Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance

One of the other clues to Tilikum’s potential state of mind (Part 1 here) just before he killed Dawn Brancheau is his performance in the “Dine With Shamu” show that she completed with him before he grabbed her.

Trainers working with killer whales are trained to look for clues in their behavior, anything that might indicate that there is something wrong, or potential danger. These are called “precursors,” and no experts I spoke with about Tilikum’s interaction with Dawn in the “Dine With Shamu” show believed that there were any precursors or red flags that should have warned her that she might be in danger. That said, some behavioral experts I spoke with also told me that the “Dine With Shamu” show did not go that well from a performance point of view. Specifically, they said Tilikum appeared uninterested and somewhat disengaged, and did not perform well.

The primary resource when it comes to seeing Tilikum and Dawn’s work together in that show comes from a video made by a family attending the Dine With Shamu show on February 24. Here is the video, made by the Connell family, from New Hampshire. It’s a little difficult to watch, knowing what comes moments after it concludes, but it is a key to helping understand what happened that day.

[Update: WESH-TV, which is a local Orlando station has disabled the embedding for this video. Interestingly, they have not disabled embedding on the other videos on their YouTube channel. SeaWorld conspiracy theorists, you can run with this one! For those who just want to watch the video, click on the link which appears along with the “embedding disabled” message]

To the untrained eye, this looks like Tilikum putting on a pretty good show. And when Dawn engaged with Tilikum after the show, lying down next to him on the slide-out and talking to him and stroking him in what is known as a “relationship session,” it indicated that she thought he had done okay, too, as relationship sessions are partly used as a reward for good behavior (though she also had to keep him engaged while the Dine With Shamu guests headed down to the underwater viewing area).

Following the tragedy, SeaWorld employees described the “Dine With Shamu” show as “perfect,” with nothing out of the ordinary occurring. Here is trainer/spotter Jan Topoleski’s description of the show to Orange County Sheriffs Office investigators:

However, one behavioral specialist I spoke with took the time to break down the video of Dawn working with Tili and found a less than smooth performance.

Here is that second-by-second analysis, based on the above video:

0:11 DB asks for “raspberry” behavior; Tilikum instead emits long slow exhale

0:14 Training moment: DB conducts a 3-sec neutral response (for incorrect behavior)

0:17 Tactile to Tilikum’s rostrum

0:21 DB asks for Tilikum’s left pectoral flipper (visual signal of gesturing to it)

0:29 Lazy roll. One could make the case that Tilikum looks slow

0:32 DB maintaining good eye contact

1:04 “See Dawn rubbing down Shamu’s pec” [pectoral flipper]

1:18 DB feeds Tilikum 5 herring

1:24 DB feeds Tilikum 2 herring & 1 smelt (aka Capelin)

1:38 DB whistles (behavioral bridge = “good”) when he makes contact (shows control)

1:47 DB repeats the “head shake NO” behavior

1:51 DB whistles (behavioral bridge = “good”). A variable reward usually follows a bridge.

2:00 DB feeds Tilikum 4 herring

2:10 DB stimulates Tilikum via splashing water on abdomen and left pec

2:27 Tilikum rolls back over after splash, awaits reward (note lower jaw)

2:34 DB feeds him 2 herring

2:43 Dawn asks for Tilikum to retrieve a herring (then throws a fish out into the pool)

3:13 Tilikum returns with a fish head (incorrect; gaming)

3:28 Training moment: DB intends to reward Tilikum for holding the fish without eating it. DB places herring on his lower jaw (briefly); she whistles-rewards before he has the opportunity to generate another incorrect response (effective training moment).

3:35 DB rewards Tilikum with ice. She may be low on food at her current location.

4:17 DB rewards Tilikum for following (bucket splashes)

4:34 “Words alone simply cannot possibly describe Dawn & Shamu’s relationship”.

4:56 “The biggest tool we use here at Sea World is our hearts”


5:13 Double pec wave behavior, bye bye

5:29 Tilikum receives more ice, then 3 herring from another bucket

5:45 DB asks Tilikum to go down to window (draws a virtual square)

6:13 DB reinforces Tilikum with water reward

6:21 DB with Tilikum in the shallows

This specialist added the following analysis, making clear that it is with hindsight, and speculative:

In general, the session seemed long with an animal that was slow. Ice rewards are often used as sessions come to an end, because when your primary (food) is gone, that is what is remaining in the bucket (the bucket itself has reinforcing properties). From a statistical standpoint, ice is positively correlated with session-end. Tilikum, provided with precursors of session-end as early as 3:35, may have elected to stimulate himself in a more dramatic fashion; in this case, with tragic consequences.

Again, it is important to repeat that there were no obvious red flags and that this show was probably within normal parameters (in a way that the preceding Believe show was not): some shows go well, some less so. So I am not in any way trying to suggest that there is anything in the Dine With Shamu show that Dawn or anyone else from SeaWorld should have interpreted as a warning.

At the same time, the show did not go perfectly, and Tilikum apparently was not really engaged. In fact, more than one behavioral specialist I spoke with suggested that they would have considered ending the session, simply because lethargic behavioral responses should not be reinforced. Here is another comment on the Dine With Shamu show I received from another expert. She told me:

This was a very poor session with Tili. He was reinforced (with fish and other) for poorly performing several behaviors. Also, Tili assumed an arched posture with his head down a few times. This posture often meant that either a whale was not interested in the session or that he/she was looking out for harassment from another whale. Based upon what little I’ve seen, I would have probably ended the session with Tili. He was obviously not into it.

I have no way of evaluating whether these critiques are too tough or not, but if they are not and Dawn had ended the session before lying down next to Tilikum, obviously there might have been a different outcome. So it is a haunting question.

In any case, the critiques are useful because they raise a number of interesting points and questions:

  1. If the critiques are in fact on the mark, I wonder whether Dawn felt it was important to finish the show with Tilikum regardless of his seemingly lackadaisical performance, because the show which had just preceded it had been cut short, and ending two successive shows early might have resulted in some pretty puzzled SeaWorld guests. Had Dawn been part of that Believe Show? How aware was she of what had gone down? We’ve been trying to burrow into Tilikum’s head, but in this case it would be useful to know more about what was going on in Dawn’s head that day.
  2. Is there ever an issue with running out of primary reinforcement (fish) while working with a killer whale? Does that ever frustrate or provoke a response from the killer whales? If so, should SeaWorld (or OSHA for that matter) be looking at all at the supply and use of fish in that Dine With Shamu show?
  3. Even if Tilikum’s performance was in fact within normal parameters, and more like a B-grade performance than a D-grade performance, at a minimum it shows that marine park killer whales are not automatons that are conditioned to the point where they behave the same way each day, and in each show. SeaWorld does not like this term, but they clearly have “moods.” And while we may never know exactly what “mood” Tilikum was in, or why, it is clear he was not totally engaged and at the top of his game performance-wise. With that sort of emotional variability, there is always the potential, it seems to me, for a killer whale to do something unexpected.

Perhaps we’ll never know the answers to these questions. But they are what I wonder about when I try to dig deeper into this tragedy. What other questions should be asked, if any, about the Dine With Shamu show and the interaction between Tilikum and Dawn?

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26 thoughts on “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance”

  1. Tim, once again some great information and yet more questions arise as to how Tilikum might have been affected by everything taking place during the Dine with Shamu show. True, we will never know exactly what was going through Tilikum’s mind during this seemingly routine performance. But it would seem that a number of “unusual” things were going on in and around the pool complex as this performance was taking place.

    There were several news reports that indicate some sort of construction was ongoing at the back pools. SeaWorld’s Chief Animal Curator Chuck Tompkins reported there was “painting” going on. But was it more than that? Were there out-of-the-ordinary construction related activities taking place before or during the show which created noise or vibrations that Tilikum might not have been accustomed to? Was there construction related equipment, additional staff or workers creating a change in the visual appearance of Tilikum’s surroundings?

    Reportedly there were witnesses at the Dine with Shamu event that reported the whales in the holding area were making a lot of noise prior to the Believe Show. Was there something going on that could be considered unusual? Perhaps not. But worth noting.

    As the Dine with Shamu event takes place several times a day, 7 days a week, did the cancellation of the Believe show have any effect on how Tilikum performed? Was he aware of the behavior of the uncooperative orcas in the Believe show? Since the Believe show in Shamu Stadium is broadcast on projection screens to the guests in the Dining area, would Tilikum have noticed a change in “routine” when the Believe Show departed from the norm? Would he notice the broadcast was abruptly cancelled? Would he have been able to view the actions on the projection screens and notice something was awry? If any of these are possible, how might it have changed Tilikum’s behavior, if at all?

    Just some more questions to ponder…

      1. You can communicate, you have rights, you know the difference between right and wrong, you have freedom, friends and family and you are not forced by any means to do anything.

        As the well known example goes, find someone to tank you in your tub for 25 years and told to clap when signed. Forget about all of the above, the freedoms you as a human take advantage of.

        These animals are more emotionally evolve than us. No wonder we have creatures like you who cannot fathom living as one with the kin you are privileged to share this planet with.

        I’m no hippy, nor am I an activist. Simply a human with emotion and understanding. I’m glad I’m not closed off and willing to educate myself about the wrong we humans do in this world. In this day and age it’s all about ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

        How would you feel if your kids/you were abducted? I’m sure you wouldn’t want the world to rest until all was right.

        We’re not the only living beings with rights. I’m glad I don’t live in America and live in a country that bans live animal circus shows (which extends to marine animals).

  2. I have to disagree with the assessment that there were no precursors–substandard performance and distraction of the animal indicate that something was amiss and when the animal is varying from the norm–it does require a level of astuteness to identify it.

    The very low levels of indicators are often missed by most people–they don’t have to be overt, behavioral changes, body tension, postural and, in many species, expression changes are included in my lists.

    Whether or not it is divulged, there is pressure to complete performances or stick to the event schedule when it is a paid for venue…as you say, we will never know all of the details but there are enough outside opinions that correlate to indicate there was something amiss prior to the incident.

  3. Tim,
    In response to question #2 (above), captive killer whales have the empty bucket thing figured out. It is common for them to break from a trainer when a bucket is empty (i.e., no more primary reinforcement is available). They seem to be cued to this by the hollow sound an empty bucket makes, and also to the fact that toward the bottom of the bucket, trainers have a strong tendency to stretch out the few remaining fish by feeding individual or small handfulls rather than the large quantities offered up when a bucket is new and full. Dolphins, sea lions, walruses and other trained marine mammals will do the same thing. Very predictable in a training environment.

  4. Also, as the statement above is absolutely correct. Ice cubes are positively associated with an end to a session. The whale are on to this one as well.

  5. Tim I think you are doing a fantastic job of delving into this subject in a most unbiased way. It is certainly a delicate subject because of the tragic death of Dawn, but one that must be explored so that we understand why it happened and to ensure that it does not happen again. Thank you so much for taking the time to knowledge and information with all of us.

  6. hey guys, great article Tim, but just thought i would let you in on a few things:

    1. they use the ice anyways as a reinforcer, not just because the bucket is empty.
    2. Fish isnt the only reinforcer, just because the bucket is empty doesnt mean that Tilikum doesnt want to stop doing his interactions with Dawn.
    3. After they did some research they found out that most of the whales liked getting a rubdown instead of food, they have very sensitive skin so it feels really good to them. Of course all whales are different so its different for some of them
    4. Tilikum weighs 12,300 pounds, dont know if you already knew that, but just becuase he has to move more weight around and is slower than the others does not make him lackadaisical or not into the session. I have seen the video long before now and trust me hes not lackadaisical or not into the session.

    Also i really hope some of you older people can refrain from saying nasty things to me just because you are older and think you know more about them then i do, which trust me you dont. You cant just come in after a death at a park,decide you hate this park, then think you know everything about these animals from reading a few articles.

  7. Peyton,

    Age has nothing to do with it – but experience does. And unfortunately, many people think they can analyse the actions and motives behind of world-famous animals, like orca (and they have become world-famous, through Free Willy and Shamu and many other popular orca figures).

    I’m a Zoology student with a particular emphasis on animal behaviour and I have spent time working with top animal behaviourists (including one of the world’s top orca behaviourists) and hell, I couldn’t even begin to pass judgement on Tilikum’s actions from the above (or any other) video footage. I understand some basic communication signals, but there is nothing obvious about his behaviour in these videos. And that isn’t too say that he isn’t exhibiting any specific behaviour – his behaviour is very subtle and it requires an expert to see this.

    For example, your referral to his weight and whether he is being lethargic or not – there is a huge difference between an animal moving relatively slow because of their weight and an animal being lethargic. The only thing that I know for a fact is that you are unable to tell the difference as you are not a behavioural expert. As a result, it is impossible to ‘trust you’ on this judgement.

    I am not being nasty here, but I want to clarify the fact that it does require skill to analyse animal behaviour, especially more complex animals. And I want to emphasise the amount of education, experience and practice that is required (and I don’t mean three years of a degree here either – I mean many, many years, -ten, twenty, thirty- spending time with a specific group of animals and observing THEIR behaviour).

    Your comment undermines all of this and is fundamentally misleading. And Peyton, if you are old enough to understand what you are saying in your comment (on this page or anywhere else), then please don’t hide behind your age as a defence.

  8. Hi, I have read the most recent article called: The Killer in the Pool posted on OUTSIDE Online written by Tim Zimmermann. Very detailed, insightful, & thorough. I was sad to think that what Don Goldsberry and his team did to capture wild orcas in the past is similar to the present day capture of dolphins in Japan as featured in the documentary The Cove. Haven’t we learned anything from our past? I was not aware of how orcas were being provided to Sea World (& other marine parks) in the past (was I asleep!!?). Thanks for making me aware.


  9. Watching this video for the first time, it was readily apparent to me that the Orca dolphin (not “Killer whale”) was indeed lethargic, disinterested and intentionally uncooperative. There was one point at which Dawn demonstrated a surprising lack of awareness by performing a hand gesture that seemed it would not have been visible to Tili (though it was otherwise within her standard quality of interaction, not attacking her.) (Close in, center of field of his head, near mouth.) The “cheap” on the rewards was certainly a factor, and I remember noticing that at the time as well.

    Rationing food to keep the creature motivated is not uncommon. But such a small quantity of fish goes beyond that and into insulting. Imagine rewarding a dog by giving it 3 grains of crumbled dog food. It’s not at all unlikely that this added to both the lackluster performance and Tili’s resentment.

    That SeaWorld tried to claim that Dawn died when she slipped, fell into the pool and drowned, this says much, and makes it clear to me that revealing all video available is important, if not essential. They can’t be trusted to do anything but cover their own financial interests. There are many capable scientists and experienced trainers who might find that video meaningful, telling. When there is this much money involved, they cannot — and must not — be trusted.

    There are two tragedies here. One, that Dawn was killed, that the end of her life was certainly a time of fear and horror. The other, that an Orca was violently abducted from his natural environment and family, put into what amounts to an extremely abnormal circumstance, and pressured until something snapped. The lesson to be learned is simply to leave these sea creatures, themselves at the top of their environment,) within their natural place in the oceans of the world.

  10. Hi Tim.
    I am glad to see your article you have raised some important issues, from the video I could see he was just not in to the session that day.

    The important reality is that he does not want to be there anymore…

    Thanks, Leighann.

  11. I know very little about whale training and behavior. I am familiar with clicker training dogs as I have trained several “throw away” abused dogs in this positive reward type training. I watched this video and from what I can tell ~ if Tili were a dog which he isn’t~ it looks as though Tili is herding Dawn. He is waiting to reward her with a response until she is in the position he wants her in. Exp… Tili waits to perform the behavior and once Dawn has moved where he wants her, he executes the behavior as her reward. Very smart dogs are FAMOUS for doing this in positive training. When working with dogs using clicker training you have to watch even the slightest movement you make as the dog reads everything you do. I am sure this is true of whales but as they are smarter the trainer has to be even more vigilant with movements. If whales are capable of this type of manipulation, which I am sure they are, this would be even more proof of an intentional attack.

    I have seen several videos of the orcas at Seaworld feeding the seagulls. They lay their fish on the edge and wait very still. Once the seagull comes for the fish the orca will then eat the seagull. There are several videos on you tube showing this behavior. It is similar to what I am seeing with the attack on Dawn. He is luring her around and when she is in a position He wants her, he rewards her. He waits for the perfect moment when her spotter isn’t in arms reach to be able to help when he grabs Dawn. This isn’t just a “orca flipped out and attacked” it was planned and carried out with a great deal of intelligence. I know whales are very smart creatures but are they smart enough to manipulate to that extent?

    1. Brook,

      That’s an amazing observation! And a very valuable connection I might add. I have several friends who are heavily immersed in dog training (either through fostering or business ownership) and I am very interested in hearing their thoughts! My cousin and her husband foster rescued pitbulls (a breed, well-known for its power and potential violence, that is vilified by many). They also have a 2-year old son that they’ve taken great care in educating on how to treat and care for animals.

      Another good friend of mine finished with a degree in zoology and has worked as a zoo caretaker and now runs her own dog training business with her boyfriend.

      As a fellow animal-lover and one who has worked extensively with horses, I am no stranger (thought not a total expert) to nuanced behavior in animals. Horses are also very tactile animals and require great care and precision when working with them. It is rather ridiculous to think that the tiniest error or lapse in judgement wouldn’t affect a situation with a highly intelligent and sensitive creature like a killer whale. All elements have an effect on situations like this and require thorough scrutiny.

    2. I realize this article was published 6years ago, nevertheles I think Bonnie adds an interesting insight to this otherwise excellent article.
      We all know Orcas are highly intelligent beings who are able to think and cooperate in complex ways. I think it’s possible that the whale vocalizations heard by the audience before the show is telling.
      We have seen whales working in unison to sweep a sea lion off a plate of ice by creating waves, why then unlikely that the Orcas in captivity were cooperating in unison to stage a protest?

      Firstly the Believe show had to be cancelled because the whales weren’t cooperating, and then Tilly staged the final deadly act of protest – in front of the photo window!
      How intelligent are these whales??
      I think they really made a point that day, and poor Dawn, the star of the show, paid the ultimate price.

  12. I find this video sad, disturbing and transparent. Tilikum was not in the mood, for whatever reason and the show should have been cut short.

    The disturbing and transparent part, for me, is the speaker, in the background, waffling on about how close they are as trainer and orca, and the biggest tool is their heart. Minutes before Tilikum kills her. How was that misinterpreted so very badly?! Because it wasnt the truth. It was just PR. “Its ok for us to use these orcas as entertainment!! Because theyre happy! And their trainers love them! And they love their trainers! And its all sunshine and roses and cuddly, lovely orcas!”

    As a psychology student I have a little insight in to animal behaviour. I find thd idea that there may have been construction going on quite interesting. Any hammering, drilling or other construction sound could have triggered flashbacks to his capture, where explosives would have been used to herd his pod, and he subsequently would have been wrestled by humans. So, crash, bang, terror – check. Human with their arm around him (for relationship time) – check. Of course, we have no way to tell if this was what was happening in his mind, but I can easily see how it could have transpired.

    The performance aspect is clearly an issue. All of the documented attacks appear to have taken place when trying to make the animals perform a trick – either in practice sessions or during a show.

    Sadly, it’s now impossible to release these Orcas in to the wild but I, for one, would like to see and end to these vile, ridiculous, vulgar, fake shows. When did it become not enough just to see these magnificent creatures up close?

    Realistically SW will never give up their business. Why would they? A more realistic goal would be to campaign for the Orcas to be kept in larger, more natural, more stimulating pens, where they can go about their daily lives and us humans can observe that. Not tacky, fake shows. They are amazing enough without the tricks.

    1. To clarify, I think this is the way forward with *these* orcas, as a beginning to phasing out orca captivity all together. With no more orcas caught or born in captivity. In the (hopefully) 20-30 years left of the orcas lives we will have enough footage and technology for any lessons learned from watching orcas to be fully accessible to everyone in the world without the need to keep these creatures captive.

  13. Amazing article. Thank you.

    I notice you touched on Tilikum seeming to be “slow” during his performance with Dawn- at the time of her death he was on 2 different antibiotics and an antifungal for a tooth infection. I can’t help but wonder if he just plain didn’t feel well and didn’t feel like performing.

    Regardless, I believe none of those orcas want to be there doing the equivalent of dog tricks.

  14. I have been reading quite a bit of information on killer whales. There is one thing I don’t understand in this video? She signaled picture window. Wouldn’t that mean he should go to the picture window? Or does that mean “we are waiting and then we will go to the picture window?”

    1. I think this is a key observation. She signaled picture window. Then was he getting frustrated or confused waiting to go to the picture window? He then grabs her and takes her to the window.

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