Orca that really is a killer whale

BLACKFISH, a documentary-style murder mystery, opens in cinemas this month.

Its focus is Tilikum, a killer whale captured off Iceland in 1983 and kept at marine parks in North America ever since. In 1991, Tilikum and two older females were at a park near Victoria in Canada when trainer Keltie Byrne entered their pool. It was the first time anyone had been in the water with them. The two older orcas seized Keltie and tossed her back and forth between them. Tilikum joined in. The unfortunate trainer drowned.

Tilikum was moved to Seaworld, Orlando, where he grew to be the largest whale in captivity. Keepers there never swam with him. On the morning of Jul 6, 1999, the naked body of 27-year-old Daniel Dukes was found draped over Tilikum’s back. The victim had sustained multiple injuries. Drowning and hypothermia were the causes of death. It’s thought that Dukes hid in the park at closing time and entered the whale pool during the night.

In 2010, Tilikum seized 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of terrified spectators, dragging her under the water where she drowned. Some claim that her long hair became lodged in his teeth. Others say he grabbed her by the arm.

‘How nature can get its revenge on man when pushed to its limits’ is the theme of Blackfish, according to an advertising blurb. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is cited as an inspiration. That acclaimed 2005 documentary chronicled the life of Timothy Treadwell, who spent his summers with grizzlies in Alaska. Despite warnings from park rangers, he ventured so close to the animals that he occasionally touched them. “At best he’s misguided,” declared superintendent Lake Clark. “At worst he’s dangerous.” In 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were attacked, killed and partially eaten by a bear.

Nature as threatening monster is an old theme of the cinema. Descended, via medieval visions of hell and gothic novels, from the demons of ancient myth, horror movies tap into nightmare fears of the unknown and the dark forces of the unconscious. Hitchcock’s The Birds, released in 1963, was one of the most successful of the genre. Based on a Daphne de Maurier novel, its scary demons were not supernatural monsters but familiar and harmless creatures which visit our garden feeders.

! Jaws was released in 1975, featuring the menacing great white shark which preys on swimmers at an America seaside resort.

Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film, however, had another dark side; it fanned the flames of shark phobia, demonising creatures now threatened everywhere. “It perpetuated the myths about sharks as bloodthirsty killers and man eaters,” declared shark biologist George Burgess of the University of Florida.

The resulting trophy hunting craze sparked the current decline in shark numbers, he claims, and the subsequent demand for shark fin soup has also been catastrophic. Bathers and surfers, however, have little to fear from sharks; they are far more likely to be killed travelling to the beach in their cars than being attacked when they get there.

Hopefully, Blackfish will not do a similar disservice to orcas. Tilikum killed three people but he did so in what was for him a totally alien environment. There is no known instance of an orca attacking anybody in the wild. A large bull orca with a smaller one were seen off Mizen Head in June and regular sightings are now reported on the iwdg.ie website. These spectacular and harmless creatures should be regarded as very welcome visitors to our coastline.


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