After living for 25 years in captivity at SeaWorld, Tilikum, the orca whale chronicled in 2013 documentary Blackfish, has died, the park announced today.
“We’re saddened to announce the passing of Tilikum, a beloved member of the SeaWorld family for 25 years,” SeaWorld Tweeted on Friday morning, adding a link to a full statement on the park’s SeaWorld Cares site.
Tilikum was “surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock world-class care,” SeaWorld says, adding that the whale had faced “some very serious health issues.”
“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,” SeaWorld says. “The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings.”
The world learned the name Tilikum in 2010, when he dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau under the water and held her there, killing her, in front of Orlando park visitors during a Shamu performance in 2010. That tragedy was at the center of Blackfish, a film that took a critical look at how marine mammals are treated at SeaWorld, and how a life in captivity might have contributed to the circumstances of Brancheau’s death.
The response to Blackfish set off a chain of events that led to several changes at SeaWorld, including a campaign called “Ask SeaWorld,” and a pledge to $10 million on orca research and expand the whale environment at the park.
In 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the park for various violations, including some directly linked to Brancheau’s death. SeaWorld then announced it would drop its appeal to those citations, and said that trainers would no longer get into the water with the whales. At the time, SeaWorld said it had made “significant safety improvements” since the death of Brancheau, and remained “focused on the implementation of those improvements moving forward.”
In May 2015, however, SeaWorld found itself in hot water with the California division of OSHA, which handed the company’s San Diego park four citations for not making sure employees who worked with the whales were properly protected.
That same month, a class-action lawsuit claimed that SeaWorld made hundreds of millions of dollars from its “Shamu Show,” while hiding the truth of how its killer whales were treated from park visitors.
“This illusion masks the ugly truth about the unhealthy and despairing lives of these whales. This is a truth that, if known to the purchasing public at the time families make the decision to visit SeaWorld, buy a membership, or pay for an ‘exclusive park experience,’ would lead them to seek entertainment elsewhere,” the lawsuit claimed.
Six months later, in Nov. 2015, SeaWorld’s flagship in San Diego said it would phase out the “Shamu Show” and trade it for a program with a conservation message.
A few months after that, in March 2016, the company officially committed to ending the shows at all parks, and to stop breeding orca whales entirely.
Tilikum was estimated to be about 36 years old.