Nearly a year after the senseless drowning of his handler Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum the killer whale was back in the news when he escaped from SeaWorld Orlando on Wednesday. The 19-year-old, six ton, 22-foot-long ocean predator terrified central Florida for two days until finally recaptured and returned to the park.
SeaWorld Orlando spokesman Rick Riordon said Tilly, as he is known at SeaWorld’s Marine Mammal Center, escaped at about 2 p.m by posing as a sea lion scheduled to be released into the wild. A transportation detail, fully equipped with a canvas sling and carrying container, had driven out the gates of SeaWorld with Tilly in tow, completely unaware of the impersonation plot. The drivers reported that the prisoner overpowered them and then fled on fluke.
Over the course of the two-day search, Riordon attempted to calm the public, assuring that no one was ever in any real danger by pointing out that killer whales don’t usually attack people and instead target other marine mammals such as dolphins, sea lions and seals.
Riordon’s assurances did little to calm a terrified public who were concerned about Tilly’s violent past. Before brutally killing Brancheau, Tilly had been linked to the murder of hundreds of sea lions and walruses before being sentenced to SeaWorld’s Sea Mammal Center in 1992.
“I can’t believe they just let him walk –or whatever– right out of the center,” said Kissimmee resident Sandra Carney. “Our kids play outside and I can’t trust that this whale won’t mistake them for a group of leopard seals and swallow them up!”
After security discovered Tilly was missing during a routine head count, the county Sheriff’s department, the Orlando Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team (FAST) and Osceola County Animal Control launched a massive state-wide whale hunt.
Officers were dispatched to local aquariums, scuba shops and marinas, believing that the fugitive orca may attempt to enact retribution against these targets. But officials were hot on his trail as unconfirmed reports linked the fugitive to a string of fish market break-ins and drenching assaults on camera wielding tourists.
In a surprising twist, however, the escaped cetacean was eventually found outside the home of Daniel B. Brown, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Authorities believe the whale may have been lying in wait for the return of the Brown, the park’s boss and the man Tilly held most responsible for his continued incarceration. The whale was spotted by Brown’s landscapers and the police were then called.
Riordon speculated that the reason Tilly was largely unsuccessful in ambushing Brown was because killer whales rarely hunt alone and are most effective when attacking in packs.
“It’s fortunate that he’s socially unable to integrate with others of his kind after being confined in an aquarium most of his life,” Riordon said. “Otherwise, he might have connected with a pod or gang of orcas and Mr. Brown would have certainly been a goner.”
Riordon also believed that Tilly’s coloration may have given him away.
“While these whales blend in quite well with the murky ocean depths when viewed from above, and the lighter surface of the sea when viewed from below, making them deadly apex predators, Tilly would have stuck out like a sore thumb among the orange trees and hibiscus bushes surrounding Mr Brown’s home,” Riordon said.
The task force soon set upon Brown’s home and surrounded Tilly. A SeaWorld trainer assigned with the hunt gave Tilly the “recover” hand signal and the whale gave up peacefully without the need for harpoons.
Initially apprehended at the age of two off the coast of Iceland in 1983, the 12,300 pound bull orca has been serving a life sentence for being an interesting sea mammal that curious vacationers with disposable income wanted to see trapped in a tank.
Riordon said that although aquarium detainees had been known to escape from the park in the past by scaling fences or crawling through the waste water system during severe thunderstorms, this was the first time in recent memory that a prisoner had been released erroneously while serving their sentence.