wild animals. There's also a big difference in range. Killer whales swim up to 100 miles per day in their natural environments. Captivity means they're kept in pools that to their relative size are like large bathtubs.  These couple of reasons only scratch the surface of why captivity is cruel for these animals. There are so many more.

Abby Haling
Abby Haling

@John Barr  This is true, however, whales weigh way more than a house pet. Pets get to roam around in our house, eat as much food as we want to give them, and they are happy because they are domestic. Whales are not. Whales are wild creatures that were never meant to be tempered with. Yes, I am thirteen... but never compare a domestic animal to a whale because they are very much different. 

scarlet ambrose
scarlet ambrose

@John Barr Hi John I think there is a difference because we are forced to share this land with animals.  In my experience as a pet owner my pets have always been outdoor pets.They always come back because i live in the suburbs and i feed them, also im not in a wild environment where they can hunt freely and successfully. They are not captive and not for my entertainment. Whales are not designed to live on land no matter how big the pool is. It is not their environment. Picture yourself living on a significantelly tiny piece of land in the middle of the ocean. Would you not try to return to land at the first opportunity?

Angie Davis
Angie Davis

@John Barr 

The difference is that cats, dogs, fish and other animals domesticated as pets are just that - domesticated. This is something that has taken thousands of years, and these pets are animals that have changed dramatically over these thousands of years from their original wild form. Would you have a pet lion or a pet wolf? Of course not (I hope) - that would be ludicrous. However, basically this is what Sea World and other animal parks are doing - they are taking wild animals and placing them in an environment that is unsuitable to their continued survival, an environment that is even detrimental to their daily well-being. Crack a book now and then or even do some research on the internet - in some way, shape or form please educate yourself before posting inane comments on subjects about which you obviously know next to nothing.

Ernie Sharp
Ernie Sharp

@Sharon Burgos An avulsion is the tearing away of flesh. This tells me that the entire arm was not eaten, simply a portion of the flesh from it. Reading the report, it seems as though the muscles of the upper left arm were torn away, in much the same way as a person would take a bite from a chicken drumstick.

Ben Y
Ben Y

@Lottie Godwin "I don't want to read your words so it's your fault if I don't understand them" is what you essentially just said.  Classic.  If you don't want to take the time to read someone's comment then don't bother taking the time to reply.  I said that they are dangerous animals and I don't think they should be in captivity.  I am not insanely pro-SeaWorld, in fact, I don't really like the SeaWorld facilities.  I am just anti-BS.


The interviews with trainers are 30 second segments taken from the most bias sources they could find and taken out of interviews that were reported to be 3 hours long.  They took what they wanted out of those interviews and could do what they wanted with them.  I do believe that SeaWorld's websites are meant to appeal to tourists, not environmentalists.  The research they fund should be what an "environmentalist" like yourself should look into.  The actual attacks represent normal behavior.  They often play with food or sometimes just seals they don't even end up eating in similar fashion as the attacks.  Someone that knows so much should probably be familiar with the videos of orcas hunting.  The idea that an orca is killing people because it was exposed to "abnormal abuse" is flat out stupid (orcas are frequently identified by the scars they give each other in the wild).


You're apparently of the opinion that the documentary was "careful" in it's approach to anything.  It sifted through interviews of 5 disgruntled and inexperienced trainers, a person who identifies herself as a vegan and PETA member first and a "neuroscientist" second and numerous others who are clearly biased.  There are a ton of animal behaviorists and trainers who would tear apart every aspect of this movie yet we get a 10 second clip from one pro-seaworld trainer in a compilation at the end of the film.  I am of the scientific mindset where false information and uninformed assumptions upset me.  Yes, I think orcas should not be in captivity because they are excessively dangerous but my point was that everyone in the documentary is completely full of it.

Ben Groot
Ben Groot

@Julie Dulak @Ben Y  I skimmed through the document thinking that if there is a moratorium this should be a short document. It is not and I found this:


NMFS response: The MMPA provides for exceptions to the moratorium on take, including for capture from U.S. waters for public display purposes. Although the last permit for collection of marine mammals from U.S. waters was requested and issued more than 20 years ago, the MMPA allows for the submission of permit applications for take from the wild.


It seems to me that they are following the established process allowed by the US government to try and obtain these animals. 

Ben Y
Ben Y

@James Soley @Pamala Dixon  1. MRIs can't determine emotions, only activity associated with behavior.  These studies aren't anywhere near what's needed to determine emotions. 2. The comparison to slaves is pretty offensive here, they do have family bonding and connections with tank-mates as do other marine mammals in enclosures.  You assume that killer whales spend their entire lives with their families in the wild, pretty sure for inbreeding sake this wouldn't be, evolutionarily, the best thing to happen.  3. The vast majority of marine mammals, when enclosures are damaged on open facilities, return back to the facility the following morning.  4. It's Blackfish, if you don't know the name of the film, which you seem to be basing your opinion off of, you should consider investigating the topic further.

Celena Photopulos
Celena Photopulos

It has taken thousands of years indeed. These pets have dramatically changed over the years BECAUSE they were domesticated, not the other way around. Zoos do in fact have pet lions as well as pet wolves, yet I have yet to see a documentary that has received the same attention as Blackfish.

Julie Mason
Julie Mason

@Ben Y @James Soley@Pamala Dixon 

Actually, Resident killer whales like the pods the whales taken from the Pacific Northwest were from do stay with their families their entire lives. Pods travel with as many as four generations of whales hunting and ranging together, protecting one another, and even communicating in their own dialect unique to their pod. 

Julie Dulak
Julie Dulak

@Ben Y @James Soley @Pamala Dixon  Ben Y, you've a lot of nerve to suggest that everyone commenting is basing their opinions on the viewing of  Blackfish. Then you challenge EVOLUTION as not being the best, as you mistakenly assert that inbreeding takes place in the wild. It MAY have occurred at SOME point, but the FACT is that #Seaworld have intentionally artificially inseminated "their" Orcas with the sperm of close relatives, resulting in stillborn calves and ones that didn't make it to their FIRST birthday. Like ALL SEVEN of Corky's calves. EDUCATE yourself. You have the sum total of all accumulated human knowledge at your fingertips, yet you spout information that, as you say, "is clearly one-sided".

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