The darkest secret that aquariums like SeaWorld try to keep from the public is the harm that has been caused to humans by orcas and dolphins in captivity.
The amount of attacks and deaths that have occurred over the 50 years of marine mammal captivity are shocking. The danger that these trainers face is sufficient proof that the practices of marine parks are ethically wrong.
Before exploring the various attacks that have occurred in captivity, it is important to note that there has never been a single report of an orca killing a human being in the wild.
The only reported attack in the wild was in 1972, when an orca bit a surfer’s leg. The orca immediately released the man, and it is thought that the orca confused him with a seal.
After a string of trainer injuries in 1987, SeaWorld made it mandatory for trainers to file official incident reports whenever a whale went “off behavior.”
These reports total more than a hundred, but according to former and current SeaWorld trainers, many incidents are never even documented.
It is estimated that acts of orca aggression towards trainers numbers in the high hundreds.
Timeline of Orca attacks on humans
- In 1971, SeaWorld decided to put their PR secretary in a bikini and have her ride on the back of an orca for a publicity stunt.
The stunt turned into a full-blown attack, and the terrified girl almost lost her life. Her wounds required 200 stitches.
SeaWorld has recently stated that this type of incident has never happened since, and that only trainers with years of experience are now allowed in the water with the orcas, but....
In 2006, NBC reporter Peter Alexander was allowed to do tricks in the water with an orca he had known for only two days.
The orca he swam with had a long history of aggression towards trainers.
- During a four month period in 1987, fourteen trainers were injured by animals at SeaWorld Parks.
One trainer, Jonathan Smith, was grabbed by an orca and pulled to the bottom of the tank. When he managed to surface, another orca slammed on top of him and both whales continued to drag him underwater; resulting in lacerations to his liver and ruptured kidneys.
The most serious incident, in 1987, happened during a Shamu show.
John Sillick was riding on top of an orca when another orca breached; slamming its entire weight on top of him. Sillick nearly died; suffering multiple fractures that required six surgeries over twelve months.
Full of pins and plates, Sillick now walks with limited mobility.
- The first human life claimed by a captive orca occurred in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. 20 year old aquarium worker Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into a tank of 3 orcas.
The whales dragged her around the tank and repeatedly submerged her. It took rescuers several hours to recover her body.
Eyewitnesses present that day recalled that the male whale, Tilikum, was the instigator and the main attacker.
After the attack, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum. He was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando.
At SeaWorld, trainers were not allowed in the water with Tilikum. They were, however, left in the dark regarding the attack in Victoria and told that it was an accident.
- One morning in 1999, at SeaWorld Orlando, a body was found dead and naked, draped across Tilikum's back. 27 year old Daniel Dukes was thought to have hidden in the park during closing and snuck into Tilikum’s tank for a swim.
SeaWorld claimed that he died from drowning after succumbing to hypothermia.
The autopsy of Daniel Dukes paints an entirely different picture. Dukes’ body suffered horrific injuries caused by Tilikum both before and after he was dead.
- In 1999 at SeaWorld San Diego, the dominant orca Kasatka grabbed her trainer (Ken Peters) by the leg and attempted to throw him during a live show.
- In 2004 at SeaWorld San Antonio, Ky the orca brutally attacked trainer Steve Aibel during a live show. For several minutes, Ky’s body slammed Aibel, and intentionally blocked rescue or exit.
- In 2006 during a show at SeaWorld San Diego, the orca Orkid grabbed senior trainer Brian Rokeach by the leg and pulled him to the bottom of the pool; holding him underwater for 26 seconds.
Trainer Ken Peters was on stage during the attack.
Less than 2 weeks later, Ken Peters would be attacked for the second time by Kasatka.
During a live show, Kasatka grabbed Peter’s foot in her mouth and began “rag-dolling” him, and kept him underwater for close to a minute. After surfacing, with Peters’ still in her mouth, Kasatka took him under again. This time to the bottom of the pool, pressing all of her weight on top of him until he went limp.
After several minutes on the surface, Peters’ managed to calm the orca, free his foot, and swim to safety. He suffered multiple puncture wounds and a broken foot.
The attack was thought to have been caused by the separation of Kasatka and her calf, Kalia, who gave out a distress call to her mother from a back pool just seconds before the attack.
- Loro Parque in the Canary Islands of Spain held orca shows with orcas on loan from SeaWorld. Loro Parque trainers were trained and supervised by SeaWorld trainers; including Dawn Brancheau of SeaWorld Orlando.
In 2009, during a show rehearsal, trainer Alexis Martínez was attacked and killed by the orca Keto. Martínez was repeatedly hit by the orca, and his unconscious body was kept underwater for several minutes before rescuers could reach him.
- Despite the death of Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque, SeaWorld kept their trainers out of the water for only a matter of days.
A couple of months after the death of Alexis Martínez, Tilikum claimed his third victim at SeaWorld Orlando in February of 2010.
One of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau, was performing the “Dine with Shamu” show with Tilikum when the 12,000 pound orca bit down on her arm and dragged her into the water.
Dawn was attacked violently for 30 minutes before rescuers could retrieve her battered and dismembered body.
Initially after the attack, SeaWorld’s story was that Dawn fell into the tank; until witnesses began to dispute it. SeaWorld then tried to blame Brancheau, stating that Tilikum dragged her into the water by her ponytail, and that she should have had her hair in a bun.
Several witnesses contested the story, claiming that she was not dragged in by her ponytail. Many of the female trainers, including Dawn, regularly wore their hair in ponytails.
SeaWorld did their best to place the blame on Dawn or anyone else.
The shocking fact is that this animal killed two people prior to this incident. SeaWorld knew all about the deaths, yet continued to use Tilikum in shows; at the cost of Dawn Brancheau’s life.
Since the death of Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld was fined and ordered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to keep trainers out of the water and a safe distance from the orcas.
SeaWorld has fought OSHA five times in court to get trainers back into the water. With no concern for trainer safety, SeaWorld is only worried about their bottom line. They are desperate to get trainers back in the water.
Swim With Dolphin Programs and Dolphin Attacks on Humans
Stories exist from as far back as Ancient Greece of dolphins in the wild rescuing people from drowning, shark attacks, and even guiding boats through treacherous waters. These types of encounters are still documented to this day.
The only instance of a dolphin killing a human in the wild occurred in Brazil in 1994. A man who repeatedly tried to put objects into a dolphins blow hole was rammed in the stomach and killed by the animal.
According to former dolphin trainer and activist Ric O’Barry, “A dolphin's smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they're always happy.”
On the surface, swim with dolphin programs and petting pools look like fun becuase the dolphins seem to enjoy it.
The truth is that these types of facilities are highly unregulated and extremely stressful for the animals.
Just like orcas in captivity, dolphins suffer stress-related ulcers that are treated with human medication like Tagamet.
In captivity, dolphins are forced to interact with humans for more than 12 hours per day; with no place to escape to for a break.
People swimming with dolphins often touch sensitive areas of the dolphins and grab at them, increasing the likelihood of aggression from the animal.
Dozens of incidents have occurred with people participating in swim with dolphin programs. Injuries include: broken arms, cracked sternums, lacerations, and shock. In 2004 at Miami Seaquarium, a man required surgery after his swimming with dolphins experience.