Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca whale and subject of the documentary “Blackfish,” passed away on Jan. 6, 2017. He was 35.
The cause of death will be officially determined after a necropsy, but veterinarians were treating Tilikum for a bacterial lung infection and other age-related health issues at the time of his death, according to a statement from SeaWorld.
Tilikum was likely born in the fall of 1981, as the member of a larger pod of wild orcas.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are social animals that often live in large, tight-knit groups led by older females. As a newborn, Tilikum would have likely lived with his mother, as well as aunts, cousins, and his grandmother.
However, in 1983, Tilikum was captured and separated from his pod off the coast of Iceland.
Tilikum was captured as part of a commercial hunt organized to supply orcas to aquariums and shows. He was kept at the Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo in Iceland before being sold to Sealand of the Pacific, a public aquarium in British Columbia. It was there that he received the name “Tilikum,” which means “friend” in Chinook, a Native American language.
In 1991, after Sealand of the Pacific announced that it was closing, SeaWorld became interested in purchasing Tilikum. And, after SeaWorld and the government of Iceland determined that Tilikum’s release into the wild was not feasible, SeaWorld bought him in November 1991.
SeaWorld is where most of the public became acquainted with Tilikum.
While at SeaWorld, Tilikum often worked with trainers and took part in public shows.
“He had a very sweet personality,” says Jeffrey Ventre, one of Tilikum’s former trainers. “He was always excited to see you in the morning when you came in.”
But though Tilikum had a sweet personality, his life was not necessarily easy.
While in captivity, as a young whale, Tilikum was often bullied by the other orcas, both at SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific, says Ventre. Other whales would sometimes rake him with their teeth, leaving long, bloody gashes in his side.
SeaWorld often had to keep him from the other whales for his own protection.
“He was a picked-upon soul,” says Ventre.
Unfortunately, this also meant social isolation and boredom. Orcas are highly social animals and while trainers often worked with Tilikum and provided him with different toys, he probably did not get the level of stimulation that he would have in the wild.
And it may have been this combination of stress, isolation, and boredom that Ventre thinks led to Tilikum’s darker moments.
Tilikum is perhaps best known for his involvement in the deaths of three people, which resurfaced in the documentary “Blackfish.”
The first incident actually happened in 1991, at Sealand of the Pacific, before he arrived at SeaWorld, where Tilikum joined his two other orca poolmates in killing a student and part-time trainer. It was this incident, in fact, that led to Sealand of the Pacific’s closure and Tilikum’s move to SeaWorld.
The other two incidents occurred at SeaWorld: the first in 1999, when a nighttime intruder was found drowned in Tilikum’s tank, and the second in 2010, when Tilikum held his SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater until she drowned. Tilikum was temporarily removed from the public eye in 2010, but returned to performing in March 2011.
These incidents and Tilikum’s prior treatment at the hands of Sealand and SeaWorld were the subject of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which inspired a significant backlash against the practice of keeping orcas in captivity.
Since these incidents and the release of “Blackfish,” SeaWorld has implemented new safety procedures to limit and remove human contact with the orcas, has decided to end the orca shows at in U.S. locations, and more recently, announced that it is putting an end to its controversial breeding program.
On March 8, 2016, it was announced that Tilikum was suffering from a serious, potentially fatal lung infection. It may have been this infection that took his life on Jan. 6.
Whether you see Tilikum as a a magnificent, but inherently dangerous animal or a tragic captive, his death is a moment for mourning.
People who saw Tilikum perform or who watched “Blackfish” couldn’t help but feel some sort of emotional connection to him. Perhaps because Tilikum embodied both the worst and best of the relationship between people and nature.
In the end, Tilikum’s story inspired us all to care more — and for that, he’s a creature worth saying a heartfelt good-bye to.
Many wild animal species, including orca whales, are in danger from human activities, whether hunting and capture, habitat destruction, or climate change. And those dangers often go unnoticed.