Tilikum, the controversial killer whale that was involved in the death of three people and spurred an anti-captivity campaign against SeaWorld, died Friday.
The orca was blamed for the deaths of a trainer at Sealand Pacific in British Columbia, a man trespassing on SeaWorld Orlando property and SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Blackfish, the 2013 movie about SeaWorld’s care of its animals, documented the life of the orca, nicknamed Tilly.
“The SeaWorld family is deeply saddened to announce that one of its most well-known orcas, Tilikum, has passed away,” said a statement released Friday by SeaWorld. He was “surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock world-class care.”
The official cause of death will be determined by a necropsy. SeaWorld vets were treating Tilikum for a persistent bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings, according to the statement.
The whale’s life in captivity was mired in tragedy.
Tilikum was captured in 1983 when he was two years old in Berufjördur, Iceland. After almost a year in a tank at an Iceland zoo, he was transferred to Sealand.
He was one of three killer whales that were blamed for the death of Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old marine biology student and part-time trainer who slipped into the whales’ pool at Sealand.
SeaWorld acquired Tilikum in 1991 from Sealand, which closed a year later.
A second death was blamed on Tilikum in 1999 when 27-year-old Daniel Dukes entered the orca’s tank after SeaWorld Orlando closed. His nude body was found floating on the back of Tilikum and an autopsy concluded the cause of death was drowning.
The final 2010 death occured when Tilikum grabbed SeaWorld trainer Brancheau’s ponytail or left arm and dragged her under water during a Dine with Shamu show.
Brancheau’s death, which was caught on film, caused OSHA to stop SeaWorld trainers from performing with killer whales.
The 2013 release of Blackfish, which documented the captivity of Tilikum and the deaths blamed on the orca, caused animal advocates to campaign against keeping the whales captive and sent SeaWorld’s revenue plummeting.
Estimated to be about 36 years old, Tilikum was near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales, according to an independent scientific review made for SeaWorld. He was a strong part of SeaWorld’s breeding program and sired 21 calves during his lifetime. Ten are still alive.
SeaWorld has not collected a whale from the wild in nearly 40 years. In March, the theme park announced the end of its orca breeding program, making the SeaWorld whales the last generation of orcas under human care.
“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,” said Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s president and CEO. “My heart goes out to our team, who cared for him like family.”