January 9, 2017
Tilikum the orca, star of Blackfish has died, SeaWorld confirms
A killer whale that performed at SeaWorld, was featured in the documentary “Blackfish” and which had been linked to three fatalities over the span of the approximately 34 years it spent in captivity has died, officials at the marine park confirmed in a statement late last week.
According to LiveScience, the 36-year-old killer whale named Tilikum was one of three orcas that attacked a trainer who fell into a tank at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, causing the woman to drown. Eight years later, a man entered the whale’s tank at SeaWorld Orlando after the park closed, and while it isn't certain if Tilikum attacked him or not, he was found dead the next morning.
In February 2010, Tilikum dragged SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water following a show, causing her to die as a result of drowning and trauma, the website said. Brancheau’s death was part of “Blackfish,” which criticized the park’s handling of the incident and which played an important role in changing public perception regarding SeaWorld’s practice of keeping whales in captivity – something that the park promised to begin phasing out last March.
With Tilikum’s death, SeaWorld told NPR that it would be ending its One Ocean show after one final performance on Sunday. In its place, they plan to introduce Orca Encounter, which the park is calling an educational experience which will “have the feel of an engaging documentary” and will focus on “the orca's natural behaviors, physical attributes, intelligence, social structures, and unique relationship with mankind.”
A look back at the controversial killer whale’s life
Tilikum was believed to be 36 years old when he died on Friday, according to NPR. His health had been declining, the park explained, and he was dealing with “very serious” issues for several months. While a necropsy is necessary to determine the official cause of death, SeaWorld noted that he had been plagued by a “persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection.”
Tilikum’s lifespan was fairly typical when compared to wild male orcas, which LiveScience (citing information obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) tend to live about three decades outside of captivity, but can live for as much as twice that long. The SeaWorld whale was 22.6 feet long, which the website said is “on the high side of average” for an Icelandic killer whale, and weighed 12,500 pounds.
Colin Baird, who trained Tilikum, told CNN that the orca was popular and “very easy to work with... He was very easygoing, he learned quickly, he learned well, very responsive.” However, he also said that the whale, like any other creature, had “good days and bad days” and that “some days, Tilikum would have a certain look in his eye – then I would just say, ‘Nope, not getting in the water with him today.’”
Tim Zimmerman, who wrote about Brancheau's death in Outside magazine and was a producer on Blackfish, told NPR that the documentary helped make the late orca a sympathetic figure for many people. “I think that's the most amazing thing that comes out of Tilikum's story,” he said. “He killed three human beings. And yet when you learn about his life story, he does become the victim and you do sympathize with him.”
Image credit: Gerardo Mora/Getty Image