Tilikum, The SeaWorld Orca Featured In ‘Blackfish,’ Dies After 33 Years In Captivity

Tilikum, who was possibly the most famous orca in the world, died early Friday. “The SeaWorld family is deeply saddened to announce that one of its most well-known orcas, Tilikum, has passed away,” SeaWorld announced in a statement.

According to SeaWorld, Tilikum faced “very serious health issues,” linked to a persistent bacterial lung infection, although the official cause of death cannot be confirmed until the necropsy is completed.

Tilikum, who was around 36 years old, was in captivity at SeaWorld for 25 years. According to the Associated Press, Tilikum was born off the Icelandic coast, and was brought to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada shortly after his capture. There, Tilikum and two other orcas played a part in the death of a part-time trainer who slipped and fell into the orca pool.

After moving to SeaWorld in 1992, Tilikum sired 14 calves, becoming the most prolific male orca in SeaWorld Orlando’s breeding program, the BBC reports. In 1999, Tilikum was linked to another death: a naked man who snuck into SeaWorld overnight was found dead in Tilikum’s tank.

Tilikum found fame, or infamy, after the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. During a live audience performance called “Dine with Shamu,” Tilikum pulled Brancheau underwater, where she reportedly drowned.

“Tilikum’s life will always be inextricably connected with the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Dawn Brancheau,” wrote SeaWorld in its statement. “While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible, each and every day, from the country’s leading experts in marine mammals.”

Three years later, Tilikum was the subject of Blackfish, an award-winning documentary arguing that captive killer whales become more aggressive toward both humans and each other. According to the AP, Brancheau’s death, paired with Blackfish, sparked public outcry against SeaWorld and the eventual end to the park’s orca breeding program.

Some people hailed Tilikum’s death as freedom at last for the captive killer whale, who spent 33 years of his life in a tank. Others pointed out that he could have lived longer if Tilikum wasn’t forced to spend those years in captivity.

RIP Tilikum, you will be missed.