Messed Up Things That Actually Happened At SeaWorld

When you were a kid, SeaWorld was like an aquatic circus, a happy place where animals did tricks for your amusement and you went home with a Shamu stuffed animal. But then the documentary Blackfish dropped and suddenly lots of people saw the theme parks as twisted prisons for poor innocent whales and other animals tortured into entertaining humans.

But there are more terrible things than even that movie showed. Here is a roundup of many of the sick and twisted stuff that happened at SeaWorld. Might we recommend reading it with a drink or with a really happy movie playing in the background?

Daniel Dukes is killed by Tilikum (or hypothermia) when he broke into SeaWorld

Daniel Dukes was 27 and had just been released from jail for a minor offense when he either hid in SeaWorld until after hours or sneaked in once it closed. According to Outside Online, what we do know is that at some point he took off almost all his clothes, placed them in a neat pile, and got into the pool with the killer whale Tilikum.

We've probably all had dreams of swimming around with dolphins or whales, seeing them look at us and knowing there was some beautiful bond there, like an aquatic Doctor Dolittle. Or maybe he was just crazy or suicidal. Either way, Dukes looked more like a human-sized squeaky toy to the orca.

When his body was found the next morning, draped across Tilikum's back, it was clear something terrible had happened. His head and body were covered in marks and he had full puncture wounds on his leg. They had to hoist Tilikum onto a medical lift in order to get Dukes off him, and divers actually had to swim to the bottom of the pool to pick up small pieces of his body.

Since there were no cameras, it's impossible to know exactly what happened, but unless hypothermia got him first, it's pretty certain Tilikum held Duke underwater until he drowned. If so, this was the first of Tili's murders, but not the last.

A SeaWorld orca on loan tries to escape captivity

SeaWorld sometimes loans out its animals to other parks. That's what happened with Loro Parque in Tenerife. All its orcas are owned by SeaWorld, including one born there and one that was captured in the wild. It is this last one, Morgan, that has the worst time, according to People magazine.

In May 2016, video was released of Morgan throwing herself against the concrete sides of the pool repeatedly. She also wore down her teeth biting the concrete, something that can lead to infections. She was obviously in distress, possibly because of unwanted sexual advances from a male.

National Geographic reported that just over a month later, more footage was released of Morgan beaching herself on a ledge of her pool. While Loro Parque officials insist that sometimes whales are encouraged to do this for things like checkups, it doesn't explain why she stayed there for nine minutes, or why after finally being coaxed back into the pool, she almost immediately jumped out again. There are signs she was being "bullied" by the five other orcas in the show, and one ex-trainer said she was probably trying to escape being "beaten up further."

Just like with humans, you can't expect everyone to get along, and Morgan was introduced to a group of whales that just didn't like her for some reason. Her actions show that she just wanted to get out of that situation, the same way you ran from a toilet swirly in elementary school.

#AskSeaWorld dramatically backfires for more bad PR

You'd think by now that companies would know not to do online polls or AMAs of any sort because they always backfire, no matter how innocent they are. And after the release of Blackfish, #AskSeaWorld was never going to go smoothly. This Twitter hashtag went down in flames, just like so many before it.

Sure, you can kind of see why someone thought it was a good idea. SeaWorld was getting lots of bad publicity and talking to people directly might help them clear up a few things as well as answer any questions people might have about opening hours or just how many Shamus there had been in the past 50 years. But what they got was a burning pile of poop.

Of course, where there is the possibility of animal cruelty, PETA will be there. CNN said PETA tweeted at SeaWorld "Why do you LIE & tell guests collapsed dorsal fins are normal when only 1% suffer this in the wild?" The park's Twitter feed chose not that answer that particular question.

Indeed, anything that wasn't fawning or innocent didn't go down well with SeaWorld's social media according to Ad Week. The overall bad tweets met with the response that "Jacking hashtags is so 2014. #bewareoftrolls." Silly SeaWorld, trolls are forever. One honest question resulted in the dickish reply "Soup should be canned not tweets." That's SeaWorld trying to be witty, and it is just sad.

Ken Peters is pulled to the bottom of the tank but managed to survive

In 2006 Ken Peters had what was probably the scariest ten minutes of his life. Lucky for him, he was able to reflect on them later since he managed to keep living. Other trainers would not be so lucky.

According to CBS News, Peters was in the pool with a killer whale called Kasatka performing a show when everything went wrong. The orca grabbed his foot and pulled him to the bottom of the pool. Amazingly, Peters stayed calm, which probably saved his life. Kasatka held him under for almost a minute before returning to the surface. Despite probably wanting to scream for help, Peters rubbed the whale's back trying to calm her down, before she pulled him under again for about 40 seconds.

Other trainers were frantically signaling for Kasatka to let go, but it took a while before she complied. Once she did, Peters swam to the side of the pool like his life depended on it, which it totally did. He was fine except for a broken foot.

Amazingly, SeaWorld didn't enact any safety precautions after this incident, except literally, "Hey maybe don't swim with a couple of those orcas that might totally kill you." This would come back to bite them in the butt, hard, later.

Lots of animals keep dying 'suddenly'

SeaWorld claims to be a sanctuary for animals but it has a small problem of them dying, all the friggin' time. It's like a cute aquatic mammal slaughterhouse.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, in May 2017 a newborn Commerson's dolphin died just a few minutes after being born. Only two months later, a baby beluga whale at the same Orlando park died under similar circumstances. That same month, as reported by station WLKY, a 3-month-old orca at a Sea World in Texas died after contracting an infection. At the time, PETA claimed that it was the 40th orca to die on SeaWorld's watch, although it was unclear how many of them died of old age.

According to People magazine, in July 2015 a baby beluga also died at the San Antonio park. You might think they would have learned their lesson after evidence showed 65 percent of baby belugas die in captivity. But lest you think SeaWorld only has problems with baby deaths, older animals die, too. In November of the same year, in the same park, a 2-year-old beluga died after gastrointestinal problems.

An 8-year-old bottlenose dolphin died at SeaWorld Orlando in June 2015, according to the Orlando Sentinel, after contracting what may have been pneumonia. This death was classified as "mysterious" which might be code for "it's really difficult to take care of these animals."

An ex-trainer spills the beans

John Hargrove first fell in love with killer whales at age 6 and eventually went on to be a senior trainer. But his dream soon turned into a nightmare. The Guardian reported he saw animals go blind or get arthritis because there was too much chlorine in their tanks, or get sunburns from sitting at the surface of the water for hours. and that anyone who spoke out about stuff like that would be punished.

But that was just the beginning. He heard the cries of mother and baby whales that were separated from each other too soon, and witnessed aggressive behavior by orcas he believed were going insane being trapped in small enclosures. Hargrove himself even had a scary encounter with one of the whales himself and decided that was the end for him.

Unfortunately, no one is perfect, and SeaWorld used this to their advantage. All they had to do was dig for some dirt, and they found it. According to Melville House books, in a 5-year-old video apparently provided by a "whistleblower" Hargrove drunkenly spouts racial epithets. Sure, he looks like an a**hole, but don't think for a second this was done out of the goodness of SeaWorld's heart. This seems like a deliberate smear campaign meant to silence a critic. And it worked, to an extent, when some of his book signings were canceled.

Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld-trained orca in Spain

SeaWorld disasters aren't just resigned to SeaWorld parks themselves. They sometimes ship their problems to other theme parks. Such was the case with the SeaWorld-trained whale Kato at Loro Parque in Spain. According to Digital Journal, on Christmas Eve 2009, trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by Kato and that is about as light-hearted as this story gets.

His family was initially told that there were issues but that Martinez would be fine. This was a big fat lie. In reality, he had been killed in a "violent death." He'd suffered a pulmonary edema because of "mechanical asphyxiation due to compression and crushing of the thoracic abdomen with injuries to the vital organs."

The "incident" lasted almost three minutes and resulted in Martinez having to be pulled from the bottom of the pool. In the most disturbing reference to the death, he supposedly had "blood coming out from every orifice."

Oddly, his family was met at the hospital by Loro Parque's president and legal representatives. That isn't exactly the greeting you expect when you want some sort of sympathy. Maybe it was more of a "we're covering our ass no matter what happens" battalion.

Workers posed as animal rights activists to infiltrate groups

When you hear the words "spy ring," you probably think of rogue nations and secret societies, not family-friendly fun parks. But SeaWorld had a group of employees assume different identities and infiltrate meetings and protests of groups like PETA, just to try and bring them down from the inside.

According to The Guardian, photographic and online evidence seems to show that one SeaWorld employee, Paul McComb, was posing as "Thomas Jones" from 2012 on, when the company first heard they would be the subject of a documentary that might not be all love and roses. CNN reported he would post "inflammatory messages on social media" and try to encourage people to do illegal things like drain tanks or even arson. He also attended many high-profile events until he outed himself in 2014. Some PETA members were arrested for protesting at the Rose Bowl parade, but McComb was released almost immediately. Other members smelled something fishy, and it wasn't the orca scent on him.

But McComb wasn't the only infiltrator. Others would join protests with over-the-top signs in order to make the protesters look "crazy." And all this isn't "allegedly" or anything. In 2016 SeaWorld fully admitted they had performed espionage on these groups. But, being SeaWorld, they had an answer for everything, saying they did it to "maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats."

​Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum during a performance

Much of Blackfish is centered around how the whale Tilikum violently killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau after a show. It was the first time SeaWorld itself had lost a trainer. According to Outside Online, things had gone smoothly and Brancheau was having what was called a "relationship session" with the whale before sending it to the bottom of the pool so people who were behind the glass down there could take pictures. But as she turned around, Tilikum grabbed her long ponytail and pulled her into the water.

He tossed her around like a toy before grabbing her arm. Brancheau fought hard. She was a good swimmer and not about to give up easily. But even though trainers finally managed to get him into a small area where they could lift Tilikum up and get Brancheau, it was too late. She had been battered underwater for too long, and part of her arm fell off in his mouth.

ABC News reported her family tried to keep the video of her death private, saying there was no "constitutional right to voyeurism," but the footage was released when the investigation ended. Brancheau died of multiple injuries to her head, neck, and torso, while being partially scalped. Ultimately, Tilikum was just too much for her, and this competitive swimmer drowned.

10-year-old Bobby Connell's family sued because he witnessed Dawn's death

The story of Brancheau's death is famous, thanks in no large part to Blackfish. The way she died was horrible, tragic, and probably really disturbing-looking. In fact, we known it was really disturbing because according to the New York Daily News, at least one family sued over watching it happen.

The Connell parents were at SeaWorld hoping for some wholesome family fun with their 10-year-old son. What they got was a probably a really uncomfortable philosophical conversation on death and why bad things happen to good people.

They were watching the orca show when tragedy struck. Brancheau was pulled into the pool and killed by Tilikum. But she didn't die immediately. The lawsuit the Connells filed against SeaWorld says that their young son "saw the look of horror and desperation on Dawn's face as she was swimming for her life," and that "he then saw Tilikum violently yank her down again to the depths of the pool." As most people, let alone children, would, he became hysterical when her dead body was removed from the pool. Why his parents were still around watching at that point is anyone's guess.

The suit continued that poor Bobby had nightmares ever since seeing the terrible event and that SeaWorld staff were like "yeah, whatever" when the crying child was brought to them. Then once the lawsuit was filed SeaWorld claimed the family tried to blackmail them. It sounds like there are a lot of moving parts here, but maybe don't visit just in case.