When I was seven, the age my son is now, my parents took my sisters and me to SeaWorld. I fell in love with Shamu, and came home with a stuffed killer whale. He shared my bed from then on. Ever since, my blissed-out dreams have featured whales.
I now live on an island surrounded by whales. Resident pods swim the strait that is my front yard. A friend once told me that I was looking for a whale in the shape of a man. My husband once thought he’d lose me as I ran along the beach, trailing a pod. He feared I’d dive in and never come back.
When I was pregnant, I had a dream. A dream of sex and a killer whale. Of sex with a killer whale.
My pregnancy was hard won. It had required surgery, daily shots of hormones, medical invasions. There were triplets at first, but two of them died. There was bleeding, there were dire prognoses for the one fetus I had remaining inside me. I was put on bed rest, and spent days in a haze of reading, movies, sleep, and dreams. I was careful about what I watched and heard; everything made me cry. (Hormones). I couldn’t watch the news, and I especially couldn’t follow the US presidential election. This was the fall of 2008, and I had a huge political crush on the junior senator from Illinois. I desperately wanted him to win.
A few weeks before the election, I had a dream in which I had sex with a killer whale, and gave birth to Barack Obama. My sleeping mind was trying to make sense of it, trying trying to link the two events in a visual pun. It clicked: a killer whale is black and white so naturally our son, Barack Obama, would be bi-racial.
I told my husband, thinking the story would be good for light over-coffee conversation. I had sex with a killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama.
So, I explain. Again. Slowly. Wishing I’d kept the dream to myself.
A beat. Then he asks, very seriously, very quietly. Was there penetration?
Are you jealous? I asked.
Was there penetration? he repeated.
Now usually, when I have dreams about sex there’s no actual sex involved, there’s just a wash of good feeling, but this dream had been different. It was logistical, mechanical, graphic. It was almost entirely about penetration.
The whale of my dreams is variously misnamed: killer whale (a smart carnivore, but not a psychopath); orcinus orca (meaning “from the kingdom of the dead”); blackfish (yes, black; but no, not a fish). Grampus has fallen out of favor. At Seaworld, all the killer whales are called Shamu in public, but their trainers recognize them individually: Tilikum, Kasatka, Makani, Shouka. No doubt they have names for themselves in their own killer whale tongue.
Before I had sex with the whale, I took a good look at him. His erection was made of metal, as long as I am tall. It brought to mind a corkscrew, or drill bit. I said to him, You’re going to kill me if you’re not careful with that. He listened, he thought about the situation, he was great, very accommodating, very understanding. We worked it out. We made love. We made Barack Obama.
I have told this story before. People tend to be impressed by the sexual aspect; one friend informed me that in real life, whale peckers are, in fact, very long. My dream fear was not unfounded.
A unicorn lays his head down in a virgin’s lap. She strokes the beast, calms him.
The cetacean equivalent of a unicorn is the narwhal, who has a single, spiraled, very long tooth protruding from its forehead.
Killer whales eat narwhals for breakfast.
We are apex predators –nobody eats us. The peoples and the resident orcas where I live subsist on salmon. Transients will eat mammals. The beluga and the narwhal are traditional sources of blubber, for man and blackfish alike. Both salmon and blubber are great sources of Vitamin D, as well as other nutrients. One study found that the average 70-year-old Inuit with a traditional uqhuq –blubber– diet was likely to have arteries as elastic as a 20-year-old Dane.
Resident orcas are highly organized: matrilines are a family consisting of a mother and all her offspring; these whales separate only for hours at a time, to mate or hunt. Pods consist of closely related matrilines; pods travel together. Clans consist of related pods; communities comprise related clans.
To avoid inbreeding, males mate with females from other pods. In the wild, the dorsal of a male is always erect. Like that of many captive males, Tilikum’s dorsal drooped.
When SeaWorld orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn, her blonde ponytail was blamed. It had been swinging and bouncing, catching the sunlight, and something about it aroused the whale. He lunged from the pool, grabbing her ponytail in his mouth, and swam with her to the bottom of the pool. He kept her down there, molesting her, until she was quite dead. There was an inquest, there were written statements. An autopsy was performed. There was talk of attempted rape, that perhaps Tilikum had attacked Dawn due to raging hormones, and was enacting mating behavior. The killing was ruled a homicide.
After the incident, Tilikum was shut away. Isolated. With nobody to talk to.
Except when they’re resting, blackfish talk all the time. Their language consists of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Pods all speak the same dialect, whereas clans in a community will exhibit dialectical variations. We can’t even guess what they’re saying.
The females go through menopause, and lead their matrilines for decades beyond their child-bearing. Granny, of J pod and J clan of the Salish Sea, is 104 years old.
Killer whales teach their young; knowledge is passed down through generations.
In the absence of an elder, witch, priest, or other designated teacher, I see a psychologist regularly. She is heavily influenced by Jungian thought. What we do together is dredge the depths of my shadow side. Where unhealed wounds reside. Where rage lives. Where the part of us unknown to ourselves is.
The work is a bringing to light of what was in the dark. The work is chiaroscuro. The work is wholeness. We work with memories, with dreams.
There can be resistance to therapy, I’m told, because we fear what we might find. We’re afraid of who we are when we’re naked, and seen.
I went to her when my hands and feet were going numb, when my tongue was swollen, when I couldn’t breathe, when I had stigmata on my palms. My body was a semaphore, a metaphor. My subconscious, speaking in symbols, was desperately trying to get my attention.
I was dreaming of sea monsters. White, repulsive things. Moby Dick on a bad day.
There are perils to to misreading symbols, to taking dreams literally. Conversely: tragedy when metaphor makes itself real.
There is a condition called sirenomelia, also known as Mermaid Syndrome. A romantic name for a deformity in which the legs are fused together. The feet turn out like little flukes, so that the child looks half-human, half-fish. Or half-whale.
A baby like this was born in Peru. Her parents lived at the side of a lake filled with legends. They named the child Milagros. They prayed that her legs might someday be cut apart. That someday she’d be able to walk on land.
I had sex with a killer whale and gave birth to Barack Obama. But that was a dream.
When I was in college studying art, I loved to paint. I wanted to lick those shining, oily colors, the mineral swirl of them around on my palette, the magic of mixing them. Stroking them onto the slick gessoed canvas felt like love. Drawing, on the other hand, was hard for me. It required disciplined seeing. The marks determined form and space, the black on white created architecture, skeletons. If color was flesh, black-on-white was bone.
When all the colors of the light spectrum are mixed, you get white. When all the colors of the physical pigment spectrum are mixed, you get black. Light contains all colors, black absorbs all colors. Like many opposites, in some ways they’re the same: containing, absorbing, holding. And, at once, denying.
When my son was tiny, I hung a mobile of black and white above his crib. Newborns can only see light and shadow, they are trying to discern edges. We start by knowing the world through colorless extremes.
It’s also how we end. White is a mourning color in much of the world, as is black.
Black made from charcoal is one of the oldest know pigments, and shows up in Paleolithic art. Other traditional blacks include bone char, made from burnt bone, and lampblack, made from soot. In the United States, performers used to rub burnt cork, and later greasepaint, on their skin to blacken their faces.
For a long time, white was either temporary (chalk) or a ground (lime white) on which other pigments would be applied. It wasn’t until the Greeks came along and invented lead white pigment that white became a permanent part of the picture. Women in ancient Rome would paint their faces white. With lead. These cosmetics reeked, and so the women masked the smell of their faces with perfume. This make-up and perfume, along with jewelry, were a woman’s cultus, her culture.
Irregular patches of contrasted colours and tones … tend to catch the eye of the observer and to draw his attention away from the shape which bears them.
— Hugh Cott, Adaptive Coloration in Animals
A killer whale’s black and white patterning is a kind of disruptive camouflage. If you focus on only the black or only the white, you can’t see the thing for what it is, in its entirety. You don’t know what’s coming at you.
Individual whales are recognizable to humans by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. By the particularities of coloration. Who knows how the killer whales recognize one another, but to those of us on the outside, with only the crudest of metrics at our disposal, skins have become identities. Soul clothes, passed down through generations.
A killer whale’s black as well as white is largely determined by melanin, the same pigment found in squid ink, which people have long used for writing.
Melanin writes on human skin as well as on the whales’. It writes a letter from the inside of a person to the outside world, it seems to say, This is who I am.
Be careful what you read. Ink is not the same as truth, the word is not the same as god. Everyone knows, all writers are liars.
Some of us were leached of melanin long ago when we migrated to what is now Europe. When we lost our melanin, we lost our protection. Pale skin is more prone to deadly skin cancer, and ages more quickly. It was a necessary concession: the lack of sun and adequate dietary sources of vitamin D would’ve killed us. Our skin paled so that it could soak up the sun more efficiently. Fewer melanocytes results in lighter skin, the color of which is then affected by the bluish-white connective tissue under, and the red blood coursing through, the dermis.
Rarely, a genetic twist will color the skin indigo. As in a family—the Fugates—who lived at Troublesome Creek, and suffered from methemoglobinemia.
The bluest Fugates I ever saw was Luna and her kin. Luna was bluish all over. Her lips were as dark as a bruise. She was as blue a woman as I ever saw.
–Carrie Lee Kilburn, a nurse
Iceberg is a pure white killer whale who has been spotted off the coasts of Alaska and Russia. Scientists want to look into his eyes, to see if he’s albino. There have been other white killers, though not albinos. Chediak-Higashi is a rare disease of the immune and nervous systems that drains the whale of color, and also of life. Most die when they’re very young.
Killer whales, in order to be whole, are black and white, not one or the other.
Queequeg and Ishmael in bed together, Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over pale Ishmael’s. They are in a cold room, keeping each other warm:
…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
—from Chapter 11, “Nightgown,” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
I have wondered if paper was made to be white because ink was black, and wanted a contrasting field. Did the mark determine the ground?
Killer whales are important clan and totem animals amongst Indigenous Northwest Coast peoples. I’m a permanent, uninvited guest on Coast Salish land. I can’t imagine life without the salmonberries and seagulls, the kelpy beaches, the Nootka roses. Please know I love the killer whales.
The sea is often taken as a symbol for the subconscious mind, the unknown self, the deep soul. A whale navigates these depths with ease.
As a girl in Arizona, I spent hours in the swimming pool. Holding my breath underwater. Swimming swimming swimming. All the way down to the bottom. Don’t touch the drain, I was told. Your fingers could get caught in the grate and you’ll die.
You can’t live your life in dreams. We walk on land. We breathe air.
Jan Topelski transcript
She was lying down … face to face performing a “relationship session” with our whale. I then noticed immediately he bit down on a piece of her hair.
—Jan Topelski, SeaWorld official
Suddenly I saw (the whale) grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water. It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale’s mouth, the whale’s tail was very wild in the water.
—Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands
One of the guests at DWS (Dine with Shamu) asked if she was going to be OK cause she witnessed Dawn being pulled under by the hair.
—Phyllis Manning, waitress
The whale would not let us have her.
—Jodie Ann Tintle, whale trainer
Tilly was not giving up Dawn.
—Robin Ann Morland, another SeaWorld worker.
We don’t know what was going through the killer whale’s head.
—Chuck Tompkins, Brancheau’s former supervisor.
As SeaWorld’s chief stud, Tilikum has been masturbated by trainers like Dawn many times. When given the signal, he knows how to swim to a shelf at the side of the pool, lie on his back, and flop his (sizable) penis onto the deck. Then the trainer gives him a handjob.
Moby Dick was a killer whale, but not a killer whale. He was an albino sperm.
Tilikum’s semen, caught in plastic bags poolside, has been used to make seventeen more Shamus, ten of whom are still alive and performing.
Like Tilikum’s children, my son is the product of artificial insemination. He was conceived in a petri dish, and then grew in me. I have a picture of him when he was eight cells old. He is my greatest joy.
Tilikum was some mother whale’s son, but he was taken from her, from the wild, off the coast of Iceland.
The bull whales had tried to lead the whale catchers astray by swimming down a fjord, while the mothers and aunties stayed with the children. But the hunters found the children anyway, and took Tilikum away. As Tilikum was hoisted up out of the water, the whole pod keened.
Dawn’s murder was caught on videotape. When studied, footage revealed that Tilikum had not actually dragged Dawn down to the depths by her pony tail. He’d grabbed her arm. He was angry, not aroused.
The film Blackfish persuasively argues that his aggression and psychosis were a result of abuse in his childhood. Not only was he stolen from his family, but once ensconced in his first human home, in Canada, he was bullied and beaten by his peers. He was kept in a tiny tank where he was lonely and had nothing to do. It was a miserable existence, with nothing natural about it. Along with two other, older whales, young Tilikum was involved in the death of their trainer, Keltie Byrne. After that, they were sold off to America.
My father’s family comes from the West Indies. We’ve been there for hundreds of years, in Barbados and Bermuda, though no longer. The men in my family spent their time on the sea.
Records indicate that my forebears were not whalers, but shippers who plied the route from the Caribbean to Canada, hauling rum north, salt cod south. They did not, as far as I can tell, traffic in people. I don’t know if they held captives, if they forced labor without wages, if they tore families apart, but at very least they were certainly part of the slave economy.
History is never safely in the past until it has been seen, understood, brought to light. Shadow side work.
The history of a self extends beyond her own borders. The outside and the inside of a self are connected. They resonate. To see one clearly, you must also see the other. You must be in two places at once.
We are both particle and wave.
We are whale and water.
We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.
―Herman Melvill, not the American writer, but the English preacher
The only resident killer whale known to have lived all on his own was named Luna. He’d been separated from his mother early on, under mysterious circumstances, and wound up in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island. Orcas are social creatures. Did he know who he was without his kin? He was killed by a tugboat when he was just six.
Tilikum, after the incident with Dawn, was placed in solitary confinement. He became listless, and now, as I write, is dying.
My Jungian therapist says that, symbolically, a god and I were fucking when I had sex with the killer whale.
When fireworks went off all around me in 2008, I knew Obama had won and I burst out crying. I was happy for our country, but in some deep way, I also believed that there was a resonance between the son I dreamt and the son I carried. Because Obama had won, so would, despite predictions to the contrary, my child. To this day I credit that killer whale for my son’s robustness.
Killer whales drown if they fall completely asleep. They rest, one eye open, half a brain closed. We do not know if they dream.
In my dream, I had sex with killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. That’s my story, one of them.
The resident whales where I live sing. The salmon they eat can’t hear their songs, and so the whales sing freely.
As a child, Dawn Brancheau fell in love with Shamu, and dreamt of working with killer whales when she grew up. She stayed with that dream, and became a lead trainer at SeaWorld. She loved the whales. Her family has objected to the film Blackfish. “Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was just a footnote.” The family statement about Blackfish is here: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2014-01-21/business/os-dawn-brancheau-blackfish-statement-20140121_1_killer-whales-blackfish-orca-tilikum
The Dawn Brancheau Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service. http://www.dawnsfoundation.org
The Joy of (Killer Whale) Sex: my story as told at the Moth, http://julietrimingham.com/the-joy-of-killer-whale-sex/
Some research links:
- SeaWorld Killer Whale Masturbation: http://www.tmz.com/2010/12/07/tommy-lee-sea-world-killer-whale-peta-sperm-masturbation/
- Blackfish Orca Killer Whale: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130803-blackfish-orca-killer-whale-keiko-tilikum-sea-world/
- Dawn Brancheau murder investigation transcripts: http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/030210_seaworld.pdf , http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/03/02/florida-police-release-witness-testimonies-from-seaworld-trainer-death.html
- Killer Whale Trainer Death Tied to Mating, Isolation: http://news.discovery.com/animals/whales-dolphins/killer-whale-attack-explanation.htm
- The Blue People of Troublesome Creek: http://www.indiana.edu/~oso/lessons/Blues/TheBlues.htm
- The Verdict on Skin is In: http://www.brynmawr.edu/alumnae/bulletin/jablonsk.htm
- Orsoq – Eat Meat and Blubber from Sea Mammals to avoid Cardiovascular disease: https://web.archive.org/web/20120225124015/http://www.highnorth.no/Library/Culture/or-ea-me.htm
- The Biology of Skin Color: Black and White: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/07/3/text_pop/l_073_04.html
- Vitamin D Levels Determined how Human Skin Color Evolved: https://www.nasw.org/article/vitamin-d-levels-determined-how-human-skin-color-evolved
Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her fictional travelogue chapbook, Way Elsewhere, was released in May 2016 by The Lettered Streets Press (https://squareup.com/store/lettered-streets-press/). She regularly tells stories at The Moth and writes essays for Numéro Cinq magazine. Gina B. Nahai blurbed Julie’s first book, saying, “A novel of quiet passion and rare beauty, Mockingbird is a testament to the power of pure, uncluttered language—a confluence of feelings and physicality that will draw you back, line after graceful, memorable, line.” Julie is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer with Longhouse Media (http://longhousemedia.org) on a documentary film about the Salish Sea.