ORLANDO — On January 6, the world’s most famous whale passed away.
SeaWorld announced that Tilikum the orca whale has finally died due to complications from a bacterial lung infection he’d been fighting.
Tilikum’s health had been in decline for a few months, but the suffering he endured lasted for more than three decades. In 1983, then 2-year-old Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland, ripped from his family and taken to a marine zoo. A year later, Tilikum was then transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a former marine park in Canada’s British Columbia.
Forced to learn tricks and perform for audiences regularly, it didn’t take long for Tilikum to become aggressive toward humans. In 1991, 20-year-old part-time trainer Keltie Byrne was working with Tilikum and two other whales when she slipped into the pool. As she struggled to get out of the pool, the whales reportedly prevented her from doing so.
Tilikum supposedly carried the young girl’s dead body around on his back for the next two hours before staff were able to retrieve her. After Sealand of the Pacific closed down the next year, Tilikum was then transferred to Orlando, sold to SeaWorld for $1 million. There, too, he was kept in a small tank, built to hold only one-ten-thousandth of the water an orca would normally traverse over a day in the wild. Experts say these conditions can lead to psychosis for the whales, and it wasn’t long before Tilikum struck again.
In 1999, a 27-year-old drifter named Daniel Dukes had somehow snuck into the park, and dove into a breeding tank with the whale. The next morning, Dukes’ body was found draped across Tilikum’s back, a familiar sight. His swimming trunks were found floating in the pool. The death was reported as a likely drowning, but that wouldn’t explain all the injuries Dukes suffered. His genitals had reportedly been bitten off.
Tilikum’s murderous streak culminated in 2010, when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled down into the pool during a live performance. Brancheau’s death was the focus of the 2013 acclaimed documentary Blackfish, which exposed SeaWorld’s treatment of its orca whales and nearly sunk the company after an extreme public backlash.
In response to the film, SeaWorld has since halted its captive breeding program, and announced it would be phasing out theatrical orca shows.
In a statement last week, SeaWorld mourned the loss of Tilikum, and noted the “world-class care” provided to him, and that he “lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld.”