Requiem for Two Iconic Orcas

by Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist

Tilikum, the 12,000-pound male orca at SeaWorld Orlando who was featured in the documentary Blackfish in 2013, was probably born in 1980, give or take a year. Ever since he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, he’s been beating the odds by surviving. One, SeaWorld might have decided to euthanize him for his behavior (after all, he had also been involved in the deaths of two other people over the years—he was a six-ton liability at that point). Two, no other male orca in captivity—other than Ulises, a smaller male at SeaWorld San Diego who is still alive and believed to be older than Tilikum—had ever lived past 30 years of age. Every year since the tragedy of Brancheau’s death, Tilikum has been living on borrowed time.

The sands in his hourglass finally ran out on January 6. According to SeaWorld, Tilikum had been suffering from a lung infection for months before he died, and he finally succumbed in the early hours of that Friday. Despite many in the animal protection community expecting to hear of his demise “at any time,” it was still a shock to see the announcement on SeaWorld’s website.

In the end, his death was a release, not only from his illness, but also from his sad life as a very large predator held in a tank far too small to contain him. He should have been a dynamic, active, reproductively successful male swimming with his mother or sister, helping to raise his younger brothers and sisters, traveling dozens of miles in a straight line every day. Instead, he “logged” (hung motionless) at the surface of his small tank, day in and day out, with no mother to give him status and no siblings to care for. He fathered 21 calves, but only 10 survived him. His entire existence was a mockery of what it should have been and he is, at last, free of this.

In what amounts to an odd cosmic coincidence, the southern resident orca J2, known as Granny, also died in January, or at least that is when her death was confirmed. In the wild we rarely, if ever, see an orca die—we just know they are gone because we observe their family pod and they are no longer with them. Beginning in 1971, J2 was as reliable as clockwork in her wide-ranging perambulations through the Puget Sound area, seen every year, many times per season, swimming with her family. She was first noted as missing as early as October, but by the beginning of January, her family had been seen often enough without her for the call to be made—she was gone.

Two iconic orcas have died, but that is where all similarities end. Tilikum was a sad caricature of a whale, living 90 percent of his life—which was longer than most in captivity, but merely average for the wild—confined in a space less than 1/10,000th of one percent the size of an orca’s natural home range, without family, without purpose. J2 was the matriarch in her population, guiding it through some good and some very rough times, a storehouse of vital information, achieving a life span that pushed the envelope of longevity for her species. Some say she was aged over 100 years, but based on a reevaluation of some of the assumptions that led to that estimate, it’s more likely she was in her 80s. That is still an impressive age and she spent it on her own terms, in the wild, struggling, triumphing, grieving, and striving.

Rest in peace, Tilikum and Granny.