How 'psychotic' SeaWorld orca Tilikum turned serial killer and mauled three people to death including his own trainer

HAULED out of the ocean and thrown into the clutches of captivity at just two years old, orca Tilikum went on to become a notorious serial killer.

Over the course of 30 years in captivity, Tilikum killed three people, including two trainers, and a man who climbed into his tank naked after the park had closed.

Experts believe the whale's endless years imprisoned in water parks rendered him "psychotic" from psychological and physical trauma – leading him to take three lives.

Former SeaWorld trainers have even claimed the whales were routinely drugged and deprived of food – driving them to self-harm.

Tilikum was torn away from his family in waters off the coast of Iceland in 1983 and put into a concrete holding tank at Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo near Reykjavík.

After months spent swimming in circles, the infamous 22.5ft orca was shipped off to Sealand of the Pacific in 1984 where he was housed with two older female killer whales – Haida II and Nootka IV.

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Totally incompatible, the trio endured 14 hours a day crammed in a tiny 26ft-wide enclosed pool – with the females raking Tilikum with their teeth to assert dominance as a result of their matriarchal social structure.

Relentlessly abused by the orcas and suffering stomach ulcers, Tilikum was then isolated alone in a smaller medical pool in what was just the start of his traumatic life.

Within a decade of his capture, Tilikum's killing streak began.

In 1991, Tilikum – who weighed a colossal 5,700kg – was still cooped up at Sealand when a young part-time worker slipped and plunged into the pool.

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Onlookers watched on in sheer terror as Tilikum and his two tankmates submerged marine biology student Keltie Byrne – ferociously dragging her around the pool and stopping her from surfacing.

In a brief moment of hope, the 21-year-old managed to reach the side and attempted to climb out as she gasped for air – but was quickly hauled back beneath the water by the orcas.

Staff frantically tried to throw her a life ring but she was unable to reach it as the whales treated her like a "plaything".

In a terrifying 10-minute ordeal, Keltie managed to reach the surface twice as her haunting screams echoed around the pool.

When she came up for the third time, she had tragically drowned.

Several hours passed before her body could even be recovered from the bloodied pool.

Steve Huxter, head of animal training at Sealand at the time, said: "They never had a plaything in the pool that was so interactive.

"They just got incredibly excited and stimulated."

Just 18 months later, Sealand closed its doors for good – flogging Tilikum and the two other orcas to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

Eight years later, Tilikum struck again.

On the morning of July 6, 1999, horrified trainers found the body of a 27-year-old man over Tilikum's back.

Daniel Dukes had visited SeaWorld the day before and stayed after the park closed – somehow escaping the watching eyes of security.

He entered Tilikum's tank unclothed and by the next morning had been mauled to death.

An autopsy revealed a catalogue of stomach-churning injuries, contusions and abrasions across his body.

Despite a number of cameras operating around and even inside the pool, SeaWorld maintained the chilling incident was not captured.

No drugs or alcohol were found in Dukes' system, and the autopsy concluded his cause of death as drowning.

In February 2010, Tilikum killed for the third and final time.

After enjoying the Dine with Shamu show at the attraction, panicked tourists then witnessed a nightmarish spectacle they could never have even dreamed of.

As part of the post-show routine, star trainer Dawn Brancheau lent over the tank's edge to rub Tilikum when his behaviour suddenly changed and he pulled her into the water by her ponytail.

Harrowing scenes saw Dawn shaken and thrown about as terrified guests were frantically ushered out by staff.

According to reports, the 40-year-old was scalped and had her arm bitten off during the attack.

Even when trapped and netted by SeaWorld workers, Tilikum still would not let go of Dawn's body – with her autopsy indicating death by drowning and blunt force trauma.

Dawn's shocking death made headlines around the world, calling into question just how ethical keeping whales in captivity is -with much speculation focused on Tilikum's treatment and life.

Many experts and former trainers believe Tilikum turned serial killer purely as a result of his traumatic time in captivity – with the landmark 2013 documentary Blackfish shining a light on longstanding concerns.


Ex-SeaWorld trainer Sam Berg told the documentary: “There has not been a single incident of killer whales harming humans in the wild. In captivity, it’s happened more than 70 times.

“Someone said if you put a human in a bathtub for 25 years they’d be psychotic too, and it began to fall into place. I wasn’t training killer whales – I was messing with their minds.”

The reported cruel treatment of intelligent, sensitive whales even compelled trainers to turn into whistleblowers – including Jeffrey Ventre, who worked at the attraction from 1987 until 1995.

He claimed attacks on trainers were common because stress made the orcas hyper-aggressive – but many of the incidents weren't reported.

The orcas, he said, would grind their teeth or chew concrete out of boredom, causing dental damage, and "raking" – scratching each other with their teeth – was usual.

Speaking to The Sun Online in 2018, he said: “There was a lot of self-mutilation. Jaw popping was regularly seen – it's a threat display between two orcas."

Jeffrey claims the whales were medicated daily for medical conditions – but also to control their behaviour.

“The whales and dolphins were stressed and this caused stomach ulcers," he explained.

Someone said if you put a human in a bathtub for 25 years they’d be psychotic too, and it began to fall into place. I wasn’t training killer whales – I was messing with their minds.

"So they got meds for that. They also got chronic infections, so they got antibiotics. They were also sometimes aggressive or hard to control so they could be given Valium to calm their aggression.

“All whales were getting vitamins packed in their fish. Several got daily antibiotics, including Tilikum, for chronic teeth infections.”

Jeffrey – who now works as a medical doctor and specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation in Washington – claims trainers were forced to lie to the public about the whales, passing off injuries they sustained from captivity as normal.

One of those is dorsal fin collapse, where the dorsal fin leans to one side.

The reason this happens isn't totally known, but scientists have suggested it's due to stress and reduced activity.

Jeffrey explained: “We were also given scripts for educational shows that were filled with errors that were actually public relations talking points.

"For example, when we spoke to kids we were told to tell them that killer whales live 25 to 30 years on average. This is not true.

"We also told the public that dorsal fin collapse was genetic or a fairly regular occurrence in the wild, which it isn't.”

In the wild, killer whales live between 50 and 80 years. But in captivity, their life expectancy is around just 17 years.

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Tilikum met his end in 2017 after facing serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection.

His death came just a year after SeaWorld announced they were ending their breeding programme following years of campaigners railing against them.

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