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Orca Resistance at Sea World

The Struggle of Nootka and Tilikum

by JASON HRIBAL

Editors’ Note: Counterpunches can be landed in a variety of ways. In November 2006, Kasatka, the Sea World Orca, attempted to drown her trainer. Yesterday, it was Tilikum’s turn—killing his aquarium trainer. This fall, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, will be published by AK Press/CounterPunch Books. Below is a poignant excerpt from the book, which details the decades long struggle of two notable orcas: Nootka and Tilikum.

–AC / JSC

It was the first time that a trainer had ever been killed by a group of captive killer whales. There had been previous attempts, a great many actually. But the trainers involved, whether through rescue by other employees or a stroke of luck on their part, had always managed to survive. This attack, however, proved to be different and fatal. It occurred on February 21, 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific.

That day’s final performance had just ended at the Victoria, British Columbia based aquarium and the audience was pleased. They got to watch three killer whales, Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum, perform tricks, including one trick wherein a young female trainer rode on the back of one of these great sea mammals. It seemed to be wonderful fun—that is, until that particular female trainer fell into the water. As she attempted to climb out, an orca latched on to her. “The whale got her foot,” an audience member recalled to reporters, “and pulled her in.” We do not know which orca it was that started it, but all three, Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum, took their turns dunking the screaming woman underwater. “She went up and down three times,” another visitor continued. The Sealand employees “almost got her once with the hook pole, but they couldn’t because the whales were moving so fast.” One trainer tossed out a floatation ring, but the whales would not let her grab it. In fact, the closer that such devices got to the young woman, the further out the whales pulled her into the pool. It took park officials two hours to recover her drowned body.  

Responding to the death, Sealand dismissed any claims that the whales had hurt the woman on purpose. “It was just a tragic accident,” the park manager lamented. “I just can’t explain it.” A few of the trainers speculated that Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum might have been playing “a game” that simply went wrong, and their coworker was mistakenly killed in the process. There was, however, precedent for a different interpretation.

In 1989, there had been two violent incidences involving Nootka. The first occurred in April. A trainer was in the middle of a routine activity, scratching the orca’s tongue, when that orca decided to turn the tables. Nootka “bit her hand and dragged her into the whale pool.” The woman had to be rescued by a fellow employee. Sealand, for its part, chose not to notify the authorities or the press. It believed that, although the trainer received lacerations and needed stitches, Nootka did not really intend to bite the person, and the situation remained in control. The trainer thought differently. Citing “unsafe conditions,” she quit her job.

Nootka struck again later that year. A tourist was taking pictures, when he accidentally dropped his camera in the water. The orca quickly noticed the object and put it into her mouth. When a trainer tried to retrieve the camera, Nootka used the opportunity to grab a hold of the man’s leg and jerk him into the pool. The trainer had to be rescued. Sealand administrators chose, once again, to deny that there was intentionality behind Nootka’s actions. No one needed to know about this incidence. Nevertheless, more trainers did resign their positions. Nootka, they believed, was purposeful and dangerous in her actions.

Elsewhere in Canada, other theme parks were having their own troubles. About a decade earlier, the Vancouver Aquarium had its hands full with Skana and Hyak. Both orcas were described by their trainer as “moody.” Working with the former was particularly precarious, as the female whale could switch from an obedient disposition to a rebellious one “in minutes.” “Skana once showed her dislike,” a Vancouver employee explained, “by dragging a trainer around the pool.” “Her teeth sank into his wetsuit but missed the leg.” 

For Marineland, near picturesque Niagara Falls, it was the same but only with a different pair of whales. There was Kandu. She once yanked a trainer around the pool by the leg after the man fell off his back during a stunt. The employee was sent immediately to the hospital and a pale audience stumbled out of the stadium in disbelief. Than there was Nootka, a similarly named but all together unrelated orca to the one at Sealand. During a mid-1980s performance, she struck a trainer in the head with her pectoral fin. Aquarium administrators pronounced that it was an accident. Her trainers knew better. As one of them disclosed, Nootka often leapt out of the water in order to punch her trainers directly in the chest. She wanted to hurt people. 

Interestingly, to date, there have been a total of five orcas named Nootka. Sea World had one. Marineland had another. And Sealand actually had the other three. Its first was captured in 1973 off the western Canadian coast. She died after nine months. Sealand tried again in 1975 with another female brought from the same waters. She did not fair any better and died within the year. Less than a decade later, Sealand decided to make one more attempt and flew in a young Icelandic female. She, miraculously, survived. Indeed, the average life expectancy during this era for captive orcas stood between one to four years. Aquariums often went through a whole series of whales before just one of them made it into adolescence. Today, that life expectancy has improved: rising to about ten years. Yet it is still a far cry from the thirty to sixty years that orcas can live in the ocean.

Sea World, for instance, has had fifty-one Shamus. The original was captured in 1965, after animal collector Ted Griffin harpooned the calf’s mother in Puget Sound. Betting with the odds, Sea World would only lease the animal at first. Who knows how long she would last? But, when the young orca made it through the year, the park bought her outright for $100,000. Sea World made Shamu the central figure in its operations. All marketing from this point forward was geared towards her. There would be Shamu commercials. There would be Shamu shows. There would be Shamu dolls and t-shirts. Shamu became, in the words of one director, the park’s “Mickey Mouse.” This orca did, however, have the power to disrupt these well-laid plans.

In 1971, during a publicity stunt, Shamu was being filmed with bikini-clad women riding on her back. Suddenly, she tossed the woman off and began dunking the person underwater. There were two divers in the small pool, but Shamu shrugged them off like little insects. The chaotic scene continued for a few minutes: a hysterical woman, divers tumbling in the wake, and trainers at the poolside desperately holding out poles. The individual would, eventually, be rescued. But the deed was done and the images made the local news. Shamu, apparent to all, was not near as friendly or cooperative as the amusement park would have liked us to believe. Sea World had its first major incident. At the end of the day, though, the orca’s actions were not enough to bring down the park. Operations would continue and, fifty-one Shamus later, Sea World has thrived. It has become a flagship vacation destination with three current locations: San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio. They have hotels, restaurants, roller coasters, merchandise, and special events. They have adventure camps for grade school and high school students. They have a multitude of animal exhibitions and performances. They have extensive breeding and research programs. Shamu has made Sea World’s owners very rich.

Back at Sealand, the situation was not as rosy. The attack by Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum left the park in a public relations freefall. Administrators promised changes. New safety procedures would be initiated. Physical contact between the trainers and whales will no longer be allowed. Guardrails will be installed along the poolside to prevent slips or bites. But the public pressure would not let up. Between the daily protests at the park’s front gates, national demands that the orcas be released back to the ocean, and the city council’s entrance into the debate, Sealand’s will crumbled. In August of 1991, the park reached a startling decision. “After a lot of thought and discussion,” the director clarified, “it was decided killer whales should be phased out.” Less than one year later, Sealand shut down its entire operations. The twenty-nine year old institution had closed permanently. 

The three whales, including Haida’s newborn calf, were sold to Sea World for five million dollars. The decision was made in secret, and the export permits were granted behind closed doors. The public at-large was not allowed into the conversation. Tilikum was shipped out under the cover of the night to Orlando, where he still resides. Nootka would soon follow him. She died in 1994 at the age of thirteen. Haida and her calf, Ky, went to San Antonio. Three years after the death of his mother in 2001, Ky made news of his own. That July, during a performance in front a thousand people, the orca jumped on top of his trainer and repeatedly pushed the man underwater. Sea World, afterwards, tried to pass the incident off as rough play, saying that at no time was the trainer in danger. Witnesses did not buy it. As one of them explained, “the whale was staying between the [exit] ramp and the trainer and finally the trainer jumped on top of the whale’s back and leaped over him and another trainer caught him.” At that point, “the whale turned around and slammed down on the ramp and he was pretty upset that the trainer got out of the pool.” Yesterday, the trainer did not escape.

JASON HRIBAL is the co-author of The Cry of Nature: an Appeal for Mercy on Behalf of Persecuted Animals. His new book, Fear of the Animal Planet, will be published this fall by AK Press / CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com