On February 20, 1991, three killer whales, one male and
two females, attacked trainer Keltie Byrne when she fell
into their pool at Sealand of the Pacific, in Victoria, Canada. One took her in
its mouth and dragged her repeatedly around the pool; the others refused to let
her out of the pool and held her underwater until she drowned. Although there
have been numerous accidents involving killer whales and their trainers, this
is the only incident in which a human was killed by a captive orca.
In September 1991, Sealand put the three whales up for sale. In November, Sea
World applied to the NMFS for a permit to import them for display.
At the time, both of the females were pregnant, and had begun exhibiting
aggressive behavior towards each other and to the male, Tilikum. All the whales
had been kept in the same pool. Eventually, the females drove Tilikum into a
small medical holding tank, where he was kept. The size of the small tank was
considered substandard, but trainers feared that releasing him back into the
main tank might be dangerous for both the adult whales and for the calf which
had been born on December 24, 1991.
Since the display permit application for all the whales was still pending with
the NMFS, on January 3, 1992 Sea World applied for an emergency permit
authorizing immediate importation of Tilikum for medical reasons. On January 8
NMFS granted the permit, although in a letter accompanying the agreement, the
agency chastised both Sealand and Sea World for not
making safe temporary arrangements to hold Tilikum separate from the females
until the display permit application had been evaluated.
The temporary emergency permit had several special conditions. First, Sea World could not use Tilikum for display
or performance until the display permit was granted. Second, if the display
permit was ultimately denied, NMFS required Sea World to return the whales to
an appropriate Canadian facility, to be identified by NMFS and the Canadian
government. If such a facility could not be found, Sea World should return
Tilikum to Iceland and release him at the location he was originally
On April 27, 1992, while the display permit application was still pending, and
before any evaluation of viable Canadian facilities had been undertaken,
Brad Andrews of Sea World wrote to the Minister of Fisheries in Iceland. In this letter, he asked the Minister to consider whether or
not Iceland would be amenable to the release of Tilikum in Icelandic waters. He
also stated that Sea World felt that release of Tilikum was not feasible
for two reasons. First, because Tilikum would not be
likely to survive in the wild, and second, because there was a risk that
Tilikum could introduce disease carrying organisms from Canadian waters into
the Icelandic environment. Andrews warned, "Even with a thorough examination of
Tilikum, it is possible that the presence of some subclinical organisms not
native to Icelandic waters might not be detected."
Thorsteinn Palsson, Iceland's Minister of Fisheries, agreed with Sea World's assessment of the risks involved. In his letter to
Andrews, he cited both concerns raised by Sea World about Tilikum's the release: that Tilikum may not survive in the wild, and that he might introduce diseases
previously foreign to Icelandic waters.
In addition to denying permission for the release of Tilikum, the Minister went
on to add, "The factors that render the return of the killer whale, Tilikum,
infeasible would apply to other killer whales that have been maintained in
captivity outside of Iceland. Consequently, this Ministry ... [has] concluded
that neither the return of this killer whale, nor the return of others now in
captivity, will be authorized.... We trust that our response fully and finally
disposes of any questions regarding the return of killer whales to their point
of collection in Icelandic waters. "
This policy is a major obstacle for those attempting to return Keiko to
Iceland. When questioned by FRONTLINE as to whether Keiko would be allowed to
return to Iceland, Palsson replied "You know, the answer -- what the answer was some years ago... It was no, and it was on the basis of scientific recommendations." The answer he is referring to is Iceland's response to Sea World's inquiry about Tilikum.
Critics of Sea World claim that Andrews' precipitant letter to Palsson
was an attempt to get the Icelandic government to issue a blanket policy
prohibiting the return of any orcas to Icelandic waters. However,when interviewed by
FRONTLINE , Andrews and McBain stated that the NMFS
emergency permit required them to investigate Tilikum's return to Iceland: "The
National Fisheries Service asked the question. We didn't. The Icelandic
government responded. We didn't. We had nothing to do with the question, nor
the answer. So whoever thinks that we lobbed anything into the picture, is
absolutely off base."