Sunday, October 27, 9 pm ET,6 pm PT on CNN
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Tim Zimmerman, July 30, 2010
Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her…
After Brancheau’s death, Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, made a videotaped statement in which he said, “Maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological,” he said. “Maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive.”
Cousteau raises a profound point. But regardless of how this incident affects orca captivity, Tilikum’s fate is likely sealed, despite calls for his release back into the wild. Free Willy‘s Keiko underwent extensive retraining before being released into the seas off Iceland, and appears to have foraged for food on his own. But he never reintegrated with a pod. A little over a year later, after swimming to Norway, he died, likely from pneumonia. Ken Balcomb still believes that most marine-park orcas can be taught what they need to know to be returned to the wild. (No real effort was made to find Keiko’s family, Balcomb says, which is a key to success.) But even he rules Tilikum out. “Tilikum is basically psychotic,” he told me as we looked out over Haro Strait in May. “He has been maintained in a situation where I think he is psychologically unrecoverable in terms of being a wild whale.”…
Three thousand miles away, Balcomb often sees a pod of killer whales easing their way through the wilderness of water that is his Haro Strait backyard. They swim with purpose and coordination, huffing spumes of mist into the salty, spruce-scented air. The group is known as L Pod, and one, a big male designated L78, was born just a few years after Tilikum. Balcomb has been tracking L78 for more than two decades. He knows that his mother—born around 1960—and his brother are always close by. He knows that L78 ranges as far south as California with his pod, in search of salmon.
L78’s dorsal fin stands proud and straight as a knife, with none of Tilikum’s marine-park flop. He hunts when he’s hungry, mates with the females who offer themselves, and whistles to the extended family that is always nearby. He cares nothing for humans and is all but oblivious to their presence when they paddle out in kayaks to marvel as he swims. He knows nothing of the life of Tilikum or the artificial world humans have manufactured for him. But Tilikum, before 26 years in marine parks, once knew L78’s life, once knew what it was like to swim the ocean alongside his mother and family. And perhaps, just perhaps, that also helps explain why Dawn Brancheau died.