What every traveller can learn from Tilikum's death

The release of Blackfish sparked a public outcry against keeping cetaceans in captivity. Image by  George  /  flickr

The release of Blackfish sparked a public outcry against keeping cetaceans in captivity. Image by George / flickr

Tilikum, the floppy-finned SeaWorld orca who helped to sway public opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity, died at SeaWorld Orlando on Friday morning. Thought to be about 36 years old, Tilikum had been reportedly experiencing declining health and was receiving treatment for a bacterial lung infection.

Before his passing, Tilikum’s life in captivity was chronicled in Blackfish, the heart-wrenching 2013 documentary (you can watch it free here) that argued keeping orcas in captivity is not only cruel, but also makes them more aggressive: Tilikum was involved in three human deaths, including the drowning of trainer Dawn Brancheau during a live show at SeaWorld in 2010.

In response to public outcry following the film’s release, SeaWorld cut jobs, lost promotional deals and faced attendance drops. Last year, the company pledged to stop breeding killer whales in captivity and to phase out its whale entertainment shows. Meanwhile, travel guide publishers began delisting captive cetacean swims, and responsible travel companies dropped dolphin shows and swims from their tour offerings.

Despite this, thousands of cetaceans are still being kept in captivity around the world for the purpose of human entertainment. And not just at existing facilities – last year, a dolphinarium linked to the infamous killing ‘Cove’ in Taiji, Japan, opened on the Thai island of Phuket. Reports also indicate that a captive dolphin encounter will be offered at an Atlantis Resorts development on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. In the ex-Soviet bloc, travelling dolphin ‘circuses’ are still legal, and continue to draw big crowds. In the Caribbean, most cruise ships offer captive cetacean swims in at least one port of call on their itineraries. And these places will stay in business, contributing to the abuse of thousands more cetaceans, if we, the travellers of the world, keep supporting them.

As Tilikum now frolics in the great ocean above the clouds, the travel community has a responsibility to ensure his legacy lives on by striving to make more informed, responsible and sustainable decisions about how we interact with wildlife on our travels. Always do your own research rather than taking operators at face value, don't be afraid to ask tough questions, and above all, use your common sense: do you really believe a whale or dolphin born to swim great distances in the vast ocean with its mates actually enjoys ‘dancing’ in a concrete pool for your entertainment? Would a legit 'sanctuary' force its animals to perform for humans? Naaaah.

A decade ago, I might have bragged to my friends about having done a (captive) dolphin swim. Today, armed with a lot more knowledge about the ethics of captive wildlife tourism, I’d feel ashamed admitting I'd taken part in such an activity. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see, or swim with, cetaceans in the wild know that the latter is a million times more rewarding than viewing or interacting with them in captivity, anyway. Keen to get in on the action? Here’s five fab places to swim with dolphins in the wild responsibly.

RIP big guy.