Diary Of A Killer Whale: Is Tilikum A Transient Or Resident Orca?

This from a comment by Dee Johnston on my post about Tilikum’s state of mind:

Resident (fish-eating) killer whales. The curv...
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With regard to the Education of Seaworld: I found on a message board that someone had contacted Seaworld and asked “Is Tillikum transient or resident?” and Seaworld replied:“Thank you for contacting the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Family of Parks. We appreciate your questions as they are invaluable in helping us provide you with world class service.

Tillicum lives at our Orlando facility full time.

Thank you again for your interest!

Best Regards,

SeaWorld and Aquatica
Guest Correspondence

That is definitely a different definition of “resident.”

In my research I also pursued this question. And the best answer I could come up with is that the orca population off eastern Iceland, where Tilikum came from, shows resident characteristics. Another key point is that the Icelandic orcas were caught either by following the herring fleets, or by dumping herring into the water ahead of a pod. So Tilikum almost certainly came from a fish-eating population, which reinforces the notion that he is more likely resident than transient.

One other very interesting question raised for me by orca biologists is whether transient killer whales that are taken into captivity–used to eating and hunting large mammals–are more likely to be involved in trainer incidents. There probably are not that many transients kept at marine parks since most of the killer whales taken into captivity were taken from the Pacific Northwest and Iceland, from resident populations. But it is an interesting idea.

Anyone have insights into this transient versus resident question?

From source: Two mammal-eating
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35 thoughts on “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Is Tilikum A Transient Or Resident Orca?”

  1. There has been a recent reclassification of orcas into three groups and based on how science and capture worked previously it is hard to know.

    It would be something worth doing a study about–my experience is that most facilities don’t care but as someone who works in behavior and training I find what I dig up to usually be very valuable.

    It is an interesting theory but I don’t think it would hold up. I’ve sourced a few orca-human incidents in the wild and it would be great to source those too but the world is different today versus 20-30 years ago (and more).

    My pal who first began diving and photographing orcas in the wild in the 1970s told me there is a definite difference he could “feel” when he was in the water with them.

    However, I don’t think it would make a big difference in the case of orcas because wild animals that are predators are still predators–they just eat difference species.

    Personality typing is something that would indicate an individuals predisposition BUT there are a lot of other factors that come into play when aggression is displayed.

    It is an interesting question as to how they respond might–for instance, African elephants have a very different predisposition to their Asian elephant cousins. They are more volatile and reactive.

    Another factor is that within these surrogate groups of orcas, they morph, come from different areas, use different dialects, and this is likely to impact their behavior as well.

    1. I Think all factors play a roll in the aggressive behavior from the whales from the trauma of there capture to the jail the are put in to small to even swim ,unless they are preforming to starving unless the do what they are told with out mistake or no food , they are abused traumatized ,isolated ,torched it is awful and heart breaking it makes me sick what people will do for money I don’t know how they can sleep at night .Now what are they going to do with these poor animals now that they wont be preforming any longer at most location? Isolate them until the die ?? I’m sure they will move some of them to other country that still finds it entertaining. I will never give sea world another dime, they are cruel liars

  2. Tim, thanks for your informative article. It’s obvious from your new post that the PR person answering Dee’s question didn’t understand it. I’ve met hundreds of marine park employees over the years and have yet to meet one (including trainers) that have actually seen a wild orca. How might that impact a corporation’s ability to craft a captivity friendly message? Were you told how much trainers get paid? How about other employees, like water skiers? It seems like both groups take a beating, physically. Also, there’s obvious risk involved, as Tilikum has shown us. Any thoughts?

    1. Jeff: I didn’t do any real reporting on the life of trainers, but it would be interesting to know more. I am surprised that more former trainers have not stepped forward to talk about the culture of SeaWorld, their lives there, and what goes on behind-the-scenes with animal care and training.

  3. The only 100% Transient orca ever kept in captivity and not released was Kanduke, captured in 1975 in British Columbia and died in 1991 at SeaWorld Orlando at the age of 15 from bacterial pneumonia. His surviving offspring were Katerina (50% Icelandic and 50% Transient, no offspring) and Taima (50% Icelandic and 50% Transient, who has 3 surviving offspring all 75% Icelandic and 25% Transient).

    1. It has since been found that Kanduke actually dies from west nile virus, he was killed by a mosquito. Katerina died aged 10, Taima died from a fungus which attacked her brain, not from labour complications as many thought. Her story here https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=444872875617604&set=a.443915665713325.1073741855.410988929005999&type=3&theater. Is it coincidence that Gudruns first calf Nyar was brain damaged or is it because a transient and resident would never breed in the wild. She then had Tekoa, who is having an horrendous time at Loro Parque, his story here https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=429014163870142&set=a.428955980542627.1073741834.410988929005999&type=3&theater
      She then had Malia who has had 6 incidents of abnormal behaviour ranging from listing to no movement like seizure states. Usually Taima will scoop her up and snap her out of it and start her swimming again but now Taima is dead. Is that because of mixed breeding too?

  4. Sorry, that’s not entirely true. There was possibly Knootka/Nootka that died in 1990 at SeaWorld San Diego (no offspring), and Chimo and Nootka III who survived briefly at SeaLand of the Pacific.

  5. Thanks Gayle. I was under the impression that it was a viral infection of unknown etiology, but that a mosquito vector was suspected, and at least considered. Here’s an Orlando Sentinel article from that time. To quote just one sentence from the Sentinel…

    “In an unusual move, Sea World officials met late Monday with the fisheries service and the Marine Mammal Commission to present the report. Typically, the reports are simply mailed.”


  6. Jeff, with regard to your comment, “I am surprised that more former trainers have not stepped forward to talk about the culture of Seaworld, their lives there, and what goes on behind-the-scenes with animal care and training.”

    I would just like to say there is a very strong reason former trainers never speak about Seaworld. This is not a coincidence. I strongly suggest your research this, I think it would make for a very good expose.

  7. Sea World has created a culture in which speaking out is taboo. The subjective norm there is to keep your mouth shut, especially regarding controversial subjects. Trainers are indoctrinated early and this line is reinforced continually. Trainers receive PR training early on to learn what to say and what not to say. PR and message control is integral to their success. For instance, in totally predictable form, SW is now airing new commercials to convince all of us how important their work is. This of course is meant to head off the heat which they are surely feeling. So predictable.

    1. That’s horrible. Obviously, the orcas are not the only victims. Plus, I heard that trainers are horribly paid, and skiers make even less money. Is that true? You would think that the performers (trainers and skiers) would make more money. I know of one trainer that made less than 33 thousand after 8 years of service. Considering that an average family of 4 spends several hundred dollars per visit (not including airfare), that seems like a crime. Why don’t people spend the same airfare, travel to Seattle, and visit real orcas?

  8. With reference to John above stating “Trainers are indoctrinated early and this line is reinforced continually. Trainers receive PR training early on to learn what to say and what not to say.”

    The information below seems to confirm that. I saw this link posted online. It’s from
    a Seaworld Training Manual that was published by the Orlando Sentinel on 11/04/91. 

 It also was on the show Frontline on PBS. Here is a quote from the Seaworld Training Manual:

    Certain words and phrases have negative connotations. At Sea World, we call these “buzzwords.” Avoid buzzwords and use more positive words–you’ll give guests a better overall impression.

    Buzzword – Alternative

    sick- ill

    hurt – injured
captured – acquired
cage – enclosure
tank – aquarium
captivity – controlled environment

    wild – natural environment
tricks – behavior
sex- courtship behavior

    Other words to avoid:

    dead, die – If people ask you about a particular animal that you know has passed away, please say “I don’t know.”

    kill – This word sounds very negative. Say “eat” or “prey upon.”

    play, talk, enjoy – Anthropomorphic, they give human traits to animals

evolve – Because evolution is a controversial theory, use the word “adapt.”

    Link to the above information:


  9. Sure Jeff, copy and paste as much as you want. I posted the link where I got it from. It is from Frontline PBS. Please, paste it as much as a you want

  10. Also Jeff, with regard to the main post that started this thread, with Karen SeaWorld from Aquatica Guest Correspondence. I am sure Karen is instructed to go to her supervisor if she does not know an answer to her question if she does not understand it. It seems her answer is a deliberate attempt by Seaworld to take emphasis away from the fact that Tilikum was captured and had a life before of Seaworld.

    By the way – I believe that the term “Transient” and “Resident” only applies to Killer Whales from Orcas from the Pacific Ocean. Tilkium is from Icelandic and Norwegian waters and is part of the group of Orca know as “Scandinavian herring-eating killer whales.” It seems there are several kinds of Killer Whales in the world. The other interesting thing is that I believe, each type of Killer Whale, in the wild, do NOT mingle, interact or breed with each other.

    1. Dee, yes, Ken Balcomb from the Center For Whale Research told me that while the Southern Resident killer whales will mingle, and likely breed, between pods, the Southern Residents and transients that pass through avoid one another. It suggests that dealing with random and unrelated killer whales within a marine park might not be so easy for a killer whale.

    1. Thank you, Dee. That link has been attached to the Google Earth Orca Tracker (referenced earlier). Now, anyone in the world can find the PBS story (“A Whale of a Business”) icon on Google Earth or Google Maps. Although just launched last week, the tracker has been viewed by over 1100 visitors, globally (people are learning). It’s filled with orca data and videos, all paired with geographic locations. It’s fun to play with. Meanwhile, check out this video of wild orcas. It’s really great to see all the straight dorsal fins and open spaces.

  11. Bummer, I had done a long comment and it didn’t show up.

    There are a variety of ecotypes in orcas that have been recently assessed using DNA sequencing: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27whale.html

    But the bottom line here is that orcas are predatory animals so although your question is interesting–as a trainer it doesn’t matter since the animal poses the same threat no matter what its background.

    Having been in the field a long time, I can say SW has a specific culture that is both tight knit and tight lipped even among other professionals.

    What I have observed in some related species (take African versus Asian elephants for example) is that there are differences in temperament between the two that require similar handling but understanding of the trends within the species–or subspecies.

    However, behaviorally it tends to be individually specific as to how they react–and my theory is that the less stable their captive and training background is–the less stable some animals become, depending on their personality typing.

    Recent studies have posed a neurobiological theory about something akin to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) from high intellect animals whose capture was traumatic which might be a factor.

    Captive wildlife is also integrated and in this case combines different animal cultures into a captive culture where they also morph in relationship to humans in that environment.

    Add dialect differences, etc., and it is a complicated mix that we don’t know much about.

    Bottom line, we still don’t know enough.

    One of the big failures I find in the industry is a behavioral listing of patterns of behavior in individual animals–it tends to be passed to trainer to trainer verbally but it is rare to find any written studies on the things that would matter most to training personnel.

    I find most people miss the subtle indicators that trouble is brewing and only notice the overt signals–and by that time it is often too late which is why I think footage prior to the incident from both tankside and underwater would be revealing.

  12. First off, I wanted to thank you for writing the most eloquent & cohesive article I’ve ever read on the history & consequences of captive orcas taken from the wild. I can’t stop re-reading the last few paragraphs, & it always brings tears to my eyes.

    I just have a few (somewhat unrelated) responses/questions:

    I find it odd that Sumar, even though he was separated from Taima at a young age, died just a few months after his mother. I have to wonder if poor, confused Tekoa (who I worked around for more than 4 years) will be next?

    Second, I was able to see Morgan, the orphan orca, at the Harderwijk Dolphinarium in mid-July. Although the press coming out of the park initially said they were investigating returning her to the wild (i.e.-trying to track down her family), when I actually talked to the people in charge they were so pessimistic about this possibility that I began to wonder if they were ever really going to try, or just sell her off to another marine park as soon as they could & claim that, in the end, it was not a viable possibility. I wonder if the Icelandic pods have been catalogued in the same way the Puget Sound pods have, & how much more difficult it would be to try to reunite her than it was with Springer?

    1. Suzanne, thanks for your comment. Sadly, the experts I have been in touch with doubt it will be possible to find Morgan’s pod and return him to the wild. Here’s one opinion:

      The point that trying to find Morgan’s family is probably impossible is
      probably true, especially given that Norway orcas, the most likely
      community, don’t act at all like PNW orcas. That’s why they call them
      popcorn whales – they just pop up everywhere.

      So I hope the scientific committee will be open about the difficulty of
      locating Morgan’s family, but still act at least as a moral voice to say
      that the idea of finding his family should be explored. At least Morgan’s
      acoustics should be compared with Norway orcas. It’s sad to think he’ll
      probably be Tilikum’s replacement some day.

  13. I just wanted to add that Morgan is actually a female, so at least that is one small consolation…regardless of where she ends up, she will NOT be the next Tilikum…
    It is some consolation to hear that the pessimism of the curators at Harderwijk is justified…& it is true that the Dutch authorities are feeling much public pressure to release her back into the wild, so hopefully they will stand up for what is in her best interest, although it probably won’t be the happy ending we would all like to see.
    Thanks so much for the follow up!

  14. Actually Suzanne most of the aggressive whales at SeaWorld have been females. It’s typical for males to show aggressive behavior right around sexual maturity. At that point SeaWorld makes the decisions to work with the whale and try and curb the behavior (Ex: Uliseus, Keet, Taku) and us the whale for water works or pull the whale from in water interactions because he is too aggressive (Ex Ky, Keto, Tili) Most of the females SeaWorld seems to take the lets keep trying approach even if they cause injuries. Kasatka, Orkid, and Taimia are known for repeated violent incidents with trainers working in the water and yet ever time water work is removed from them eventually SeaWorld tries it again. This is what really bothers me about SeaWorld’s latest press release and trying to ”retain” all the whales but Tilikum. If you look at the incident log for Kasatka and Orkid alone one has to wonder where the logic goes? You can site this sorce for plenty of incident reports for captive killer whales: http://www.orcahome.de/incidents.htm

  15. I believe it does make a difference being transient. Kanduke was transient too him mum being T7 Innis. They are supposedly more aggressive, not so social, which means Katerina and Taima were half transient and Sumar, Tekoa and Malia are quarter transient. Makes no wonder Taima’s incident history said ‘Young female Taima had “a history of aggression in her years of waterwork interactions”, had shown “aggression towards trainers” and her “unpredictable nature” had “postponed waterwork interactions indefinitely and limited her to dry interactions only”. and this was Tekoa ” The Canarias 7 newspaper says the incident happened at the pre-show warm up on Saturday, when the orca crashed into the trainer, injuring her right lung and breaking her forearm in two places. She was rescued by two colleagues after the marine mammal dragged her down to the bottom of the pool. The trainer is now said to be stable after surgery on Saturday”.

    These sorts of cross breeds would not have been allowed had Seaworld not been self governing and running their own stud book. Time WAZA stepped in and stopped this.

  16. All the comments above are so interesting. I am a Bioveterinary student and I am researching Killer whales in regards to them being kept captive, considering the behavioural and welfare costs to the animals.
    I would like to include something about the possible abnormal social groups of resident and transient whales in captivity. Does anyone know of any reputable sources I could get a reference for this from?

    Also, does anyone know of any published research regarding to collapsed dorsal fins and whether this is a result of their captive environment

  17. I am by no means an expert but I have read a lot on the topic. Many experts say Tilikum is more than likely resident, not transient. I have a friend who lives in Orlando and he visits Sea World regularly. He has asked several different “guides” this question in regards to why Tilikum is often alone. They claim he is Icelandic transient and transients prefer to be alone. What I have seen in his interactions and bonds with some of the other whales strongly contradicts this. Many trainers spoke to the “moodiness” of the 100% transient Kanduke, and his inability to even get along with the other whales. Some have described his mating behavior as much more aggressive and violent than one would normally see in whales. Tilikum has been described quite oppositely in that manner.
    I wonder if some sort of blood testing could help settle this issue? There has to be some sort of DNA marker that identifies this. I know they do regularly medical testing so it wouldn’t be that big of a hardship to find out. I think they use the excuse of him being a transient in regards to the violent incidences he was involved in. I think that is easier for them to accept than accepting that Tilikum has been psychologically damaged, much like an abuse victim with PTSD.

  18. It’s really hard to tell from markings, but if you look at the marking after Tilikums dorsal fin it is more similar to transient orcas than residential, but I’m sure location proves him residential more than a marking.

  19. Tilikum is a member of the fish eating
    Icelandic pods. There is transient whales in Moscow and one very very lonely and frustrated transient killer whale in Argentina.
    ALSO, sea world base purchased this whales sperm to impregnate 2 whales already. Pretty recently actually. This whale hates people, attacks dolphins and will not tolerate people in the tank. Sea world knowing this, has used his sperm and totally created a species that will be screwed up. I do believe the 1st calf was stillborn. Not sure about the end one yet. I can’t image how a surviving calf like this would ever truly adapt. Half his nature will yearn for meat.
    Also Russia has a transient. It refused to eat for a long time. The fish eating killer whale had to put the dried out frozen fish in its mouth. Teaching him to eat. What are humans thinking? Haven’t we learned yet? Retire the animals to seaside sanctuaries. Most can’t be released but can experience the ocean, where they belong.

  20. I believed that Tilikum and Keiko were resident or fish-eating Icelandic killer whales. Like you, C, I wonder of what family pod they belong.

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