Top 7 Killer Whale Attacks

Like a man who gets a disparaging nickname after being seen naked following a dip in cold water, most killer whales are burdened with an unjust moniker, being neither unusually bloodthirsty nor whales – they are the dolphin equivalent of the morbidly obese family member who needs a wall knocked down to get out of the house.

Pliny the Elder, likely embittered by everybody referring so bluntly to his advanced years, summoned the descriptive powers of a man with freshly poked out eyes when he wrote: “A killer whale cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth.” Apparently, specifics such as “black and white in color”, “big as a motherf’ing really big boat”, were beyond Pliny.

The view of orcas as predatory threats to mankind remained until the creatures were studied and it was found that they were not motivated primarily by a desire to chomp on human extremities. That understanding came partly as a result of research undertaken on orcas after they were captured and put on display in the 1960s. When it was observed that Moby Doll, the first orca to be captured and displayed, didn’t pop off the heads of every second marine biologist it met, researchers concluded that killer whales weren’t the menacing predators that Pliny and his lot made them out to be. In other words, they were the ideal candidates to perform circus-like stunts that may be aberrations of nature, but for which SeaWorld and the like can charge a hefty per-head fee.

Marine parks operate on the Victorian notion that we can better understand nature’s majesty by removing animals from their native habitat, locking them up somewhere the public can gawk at them without being mauled and, where possible, by teaching them skills so they can earn their keep, like riding unicycles or reading sheet music. These parks are skilled at maintaining the pretense that the creatures on show are enjoying themselves and not merely anticipating a fish-guts-based reward.

There are times, however, when the primal nature of creatures not intended by evolutionary processes to play beach volleyball and splash package tourists surfaces, as it did at a Florida SeaWorld recently (See Entry No. 1) when a trainer was drowned by an orca. It wasn’t the first time – even for that particular whale – and isn’t likely to be the last until we realize that nature should be left alone or at least kept at a respectful distance – 32 feet, the spray distance of bear repellent, is about right.

Here are The Top 7 Captive Killer Whale Attacks of All Time!

7. The Fins of the Father

Tillikum is the orca responsible for last week’s death of a trainer at Orlando SeaWorld and indeed, all of the top three killer whale attacks on this list (wags have dubbed him a “serial killer whale”). He is also the father of Ky, a whale that in 2004 at a SeaWorld show in San Antonio displayed the old man’s penchant for taking marine park trainers on unscheduled jaunts around the tank.

In a stunning blow for nature in its battle against nurture, Ky stopped listening to his trainer’s commands and began ramming him and knocking him under water each time he came up for air. The trainer waited it out and eventually emerged unharmed from the incident; though one reckons the bottom half of the wetsuit would have had to go to the cleaners. Afterward, the trainer was remarkably calm for a man who had been nearly drowned by a six-tonne marine mammal, saying, “It looked like Ky lost a little bit of focus.”

6. Shame on Shamu

Shamu, Namu and Ramu are the brand names given to SeaWorld orcas while they’re performing. In 1971, a 22-year-old secretary rode the first Shamu, a legend in orca circles, as part of a publicity stunt. Perhaps unaccustomed to the snapping cameras and harsh glare of the media spotlight, the whale threw Eckis off, kept divers from entering the pool to rescue her, and bit her on the leg as she was finally able to make her exit.

The secretary was left with several lacerations and puncture wounds from the attack. For stunned fans of the Shamu show, the incident was the marine park equivalent of Elvis putting the boots to a puppy at a live concert.

5. Whales Play Trainer Ping Pong

When grisly incidents happen involving wild animals in captivity behaving, well, like wild animals in captivity, attempts are made to rationalize the actions of the animals in terms humans can understand and appreciate. One of the most common is the suggestion that when the killer whale is engaged in the kind of behavior it would use in the wild to, say, drown and eat a sea lion that it is in fact “playing”.

In March, 1987, SeaWorld San Diego trainer Jonathan Smith, then 20, found that playtime is no fun when the other kids in the pool are the size of buses and homicidal. Smith was in the water performing with two whales, when one of them seized him in its teeth and shot to the bottom of the pool before resurfacing with Smith bleeding and spitting him out. Rather than scrambling for the exit or signaling the harpooners, Smith waved to the crowd, who after all had paid damn good money to see a performance. Then the second whale picked up where the other had left off and slammed him into him. Playtime continued as the whales repeatedly dragged him to the bottom of the pool. He managed to escape, but emerged with cuts around his torso, a ruptured kidney and lacerations on his liver.

4. Splash Landing

Divers who don’t properly survey their landing points are a menace in public pools, and, of course, the larger the diver, the greater the peril. But imagine lolling about in a pool, mid-Sunday afternoon swim, only to look up and have the light in your world eclipsed by the descending specter of a diver 60 times the size of Oprah Winfrey.

In 1987, John Sillick, then a 26-year-old trainer for SeaWorld San Diego, was performing a routine with two orcas. He was riding on the back of a female orca, when a fully mature male, Orky, perhaps incensed by the minimal effort that went into naming him, jumped and came crashing down on Sillick. This is enough to warrant an asterisk in any published sentence in which a marine park official stresses the low number of captive killer-whale related fatalities over the years. Survival in this case, like all others on this list, cannot be considered much more than a fluke. Sillick nearly did die, sustaining fractures throughout his body and requiring six operations in 14 months so that he could be “reconstructed”.

Special Mention: In 1987, Joanne Webber, a trainer at SeaWorld California, broke her neck when an orca landed on her during rehearsal as a result of a miscue.

3. Tillikum and the Drifter

Top of the list of awkward points for SeaWorld PR flacks trying to put a positive spin on last week’s trainer killing: the fact that the orca involved, Tillikum, appears to be an incorrigible recidivist – he’s tied to two deaths prior to the most recent one. The second death with Tillikum’s fin-prints all over it involved a 27-year-old man who gained access to Orlando SeaWorld afterhours and found his way into Tillikum’s tank. (Yes, the Darwin Awards people have recognized this man’s contribution to the gene pool). Park staff found the man’s body draped over the whale’s back behind the dorsal fin the following morning. He died apparently of hypothermia, though scrapes on the body suggested he might have been dragged along the bottom of the tank, which falls in line with the MO the orca established in the other two deaths.

After Tillikum was found with a corpse in his tank, SeaWorld’s then executive vice-president Victor Abbey made one wonder whether he is able to differentiate wild animals from their animated counterparts when he said: “This isn’t a bad animal. He’s a good animal.”

In his film, Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog said in reference to the bears Timothy Treadwell “befriended” before they ate him, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Extrapolate that to all wild animals and we tend to agree.

2. Tillikum’s first strike

If we were to take a leap and think of killer whales along the simplistic lines suggested by Victor Abbey, then surely an incident involving Tillikum that occurred eight years and involved him drowning a 20-year-old biology student would put him in the “bad egg” camp. On February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the orca pool at Sealand of the Pacific a now defunct marine park in British Columbia. Tillikum was in there with three orcas and Byrne had just finished a show with them. One of the whales grabbed her in its teeth and began dragging her around the pool. When she tried to scramble out of the pool, the whales pulled her back in, screaming, and she drowned. Several hours elapsed before park officials were able to extricate her body from the tank.

An inquest was held and, surprise, it was determined that the trainer’s death was the result of the whales playing a game that got a bit out of hand.

1. Tillikum and the Florida trainer

Tillikum’s killing of a trainer at SeaWorld Florida prompted this blog. Late last month, Tillikum grabbed 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and drowned her in front of horrified spectators, including screaming children, who will likely be reliving that day in their nightmares for some time to come. Park officials and rescue workers tried to rescue Brancheau, but, minus the crucial weaponry that would have been their only hope in this situation, they couldn’t extricate her from the creature’s teeth until 30 minutes after it had snatched her from the side of the tank and by then it was too late.

The trainer’s death reignited the debate about killer whales being used in marine parks and also a bizarre take on the situation from the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Ellis. “The fact that they’ve been in captivity for 60, 70 years and not attacked anybody makes this a very surprising event,” he said. He followed up this erroneous statement with his attempt to make like Jonah and get inside the beast and try to guess at its motivations for the attack. “This was premeditated, and for whatever whale reasons, the whale did this intentionally.” More helpful analysis followed: “Whatever prompted the whale to do this, it behaved in killer whale fashion. That’s what it uses to attack with. It doesn’t have hands, so it uses its teeth – it has a lot of them.”

The most worrying quote came from another AP story. Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, in Louisville, Kentucky, said the attack could drive up attendance at marine parks among teens and young adults.”It’s not going to draw families necessarily or older people who would typically visit there, but there is an age group that gets excited about the risks and the potential for drama and it may attract some of those folks,” he said.

Killer whale shows would go from being an obscenity in the face of nature to an exhibition made more exciting by the prospect of someone’s ghastly death.  These Sharks will stay out of the no-splash zone.