Tilikum, the orca (or, as they’re sometimes called, “killer whale”) featured in the damning documentary Blackfish, has died, SeaWorld announced Friday.
As USA Today reports, Tilikum had been with SeaWorld for 25 years, having come from the Sealand of the Pacific park in Canada in 1991. He is estimated to have been about 36-years-old.
As of this writing, Tilikum’s cause of death has not been officially determined, but a necropsy has been planned. Tilikum had been undergoing treatment for a persistent and complicated bacterial infection in his lungs.
In a statement made available via the New York Daily News, SeaWorld expressed sadness at the death of the beloved animal.
“While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible, each and every day, from the county’s leading experts in marine mammals.”
Back in 2010, Tilikum and his trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, were interacting in front of a crowd at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium when he grabbed the trainer by the ponytail and pulled her under the water. As ABC News reported at the time, as the horrified audience looked on, Tilikum thrashed the woman back and forth in his mouth. An autopsy would later reveal that she suffered fractures to her jaw, part of her vertebrae, and several ribs. The attack also dislocated her elbow and left ear, and tore off part of her scalp. A medical examiner later determined that she died from drowning and multiple traumatic injuries.
— Nina Marie???? (@Tricorow) December 11, 2016
It was not the first time Tilikum had been involved in the death of a human.
In 1991, when he was at Sealand in Canada, trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into a tank where Tilikum and two other orcas were being held. Bryne was found dead some time later; a coroner’s inquest later determined that the animals kept her from climbing out of the tank. And in 1999, when Tilikum was at SeaWorld, Daniel Dukes, 27, broke into the park after hours, wandered around the park, and made his way to Tilikum’s tank. There, he stripped down to his underwear and climbed into the 50-degree water. He was found dead the next morning, naked and lying across Tilikum’s body. A medical examiner determined that Dukes died of hypothermia from the frigid water.
Byrne’s death raised questions about the ethics of keeping orcas in captivity. Those questions were explored in the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
— Orca S※O※S (@OrcaSOS) December 26, 2016
Focusing largely on Tilikum, documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite begins the movie with footage of Tilikum’s capture off the coast of Iceland and his harassment by other orcas at Sealand. Cowperthwaite posits that Tilikum’s treatment by other orcas, as well as being held in captivity (particularly in small environments where he had little room to move around), contributed to his aggression, which ultimately led to the death of Brancheau.
SeaWorld denied many of the claims made in the movie, but the damage was done. Attendance and revenue plummeted at SeaWorld parks, particularly in Orlando, where Tilikum had been held, according to Bloomberg. Cowperthwaite pinned that trend squarely on the aftermath from Blackfish.
“It’s likely people are realizing that nothing at that place is what it seems. The jig is up.”
Since Blackfish, SeaWorld has announced plans to phase out its orca shows. The orcas currently residing in SeaWorld parks are the last generation of orcas; once the last has died, they will not house any more in their parks. The company also plans to end its orca breeding program.
[Featured Image by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images]