Killer whale attacks on humans

Killer whale attacks on humans

Killer whales (or orcas) are powerful predators capable of dispatching prey much larger than humans, such as leopard seals and great white sharks. They have also been recorded preying on usually terrestrial species such as moose swimming between islands.[1] However, wild orcas are not considered a real threat to humans, as there are few documented cases of wild orcas attacking people, and none of the recorded attacks have been fatal. There have been about two dozen cases of orcas attacking humans since the 1970s,[2] almost exclusively perpetrated by captive animals. Experts are divided as to whether the injuries and deaths caused by captive killer whales have been accidents or deliberate attempts to cause harm.[3]


Wild orca attacks

There are few recorded cases of wild orcas threatening humans; none of these have been fatal.[4][5]

Point Sur, seen from the north on Highway 1
  • In the 1910s the Terra Nova Expedition recorded that killer whales had attempted to tip ice floes on which an expedition photographer and a sled dog team were standing.[6] In this case the whales may have mistaken the dogs' barking for seal calls and grown curious.[6]
  • On September 9, 1972,[7] a Californian surfer named Hans Kretschmer reported being bitten by a killer whale at Point Sur; most maintain that this remains the only fairly well-documented instance of a wild orca biting a human.[8][9] His wounds required 100 stitches.[9]
  • In August 2005, while swimming in four feet of water in Helm Bay, near Ketchikan, Alaska a 12 year old boy named Ellis Miller was "bumped" in the shoulder by a 25 foot transient killer whale.[4][8] The boy was not bitten or injured in any way. The bay is frequented by harbor seals, and evidently the whale initially misidentified him as prey.[4]

In 2004 a video purporting to show a Korean in a kayak being capsized by a jumping orca and surviving circulated the Internet; however according to folklorist David Mikkelson of, this video is a fake originally made for a commercial for an energy drink.[10]

Captive orca attacks

There have been several attacks on humans by captive killer whales, with some of them being fatal.

  • In 1968, the young female orca, Lupa, of the New York Aquarium chased her trainers out of the tank, snapping her jaws threateningly. Trainers were cleaning the tank at the time of the incident.[11]
  • In 1970, Cuddles, a male orca who resided in both the Dudley Zoo and Flamingo Park (now Flamingo Land) in England, became so aggressive towards his trainers, having attacked them twice, that his keepers were forced to clean his pool from the safety of a shark cage.[12]
  • On April 20, 1971, SeaWorld secretary Annette Eckis was talked into riding the park's main attraction, a 10-year-old female orca named Shamu, at the park in San Diego, California as a publicity stunt. As the ride was coming to an end Eckis was suddenly thrown off the whale's back. The orca seized the woman by her leg and began pushing her through the water. Trainers on the side of the tank grabbed the young woman and attempted to pull her out of the water but the whale again grabbed a hold of the woman's leg and refused to let go. Shamu's jaws had to be pried apart with a pole in order to free her. Eckis was carried away on a stretcher and required 100 stitches to close the wounds she suffered. Shamu may have done this out of curiosity, as Eckis was wearing a bikini while riding the orca, instead of the traditional wet suit that is usually worn.[13]
  • In the early 1970s, a Marine World California trainer, Jeff Pulaski, while riding a young female orca named Kianu during performances, was thrown off and chased out of the tank.[14]
  • In the early 1970s, trainer Manny Velasco recalls both Hugo and Lolita of the Miami Seaquarium becoming aggressive, lunging and snapping at the trainers standing on the center work island ending the training session for the day.[15]
  • In the early 1970s, during a water work session Hugo refused to allow trainer Chip Kirk to get out of the water, Kirk explains to a journalist from the Palm Beach Post. Hugo bit him several times on the arm bad enough to leave a scar which he showed to the reporter.[16]
  • In the early 1970s, Hugo grabbed trainer Bob Pulaski by the wetsuit and began thrashing him, Pulaski struggled but it only made things worse, then Hugo's tank mate Lolita joined in to and began a tug of war. Pulaski managed to free himself from the tangled wetsuit and get to safety. Pulaski did not mention if he sustained any injuries. In both incidents Kirk and Pulaski believe the orcas were only playing.[16]
  • In the 1970s, another Marine World California trainer, Dave Worcester, was dragged to the bottom of the tank by the park's young male orca, Nepo.[17]
  • In the early 1970s, an unidentified Marineland of the Pacific (USA) trainer was seized by the young male, Orky II, and held at the bottom of the tank until the man nearly lost consciousness.[18]
  • On May 2, 1978, another Marineland of the Pacific trainer, 27-year-old Jill Stratton, had an incident with Orky II. Stratton was nearly drowned when the 10-year-old Orky II suddenly grabbed the young woman and dragged her to the bottom of the tank, holding her there for nearly 4 minutes.[19]
  • In the 1970s, a Vancouver Aquarium trainer, Doug Pemberton, recalls that "Skana once showed her dislike by dragging a trainer around the pool. Her teeth sank into his wetsuit but missed his leg." Pemberton described both young female Skana and her male companion Hyak II as "moody", but states that Skana was the dominant animal in the pool. "She is capable of changing moods in minutes".[20]
  • On February 23, 1984, a 7-year-old female orca by the name of Kandu V grabbed a Sea World California trainer, Joanne Hay, and pinned her against a tank wall during a performance.[21]
  • In 1986, an unidentified MarineLand, Ontario trainer was taken to the hospital after he fell off the park's male killer whale, Kandu 7 (not to be confused with Kandu V), and was dragged by his leg around the pool during a trick.[22]
  • In 1986, a 4-year-old female orca, Nootka V (not to be confused with Nootka IV), whacked an unidentified MarineLand, Ontario trainer in the head with her pectoral during a show. According to a former trainer, the whale had a habit of leaping out of the water in an attempt to strike trainers by the pool in the chest.[23]
  • On March 4, 1987, 20-year-old SeaWorld San Diego trainer, Jonathan Smith, was grabbed by one of the park’s 6-ton killer whales. The orca dragged the trainer to the bottom of the tank, then carried him bleeding all the way back to the surface and then spat him out. Smith gallantly waved to the crowd when a second orca slammed into him. He continued to pretend he was unhurt as the whales repeatedly dragged him to the bottom of the stadium pool. Smith was cut all around his torso, had a ruptured kidney and a six-inch laceration of his liver, yet he managed to escape the pool with his life. Later reports indicate that the whales involved in the attack had been 10-year-old female Kenau and 9-year-old female Kandu V.[24][25]
  • On June 15, 1987, a 29-year-old Sea World San Diego trainer, Joanne Webber, suffered a fractured neck when Kandu V, a 9-year-old female orca, landed on top of her and pushed her to the bottom of the pool during a training session. Webber had five years of experience working with orcas.[26]
  • On April 1, 1989 Nootka IV of Sealand of the Pacific pulled her trainer, Henrietta Huber, into the whale tank after the 6-year-old female bit down while the trainer had her hand in the mouth of the orca in order to scratch its tongue. Huber needed several stitches in order to close her wounds.[27]
  • Later that same year (1989), Nootka IV of Sealand of the Pacific grabbed a tourist's camera that was accidentally dropped into the whale’s tank. Head trainer Steve Huxter attempted to retrieve the camera but was pulled into the pool when the orca refused to give up its new toy. The orca grabbed a hold of the trainer’s leg but Huxter was pulled to safety by fellow trainer Eric Walters.[28]
  • On February 20, 1991, the three orcas that resided at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia (Haida II, Nootka IV, and Tilikum) killed a young part-time trainer named Keltie Byrne when she accidentally slipped and fell into the tank. This facility did not allow the trainers to get in the water with the animals so the orcas were not accustomed to having people in their tank. It is unclear which orca initiated the assault but what is known is that one of the whales grabbed the trainer by the foot and dragged her deeper into the pool, the other two quickly joined in, pushing and throwing the young woman around the pool.[29] All three animals barred her escape, continuously blocking her path and dragging her back into the center of the tank. Sealand staff tried unsuccessfully to distract the orcas with fish, noise, voice and hand commands. It was several hours before Ms. Byrne's body could be recovered.[30] SeaLand of the Pacific soon closed after the incident and sold all of their orcas to the SeaWorld franchise; Haida II and her calf Kyuquot (who was born some time after the incident) were both moved to SeaWorld Texas, Haida II eventually died in 2001. Nootka IV and Tilikum were both transferred to the SeaWorld in Florida. Nootka IV passed away in 1994 but Tilikum still remains.
  • In 1993, 14-year-old female Kasatka tried to bite an unidentified Sea World California trainer (not Kenneth Peters).[31]
  • On July 5, 1999, at SeaWorld Orlando Florida, a deceased man by the name of Daniel Dukes was found nude and in one of the orca tanks draped across the back of the park’s largest male orca, Tillikum. An autopsy revealed that the man died of a combination of hypothermia and drowning. Dukes was covered in bruises, abrasions and bite marks, indicating that Tillikum had clear contact with the victim but whether or not Tillikum actually caused the man's death could not be determined.[32] Dukes had apparently hidden himself in the park until after closing and then jumped or fell into the orca’s tank. It is thought that Dukes may have been mentally unstable or under the influence of drugs.[33]
  • On June 12, 1999, 22-year-old Kasatka grabbed her trainer Ken Peters by the leg and attempted to throw him from the pool during a public show at SeaWorld San Diego.[2]
  • On July 8, 2002, a trainer by the name of Tamaree was hospitalized for a broken arm and several minor injuries after an incident occurred in Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Florida. The 28-year-old trainer was doing poolside work with two of the park's orcas, Orkid and Splash. "She was playing with the whales, talking to them… the next thing we know, as it appears from the video, she was pulled into the water" said SeaWorld spokesperson Darla Davis after reviewing security and visitor footage of the incident. Park officials said the trainer exited the pool without assistance and was taken to a local hospital, where a pin was needed to reset her arm.[34]
  • In late July 2004, during a show at the SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, a male orca named Kyuquot (nickname Ky) repeatedly jumped on top of his trainer, Steve Aibel, forcing him underwater and barred the trainer from escaping the water. After several minutes the trainer was able to calm the animal and he exited the pool unhurt.[35] “Veterinarians believe the whale… felt threatened by the trainer, perhaps a result of the effects of adolescent hormones.”[36][37]
  • On April 4, 2005, Sea World Florida trainer Sam Davis was repeatedly “bumped” by an 11-year-old male orca named Taku. The show continued uninterrupted but the trainer was later taken to Sand Lake Hospital for unspecified minor injuries and released the same day. Additional eyewitness account: "The trainer and Taku were about to slide on the slide out at the end of the show when Taku completely stopped and started "bumping" the trainer. The trainer was male and he finally swam out of the tank. I knew something was wrong because none of the whales except Kalina wanted to perform. Then they finally got Taku out to splash people at the end of the show, when this incident took place."[38]
  • On November 15, 2006, a SeaWorld California trainer was injured when the park's 18-year-old female killer whale, Orkid, grabbed veteran trainer Brian Rokeach by the foot and pulled him to the bottom of the tank, refusing to release him for an extended period of time. Orkid released Rokeach only after heeding fellow trainer Kenneth Peters's repeated attempts to call the animal’s attention back to the stage. Rokeach suffered a torn ligament in his ankle but was not taken to the hospital. In response to the incident, SeaWorld increased the number of trainers who must be available during performances and in water training to five staff members but this however was ineffective because no less than two weeks later trainer Kenneth Peters was involved in a similar incident with different orca.[39]See next bullet for Peters attack.
  • On November 29, 2006, Kasatka, one of SeaWorld San Diego's seven orcas, grabbed her trainer, Ken Peters, by the foot and dragged him to the bottom of the tank not once but twice during an evening show at Shamu Stadium. The senior trainer escaped only after staff members managed to separate the two with safety nets. This was the second documented incident of Kasatka attacking Peters and is the third most widely reported of all the SeaWorld incidents.[2]
  • On October 6, 2007 at the Loro Parque a 29-year-old trainer, Claudia Vollhardt who had worked at the park since 2003, was hospitalized after she was injured during a training session with one of the park’s killer whales. The Canarias 7 newspaper says the incident happened at the pre-show warm up on Saturday, when the orca crashed into the trainer, injuring her right lung and breaking her forearm in two places. OME News writes that it was a male orca that hit the trainer and dragged her down after the impact. Then that same animal dragged her back up to the surface. She was rescued by two colleagues after the incident. The trainer was in a stable condition after surgery on Saturday. Claudia trained mostly with 6-year-old male Tekoa and some news refers to him as the orca involved in this incident.[40]
  • On September 9, 2008 during a show at Marineland Antibes in France a 26-year-old female orca named Freya begins acting oddly in the middle of the show and then pulls an unidentified trainer under the water. The trainer resurfaces after a few seconds only for Freya to return and begin jumping on top of the man. After landing on top of her trainer twice she begins to push him through and under the water. The trainer tries to regain control of the situation by climbing on the orca’s back but he is thrown off. The trainer eventually manages to get to the edge of the pool and climbs out, seeming unhurt.[41]
  • In the spring of 2009 a 5 year old female orca named Skyla turned on an unidentified trainer while performing in one of Loro Parque Tenerife's daily shows. Skyla started pushing her trainer through the water and up against the sides of the pool. "Water work" has been suspended with her and only senior trainers are allowed to work with her now.[42]
  • On December 24, 2009, 29-year-old Alexis Martínez died during a rehearsal for a Christmas Day show at the Loro Parque Park in Spain. The 14-year-old male orca, Keto, who was born at SeaWorld Orlando Florida, reportedly rammed Martínez in the chest, rendering him unconscious. Martinez supposedly drowned before fellow trainers could rescue him. The park repeatedly asserted that this was not an attack but an unfortunate accident caused by roughhousing, however the park also describe Keto as “not... (being) completely predictable.” The subsequent autopsy report revealed that Alexis died due to the serious injuries he sustained from the orca attack, including multiple compression fractures and tears to his vital organs with the bite marks all over his body.[43] Martinez was considered one of the most experienced trainers in Loro Parque, having worked at the park since 2004.[44]
Tilikum, who has been involved in 3 deaths, swims in the Dine with Shamu exhibit in Orlando, Florida.
  • On February 24, 2010, the orca Tilikum killed an experienced trainer at the end of a "Dine with Shamu" show at SeaWorld Orlando. SeaWorld officials confirmed that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and pulled her into the water, drowning her.[45] The autopsy determined that the trainer died of "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning".[46] SeaWorld has since been fined by OSHA for $75,000 for "willfully" endangering its employees. OSHA stated that the company "(shows) Plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." SeaWorld has challenged OSHA's claims stating that "OSHA's allegations in this citation are unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care." [47] SeaWorld has taken OSHA to court to challenge the fine and safety report.[48] None of SeaWorld’s trainers have been allowed back in the water since the incident between Dawn and Tilikum. [49] Note: Previous Tilikum incidents, February 20, 1991 and 1999.

Incidents involving unidentified captive orcas

  • In the mid-1970s Karen Pryor reports, "I have since heard... of at least one killer whale which launched an unprovoked attack on a favorite trainer, in normal circumstances, savaged him very badly, and nearly killed him."[50]
  • On August 12, 1984 two unidentified killer whales grabbed trainer Bud Krames by the legs and pinned him against a wall during a performance. Krames, a trainer at Sea World California, suffers minor injuries.[51] (Even though the orcas involved in the incident above were never officially identified, it could be assumed that it was two of three particular animals, Kandu V, Winston or Kenau.)
  • In 1987 several of San Diego's newspapers reported on a "white paper" discloser of at least 14 different injuries suffered by the trainers of Sea World California, all of varying severity, while working with orcas within a five-month period in 1987. Only a few of the incidents ever made it into the news.[52]
  • On September 28, 1987 an unidentified killer whale bit trainer Mark McHugh on the hand during training.[53]
  • On September 30, 1987 during a performance a 24-year-old SeaWorld San Diego trainer named Chris Barlow was rammed in the stomach by an unidentified orca. Barlow was hospitalized with minor injuries.[54]

Individual orcas involved in multiple or serious incidents

While Tillikum has perhaps the most infamous reputation of all captive orcas, there have been several other orcas that have harmed people whether intentionally or unintentionally on more than one occasion.[55]

  • Tillikum: responsible for 2 documented attacks and 1 undetermined incident, all 3 resulted in the death of a person.
  • Nootka IV: responsible for 3 documented attacks, 1 resulted in the death of a trainer.
  • Kandu V: responsible for 5 documented attacks. Kandu V was also known for being aggressive towards her tank-mates, particularly with Corky II.
  • Kasatka: responsible for 3 documented attacks.
  • Hugo: responsible for 3 documented attacks and 1 incident in which he bit his trainers head during a trick, Anthony Toran Administrative Director for the Seaquarium also said Hugo made "what appeared to be direct efforts to harm human performers."[56]
  • Orky II: responsible for 2 documented attacks and 1 incident in which he crushed a trainer because of a badly timed cue and blindness in one eye that was not revealed to his trainers.
  • Orkid: responsible for 2 documented attacks and 1 incident that was, most likely, an accident but resulted in a trip to the hospital with minor injuries.
  • Cuddles: responsible for 2 documented attacks.
  • Winston/Ramu: responsible for at least 2 attacks and 1 near miss according to his former trainer Doug Cartlidge.

Two other orcas have killed a trainer.

  • Haida II: responsible for 1 documented attack that resulted in the death of a trainer.
  • Keto: responsible for 1 documented attack that resulted in the death of a trainer.

See also

  • Captive orcas


  1. ^ Baird, Robin W. (2002). Killer Whales of the World. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN.
  2. ^ a b c "ABC News: Killer Whale Attacks SeaWorld Trainer". ABC News. 
  3. ^ Husna Haq. Sea World tragedy: How common are 'killer whale' attacks?, Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-26.
  4. ^ a b c [1] Killer whale bumps but doesn't bite boy
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  6. ^ a b Cherry-Garrard, Apsley (2004). The Worst Journey in the World:Antarctic 1910–1913. Globe Pequot. p. 92. ISBN 1-59228-212-1. 
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  10. ^ Kayak attack,
  11. ^ Edward R. Riciuti, , New York, Walker & Co., 1973, pp. 227-228.
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  14. ^ Don C. Reed, Notes from an Underwater Zoo, Dial Press, 1981, p. 250.
  15. ^ Edward R. Riciuti, Killers of the Sea, New York, Walker & Co., 1973, pp. 232-233.
  16. ^ a b The Miami News - Google News Archive Search
  17. ^ Don C. Reed, Notes from an Underwater Zoo, Dial Press, 1981, p. 250.
  18. ^ Edward R. Riciuti, Killers of the Sea, New York, Walker & Co., 1973, pp. 228-229.
  19. ^ Cathleen Decker, Trainer Leaves Hospital, Isn't Angry with Whale, Los Angeles Times, May 1978.
  20. ^ Cranky killer whales put trainers through their paces, The Province, May 5, 1978.
  21. ^ Mike Lee, SeaWorld San Diego suspends Shamu show, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 24, 2010.
  22. ^ Enzo di Matto, "Mahem in Marineland", NOW Magazine, October 10–16, 1996, Vol. 16 No. 6.
  23. ^ Enzo di Matto, Mahem in Marineland, NOW Magazine, October 10–16, 1996, Vol. 16 No. 6.
  24. ^ [2] Sign On San Diego
  25. ^ [3] Erich Hoyt, The Performing Orca, WDCS, 1992, p. 32.
  26. ^ Ex-trainer suing Sea World for neck injury, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 15, 1988, p. B-3.
  27. ^ Barbara McLintock, Whale bit me - ex trainer, The Province, May 3, 1991.
  28. ^ Dirk Meissner, "Safety worries led to Sealand resignations", Times Colonist, February 22, 1991, p. A-1.
  29. ^ The Struggle of Nootka and Tilikum » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names
  30. ^ "A Whale of a Business" PBS, Reproduced from "The Performing Orca, Why the Show Must Stop" by Erich Hoyt. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
  31. ^ Pauline Repard, Killer whale bites trainer, takes him to tank bottom, San Diego Union-Tribune, November 30, 2006.
  32. ^ OSHA Investigates Trainer's Death, Separate Incident - Orlando News Story - WKMG Orlando
  33. ^ 1999 Darwin Award: Killer Whale Rodeo
  34. ^ Shanna McCord, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 8, 2002.
  35. ^ Killer Whale Attacks SeaWorld Trainer During Performance - News Story - WFTV Orlando
  36. ^ "Performing Killer Whale Attacks Trainer". 
  37. ^ "Killer whale turns on trainer". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 28 July 2004. 
  38. ^ Christopher Sherman, Killer whale jolts trainer, Orlando Sentinel, April 4, 2005.
  39. ^ Terry Rodgers, "Marine park cited after whale attack", San Diego Union-Tribune, March 4, 2007.
  40. ^ "Trainer attacked by killer whale at Loro Parque theme park on Tenerife", Typically Spanish, October 7, 2007.
  41. ^ [4] Video account
  42. ^ [5] Zimmerman, Tim "Blood in the Water.", July 19, 2011
  43. ^ La orca «Keto» sí atacó y causó la muerte de Alexis, el adiestrador del Loro Parque -
  44. ^ [6] Original post and follow-up post.
  45. ^ "SeaWorld whale kills a trainer as visitors watch" Associated Press, Schneider, Mike (at
  46. ^ "Autopsy: Trainer Suffered Multiple Traumatic Injuries". 
  47. ^ "SeaWorld Will Fight $75k Fine in Trainer Dawn Brancheau's Death". 
  48. ^ SeaWorld-OSHA hearing in recess until mid-November
  49. ^ "SeaWorld fights fine over trainer's death". 
  50. ^ Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind, New York, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 220.
  51. ^ Mike Lee, SeaWorld San Diego suspends Shamu show, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 24, 2010.
  52. ^ Janny Scott, "Waves of trouble at Sea World", Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1987, p. 1.
  53. ^ [7] Sign On San Diego.
  54. ^ "Killer whale injures trainer", Daily Breeze, October 1, 1987; Mike Lee, "SeaWorld San Diego suspends Shamu show", San Diego Union-Tribune, February 24, 2010.
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  56. ^ St. Petersburg Times - Google News Archive Search

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