Tilikum, SeaWorld's Most Famous Orca, Just Died

He changed the way people think about keeping orcas in tanks.

Tilikum, SeaWorld's most famous whale, has died, the company announced on Friday.

"Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues," SeaWorld said in a statement. "While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection."

Tilikum was 36 years old. While the the typical lifespan for male orcas is around 30 years in the wild, they can live up to 60 years. He had been fighting an infection for years - SeaWorld never revealed exactly which one, only describing it as something "found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings."

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Yet, despite SeaWorld's claims, many people have noted that the stress of captivity makes animals more susceptible to infections than they would be in the wild - his daughter, Unna, passed away from an infection last year.

Tilikum's death is significant - his life, even more so. Over the past three decades, Tilikum has grown to become arguably the most famous animal in the world. Torn from his mother's side off the coast of Iceland in 1983, he came to symbolize everything that was wrong with captivity.

Known for his impressive size, many argued that Tili, as he was affectionately known, was just too intelligent to live out his days in a tank. His likely frustration with captivity soon turned dark, and he left three deaths behind him as he was moved from marine park to marine park.


In 1991, he killed Keltie Byrnes, a trainer who had fallen into the tank at Canada's now-closed Sealand of the Pacific. He was hurriedly sold off to SeaWorld Orlando, where he was involved in the death of a homeless man who snuck into his tank in 1999.

In 2010, he killed Dawn Brancheau, a star SeaWorld trainer whom he pulled off a platform and into the water.

He was regularly spotted floating motionless in his tank for hours on end - an unnatural behavior for orcas, who are constantly moving in the wild. He destroyed his teeth by chewing on the sides of his tank out of frustration.

His plight became the focus of the 2013 film "Blackfish," a scathing look at the inside workings of SeaWorld and the fate of many of its animals. The film sparked a public backlash that's led to what some have called the downfall of SeaWorld, and a number of changes to help improve the lives of animals there - including the end of SeaWorld's troubled orca breeding program, in which Tilikum played a prolific part.

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In a statement, SeaWorld described Tilikum's legacy as that of an ambassador animal at the entertainment park. "While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it's important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species," the park wrote.

But for those who worked with Tilikum - and later spoke out against his treatment - his legacy has a bittersweet turn. The news sparked an outpouring of emotion among former trainers and members of the "Blackfish" cast, many of whom mourned the years of challenges he faced while also celebrating what he left behind.

"We will each remember Tilikum in our own special way," Kimberly Ventre, the sister of "Blackfish" trainer Jeffrey Ventre, told The Dodo. "For me, Tilikum profoundly changed my life from afar. Along with millions of others, his story inspired me to speak up about how we treat our planet and all of its diverse inhabitants. That is his legacy."

Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer and one of the stars of "Blackfish," first met Tilikum the day he arrived at SeaWorld Orlando in 1992.

"Although he already had a 'reputation' due to his involvement in Keltie Byrne's death ... he never struck me as an insane or vicious animal," she said.

"I wasn't privy to Tili's history," said Berg, who's currently a member of Voice of the Orcas. "I didn't know that he was taken from his mother in Iceland at 2 years old and left alone with no other orca companions for over a year. I didn't know that at Sealand he was forced to spend over 12 hours per day (sometimes more!) in the equivalent of a reinforced steel box with with two other female animals who would mercilessly attack him for no other reason than he was the subdominant animal in the group."

YouTube/SeaWorld® Parks & Entertainment

"But there is a bright spot in all of Tilikum's daily isolation, pain and suffering," Berg added. "Tili's legacy is the end of captive killer whales in the United States, and his suffering and subsequent actions because of that suffering may ultimately lead to the end of the marine animal display industry as we know it. Countless numbers of animals will not end up in captivity because of Tilikum."

Naomi Rose, a marine biologist and orca researcher with the Animal Welfare Institute, expressed a similar sentiment.

"His life has been grim, grim, grim, grim, grim," she told The Dodo. "He's inspiring in that he's catalyzed this amazing movement."

Despite the tragedy of Tilikum's life, and the human deaths he was involved in, his legacy is the inexpressible change he sparked for other animals - and, for those who knew him, his spirit.

"Although Tili never had a human voice to speak, his behavior spoke volumes," Berg noted. "I choose to remember him not as a broken spirit forced into a slave circus, but as a brave soul who expressed his truth in the only way he could given his abysmal circumstances."