SeaWorld's Fred Jacobs dismisses the idea. In addition to citing worries about the impact of taking him out of the social environment he is now accustomed to, and potential threats to his health from pollution and disease, Jacobs says, "All the animals at SeaWorld allow people a really rare privilege to come into contact with these extraordinary animals and learn something about them and maybe when they leave SeaWorld carry that respect forward into their lives. Tilikum is a really important part of that."
Whether or not Tilikum ever performs again, he's still SeaWorld's most prolific breeder. He's sired 13 viable calves, with two more on the way this summer. Most likely, he will finish his life as he's mostly lived it, in a marine park. He's nearly 30, and only one male in captivity, who is still alive, is known to have lived past that age.
Three thousand miles away, Balcomb often sees a pod of killer whales easing their way through the wilderness of water that is his Haro Strait backyard. They swim with purpose and coordination, huffing spumes of mist into the salty, spruce-scented air. The group is known as L Pod, and one, a big male designated L78, was born just a few years after Tilikum. Balcomb has been tracking L78 for more than two decades. He knows that his mother—born around 1960—and his brother are always close by. He knows that L78 ranges as far south as California with his pod, in search of salmon.
L78's dorsal fin stands proud and straight as a knife, with none of Tilikum's marine-park flop. He hunts when he's hungry, mates with the females who offer themselves, and whistles to the extended family that is always nearby. He cares nothing for humans and is all but oblivious to their presence when they paddle out in kayaks to marvel as he swims. He knows nothing of the life of Tilikum or the artificial world humans have manufactured for him. But Tilikum, before 26 years in marine parks, once knew L78's life, once knew what it was like to swim the ocean alongside his mother and family. And perhaps, just perhaps, that also helps explain why Dawn Brancheau died.