New video unearthed of unacceptable killer whale treatment
Historical video obtained by CTV News shows a killer whale confined to a tiny tank in a B.C. aquarium, years before it would be responsible for three deaths and be the subject of a major documentary, Blackfish.
The 20-foot whale Tilikum could barely move in the 31-foot long pen, according to documents associated with the freedom of information request that unearthed the video. The orca’s tiny room was one reason both SeaWorld and Victoria-area Sealand were slammed by officials for treating the animal poorly.
“Reasonable and prudent precautionary steps necessary for the health and welfare of Tilkikum were not taken by Sealand or SeaWorld,” wrote Fancy Foster of the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1992, in documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by Florida activist Russ Rector.
It’s this kind of stain from the past that SeaWorld may be trying to distance itself from with Friday’s announcement that it would double the size of its tanks in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando, and fund ocean research.
Critics called it a campaign to regain the public trust after the bad publicity surrounding the documentary Blackfish, which chronicled Tilikum’s story.
And SeaWorld may be taking a page of strategy from the Vancouver Aquarium, where a campaign to distinguish itself as a research-oriented, non-profit organization may have helped save its beluga whale program from a push to shut it down by Vancouver’s park board and mayor.
Some 22 years ago, a crew from SeaWorld visited Sealand in Oak Bay, B.C., with a video camera to document what all sides agreed were atrocious conditions for the killer whale. The video would become evidence in an emergency application to transfer Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld.
Tilikum was one of three orcas in the small aquarium. The other two, Haida and Nootka, were pregnant or had just birthed, and rejected the male, driving him into a small medical pool.
The medical pool was just 31 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 12 feet deep. Tilikum himself was 20 feet long, according to documents.
“Prolonged restriction of the male in the medical pool may also lead to the development of serious medical problems…respiratory infection, muscle atrophy, and scoliosis. In addition, Tilikum could refuse food,” wrote Brad Andrews, the vice-president of SeaWorld at the time.
This was only months after the three whales had killed 20-year-old trainer Keltie Byrne after a show. Poor relationships between the whales and the pregnancies were cited as possible contributing factors.
Andrews said SeaWorld can do better.
“The success SeaWorld has experienced in its captive breeding program is well known,” wrote Andrews in his application.
“SeaWorld requests immediate authorization to import Tilikum to protect the health and welfare of all the killer whales at Sealand,” he wrote.
However activists suspected the emergency had been contrived to find an easy way of getting Tilikum across the U.S. border.
“With a birth imminent, nothing was done by Sealand of the Pacific to prepare a suitable facility for the male orca in question. Both parties are using the National Marine Fisheries Services concern over the close confinement of the orca (a situation deliberately created) to manipulate NMFS into issuing an emergency import permit,” write Roger W. Galvin.
It would be better to just release Tilikum into the wild, he wrote.
Nancy Foster of the National Marine Fisheries Service slammed both Sealand and SeaWorld for creating the unacceptable situation.
“Both Sealand and SeaWorld had at least two months advance knowledge of the imminent birth of at least one, and possibly two, killer whales calves. Sealand is responsible for these animals and should have taken steps to ensure that arrangements were made to hold the adult male killer whale at or nearby the Sealand facility or at another facility in Canada following such births,” Foster wrote in January 1992.
The whale was transferred. Seven years later, a 27-year-old man who had stayed behind at Sea World was found draped on Tilikum’s back. He was covered in lacerations and authorities concluded he had drowned. Then, in 2010, a trainer was grabbed by Tilikum, pulled into the water, and she drowned.
The story and its exposure through the movie have seen attendance and stock prices of Sea World plummet. The makeover measures announced may be too little, too late, said activist Annelise Sorg.
“At a time like this, when obviously the world is coming together against keeping orcas in captivity, it makes no sense,” she said.
The Vancouver Aquarium stopped holding orcas in 2001. Attendance at the Aquarium remains high at a million visitors a year. It has plans to double the size of its tanks as well by 2017.