Each whale had a distinctive personality. Tilikum was youthful, energetic, and eager to learn. "Tilikum was our favorite," says Eric Walters. "He was the one we all really liked to work with."
Nootka, with her health issues, was the most unpredictable. According to Walters, Nootka pulled a trainer into the water. (He quickly yanked her out.) Twice she tried to bite down on Walters's hands. Not even the audience was safe. A blind woman was once brought onto the stage to pat Nootka's tongue. Nootka bit her, too.
Frustrated, Walters quit in May 1989. A year later, he wrote a letter to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, to share with participants at a conference on whales in captivity. In it, he detailed Sealand's treatment of its marine mammals and the safety concerns he had. In closing, he wrote, "I feel that sooner or later someone is going to get seriously hurt."
On February 20, 1991, Sealand had just wrapped up an afternoon killer whale show. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine-biology student and part-time trainer, was starting to tidy up when she misstepped and fell halfway into the pool. As she struggled to get out, one of the killer whales grabbed her and pulled her into the water. A competitive swimmer, Byrne was no match for three orcas used to treating any unusual object as a toy. "They never had a plaything in the pool that was so interactive," says Huxter. "They just got incredibly excited and stimulated." Huxter and the other trainers issued recall commands and threw food in the water. They tried maneuvering a life ring close enough for Byrne to grab, but the orcas kept her away from it. In the chaos and dark water, it was hard to see which killer whale had her at any one time. Twice, she surfaced and screamed. After about ten minutes, she popped up a third time for an instant but made no noise. She had drowned.
Bryne was the first trainer ever killed by orcas at a marine park. It took Sealand employees two hours to recover her body from Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum. They had stripped off all of her clothes save one boot, and she had bruises from bites across her skin. "It was just a tragic accident," Al Bolz, Sealand's manager, told reporters at the time. "I just can't explain it."
Paul Spong, 71, director of OrcaLab, in British Columbia—which studies orcas in the wild—did part-time research at Sealand before Tilikum arrived. He is not so befuddled. "If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them," he says. "Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed."
Byrne's death led to a coroner's inquest, which recommended a series of safety improvements at Sealand. The park responded, but according to Huxter, "the wind came out of [Wright's] sails for the business." In the fall of 1991, Sealand contacted SeaWorld to ask if it would like to buy Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum. Sealand closed in 1992.
IF YOU WANT TO TRY to get an inkling of what captivity means for a killer whale, you first have to understand what their lives are like in the wild. For that, there's no one better than marine biologist Ken Balcomb, 69, who has spent 34 years tracking and observing killer whales off the coast of Washington State.