Tilikum, the Legendary Orca and Star of “Blackfish,” Dies at 36

Photo: Tilikum. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

SeaWorld Orlando has announced that Tilikum, the legendary orca, died today at the age of 36. The subject of the documentary film, Blackfish, his life story created a public outcry that forced SeaWorld to stop breeding orcas in captivity. Tilkum, the largest orca in captivity, was 22.5 feet long and weighed more than 11,000 pounds at the time of his death. He had been in declining health for several months.

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Tilikum’s story one rife with tragedy. In November 1983, at the age of just two years old, he was captured off the coast of Iceland and put into a cement holding tank for nearly a year. Where he was once able to swim hundreds of miles a day alongside his family, he was reduced to swimming in small circle and floating aimlessly.

He was finally transferred to Sealand in British Columbia, Canada, where he as kept in a barren pool just 100 x 50 feet in size, and a mere 35 feet deep. Here he endured painful attacks by two dominant female orcas, and was forced to perform for the public every hour, eight times a day, seven days a week. Food was withheld from him as a training technique, while stress and exhaustion lead to stomach ulcers. At night, the three orcas were forced into a tiny cage and held there for more than 14 hours until the park reopened in the morning.

On February 21, 1991, Sealand trainer Keltie Byrne fell into the pool. Visitors watched as Tilikum dragged her to the bottom of the enclosure, where she was tossed among the orcas, and ultimately drowned. Sealand closed its doors following her death and sold Tilikum to SeaWorld in 1992.

SeaWorld was keen to breed the 12,000-pound bull to increase their fleet. In total, Tilikum sired 21 calves, 10 of which are still alive.

The stress of captivity caused Tilikum’s notorious aggression to increase, and in 1999, he killed again. On the morning of July 6, a 27-year-old man named Daniel P. Dukes was discovered lying on Tilikum’s back. He was a visitor who had stayed in the park after it closed, then sneaked into Tilikum’s tank. An autopsy concluded that his death was due to drowning.

Then, just a year later, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed when Tilikum pulled her into his tank, crushed and drowned her following a performance. Trainers expressed amazement that she, who had always abided by safety guidelines, was killed. SeaWorld moved Tilikum to a tiny enclosure where he was kept in isolation for a year, unable to swim and interact with other orcas or people. Tilikum was forced to return to performing on March 30, 2011.

In 2013, CNN Films released “Blackfish,” a documentary on Tilikum’s tragic life. The film, which premiered at Sundance, exposed SeaWorld’s lies, and revealed the many ways that orcas experience extreme stress in captivity. SeaWorld claimed the film was inaccurate, but it was too late—the damage had been done.

Politicians began to pass legislation protecting orcas from further abuse and exploitation. By November 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to end orca shows at its San Diego location. A year later, the company announced it would end its orca-breeding program and begin to phase out live performances.

Although the public and former trainers demanded that Tilikum be released back into the wild, SeaWorld refused to do so, stating the great whale would not survive. In the end, Tilikum lived long enough to see his offspring protected from some of the abuses he endured.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.