Killer Whale Tilly Father to One-Quarter Captive Orcas

Shamu Rocks
Shamu Rocks, at Orlando SeaWorld
courtesy of Miss Quarel.

The horrific killing trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World by the orca Tilikum, or Tilly, prompted Sea World to indefinitely close its killer whale shows. But the Tilly problem is a long-term one. He fathered 10 of the current 42 other captive orcas around the world–nearly one-quarter of the stock.

Many blame the attack on the whole practice of holding these huge, sociable whales captive to entertain us. Jennifer Viegas at Discovery reports that Tilly, a stud whale, may have had high testosterone levels or swings. That’s what made him the most successful male killer whale captive breeder, siring a record 17 calves, 10 of which are still alive, Viegas says. His offspring include Unna, Sumar, Tuar, Tekoa, Nakai,, Kohana, Ikaika , SkylaMalia and Ky, who attacked a trainer in San Antonio in 2004. Plus, he has at least one grandchild.

That means nearly one-quarter of the killer whales held in captivity around the world and nearly half the 22 held by SeaWorld are related to a killer whale with high testosterone and high aggression. Even if he weren’t a flawed individual, that’s a terribly inbred population. But now that he’s been very publicly involved in three attacks on people, it highlights how misguided these breeding programs might be. Would you keep breeding the dog that attacks and kills people? 

But breeders probably had little choice but to rely on Tilly. No other male was anywhere near that productive. Killer whales are the biggest animal bred in captivity and one of the most difficult. Yet public uproar and conservation laws have all but prevented the capture of more orcas since 1989 (with the exception of 10 captured in Taiji, Japan, the notorious home of The Cove of dolphin slaughter and capture, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says). A live, captive orca would fetch about $600,000, they say in their report Captive Orcas: Dying to Entertain You.

Tilly was born in about 1981 and captured two years later off Iceland. By then SeaWorld had worn out its welcome capturing killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. If he were wild, he would still be living in his mother’s pod, but he’s mainly been kept in isolation. Like many captive orcas, his dorsal fin flops to the side from too much swimming in circles.

Tilly is going to be hugely influential in the killer whale captive population. He may just be the one that convinced people to set them free.

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