Dawn Brancheau’s autopsy report includes five Roman-numeraled sections detailing different injuries to her battered body. She had been scalped. She suffered a lacerated liver, broken ribs, and a dislocated knee. Her left arm was torn off. “White female, animal trainer,” the report summarily reads, “attacked by a killer whale at work.”
You’ve probably heard of Brancheau, who was dragged into a tank at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., shortly after a noontime 2010 orca performance. As chronicled in the new movie Blackfish, every time a captive orca hurts someone, there is momentary hysteria and regretful but reassuring accounts from SeaWorld of a gentle creature that was confused by its trainer and essentially played with her to death.
This explanation, scoffed at in Blackfish and tirelessly investigated by writer Tim Zimmermann, has been rejected by many who study captive whales. Blackfish suggests SeaWorld will do whatever it takes to protect the animal most emblematic of its brand, even if that means putting its employees in mortal danger and then blaming them if they are killed. (SeaWorld has stridently challenged the film and all but threatened lawsuits.)
But while SeaWorld is certainly trying to shield its cash-churning killer whale shows, the company is also protecting something bigger and more elusive: the orca’s reputation. After all, the creatures that are today some of nature’s most loved living wonders were some of its most feared monsters just a century ago.
Earlier cultures tended to depict orcas as godlike creatures—sometimes holy, often respected, always feared. Art, mythology, and written records stretch back thousands of years in civilizations around the world, since orcas themselves are such far-flung mammals. Orcas were once best known to sailors, who killed them because they were such a nuisance to fishing operations. International governments tolerated and in some cases encouraged their slaughter. (Some claim that orcas and whalers sometimes formed curious relationships, with orcas partaking in the hunt of other whales. Though there is little evidence for the theory, one explanation for why the beasts are called “killer whales” is that their original nickname, “whale killers,” was lost in generations of translation.)
In the decade after the captures began, the public fell into a previously unthinkable love affair with orcas. In one small measure of the shift, a 1960 New York Times article about whale watching referred to the killer whale as a “savage” and used its long-lost nickname, “tiger of the sea.” But by the 1970s, the paper regularly ran adoring stories about close encounters in harbors and bays, along with respectful reports when a captive orca at Coney Island had its teeth cleaned.
Bad press about trappings followed, and the orca’s newfound popularity turned on the captors. Disrupting killer whale pods in the wild became so despised that North American captures were effectively shut down by 1976, just 12 years after they began. SeaWorld and other parks kept seizing orcas near Iceland until that country, too, shut down the practice in 1989, and few were captured from the 1990s on. More and more of the animals now in captivity were born there.
The display of killer whales, even as their capture came under attack, still deepened the connection the public felt to animals. For my generation it’s difficult to imagine a world where orcas were not the most magical creatures we knew: impossibly large but gentle, wise but youthful. When I was young, I screened Free Willy obsessively and belonged to several free-the-whale campaigns. And yet I also compelled my parents to drive 200 miles to the now-defunct SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio, every summer so I could commune with the orcas. Watching the Free Willy movies now, they seem to embody this conflicted attitude toward orcas: We are horrified by their captivity and yet unwilling to really let them go. The film’s titular killer whale may eventually soar over the adolescent hero into the sea, but he remains the boy’s best friend in two sequels.
Wild orcas have complex and still mysterious social lives, and studies around the world have shown that they behave differently in different places. Social structures are matrilineal, and the animals communicate with one another with their famous calls. Transient whales are less vocal and gather in smaller numbers than whales that stay in one location, which are the ones most often spotted off American coastlines. Large orca pods that share similar vocalizations and dialects seem to commune with one another most often.
Orcas are apex predators, but their diets vary widely. Some regional varieties subsist on salmon, others are legendarily fearsome hunters of sharks and marine mammals. They stalk prey in pods of up to 40 killer whales in sophisticated and ruthless ways. Disturbing footage shows them throwing themselves on beaches to grab seals or knocking floating pieces of ice methodically to dislodge their prey.
So why don’t we have a reverent fear of orcas as we do of sharks, or even of terrestrial apex predators like grizzly bears? At least partly, it seems, because orcas don’t eat people—not that they have often had the opportunity. No fatal attacks in the wild have been reported. Rare incidents of killer whales “bumping” or otherwise menacing humans seem similar to most shark attacks, with the orcas likely mistaking a person for their favored, juicier prey.
Captivity, of course, is another story. I detailed Brancheau’s autopsy report not to suggest orcas are generally dangerous to people but to underscore the awesome power they can wield with little effort. Tilikum, the orca who killed Brancheau and who is closely tracked in Blackfish, was also involved in killing two other people. Their autopsy reports are no less gruesome, and there have been dozens of serious injuries involving other captive orcas. And yet even in an otherwise clear-eyed movie like Blackfish, only brief glimmers of orcas as the animals they truly are break through. Otherwise it presents a familiar version of angelic, elevated creatures adulterated only by captivity and evil corporations.
In truth, orcas’ journey in the public imagination from feared deity and indiscriminate killer to noble, fun-loving master of the sea has had dire consequences for them. SeaWorld is absolutely guilty in its disgusting exploitation of killer whales, but what about our enduring need to mythologize them? SeaWorld itself depends on this sentimental refusal to recognize the sublime, unknowable animals orcas are on their own terms. (“We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that,” a SeaWorld official opined to the New York Times this week.) That’s one of the reasons the company has managed to dupe much of the public into believing that its trainers are not in danger—and why the movement to stop captivity for good has never really taken off.
Must we return to a reflexive state of fear and anxiety over these amazing creatures? Of course not. But the next time you see adoring footage of an airborne orca glistening against a sunset, maybe think less about the animals’ ethereal majesty than about what would happen if it landed on top of you. That’s the kind of admiration and respect killer whales really need.
Jeffrey Bloomer is a writer for Slate.