SeaWorld's Tilikum, killer orca formerly owned by B.C. aquarium, dies
Published Friday, January 6, 2017 7:52AM PST Last Updated Friday, January 6, 2017 11:50AM PST
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tilikum the orca has died after more than two decades at SeaWorld Orlando, where he gained notoriety for killing a trainer in 2010 and was later profiled in a documentary that helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity.
Sea World officials said Friday that Tilikum died but didn't give a cause of death. In a statement, they said Tilikum had faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. He was estimated to be 36 years old. A necropsy will be performed.
The 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a performance with Tilikum after a "Dine with Shamu" show shocked the public and changed the future of orcas at SeaWorld parks.
Brancheau was interacting with Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when he pulled her from a platform by her arm and held her underwater. An autopsy report said Brancheau drowned but also suffered severe trauma, including multiple fractures.
SeaWorld Entertainment officials announced in March 2016 that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales.
While the breeding program continued, Tilikum was SeaWorld's most prolific male orca, siring 14 calves. He arrived at the park about 25 years ago.
"Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired," SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said. "My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family."
Tilikum was noticeable for his size at more than 22 feet and 11,800 pounds.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights advocates have argued for years that SeaWorld's orcas and other marine mammals should be released into sea pens or coastal sanctuaries. Outside SeaWorld parks, the animals could "spend the rest of their lives in as natural a setting as possible, which, contrary to the company's greedy claims, is both reasonable and achievable," PETA Senior Vice-President Lisa Lange said in a statement.
Others found something worthwhile in Tilikum's time at SeaWorld.
"I saw an animal that was socializing with other animals and interacting with his trainers, and he was just an impressive animal," said Grey Stafford, president of the International Marine Trainers' Association. He's also a former SeaWorld employee, though he never worked with Tilikum. "We lost a great ambassador today and, yes, his tale is complicated, but that doesn't mean he didn't deserve our love and respect."
Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada after being captured. While at Sealand in 1992, Tilikum and two female orcas were responsible for the death of a part-time trainer who fell into their pool and was submerged by them.
Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando a short time later, and Sealand later closed.
The decision to end the SeaWorld breeding program and theatrical shows came six years after Brancheau's death and three years after the release of the documentary, "Blackfish," which chronicled Tilikum's life and Brancheau's death.
Her death was not the only one linked to Tillikum at SeaWorld. In 1999, a naked man who had eluded security and sneaked into SeaWorld at night was found dead the next morning draped over Tilikum in a breeding tank in the back of Shamu Stadium.
The "Blackfish" documentary argued that killer whales in captivity become more aggressive toward humans and each other. After the documentary played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on CNN, several entertainers pulled out of planned SeaWorld performances and animal rights activists increased their demonstrations outside the parks.
SeaWorld attendance dipped, company profits fell and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year relationship with the theme park company.
Gabriela Cowperthaite, who directed "Blackfish," told The Associated Press in an email that it's time to focus on other whales in captivity. She called it "a model where no one wins."
"Tilikum's life was so incredibly tragic. He lived a horrible life, he caused unspeakable pain, so at least his chapter is over," Cowperthaite said.
In March, SeaWorld's CEO acknowledged that the public's attitude had changed about keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca breeding program.
"We needed to move where society was moving," Manby said.
Tilikum's death was another blow for SeaWorld employees and supporters already reeling from job cuts announced last month across SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.'s 12-park system. Stafford said the loss of staff who cared for captive marine mammals may inadvertently weaken other conservation efforts, such as a captive breeding program proposed for endangered porpoises called vaquitas in the waters off Mexico.
"That human experience isn't likely to be replaced," Stafford said.
Kay contributed to this report from Miami Beach, Florida.