Captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, Tilikum spent most of his life in captivity. The immensely popular Blackfish helped influence public opinion about keeping large sea mammals in captivity, most notably killer whales.
The documentary featured jarring footage of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau being pulled underwater by Tilikum in front of many witnesses after a show in 2010. Brancheau suffered severe trauma — her arm was ripped off and her scalp torn from her head — and she succumbed to her injuries before she could be pulled from the pool. An autopsy report said Brancheau drowned but also suffered severe trauma, including multiple fractures.
SeaWorld officials said Friday that Tilikum died, but did not give a cause of death. In a statement, the officials said Tilikum had faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. He was estimated to be 36 years old. A necropsy will be performed, according to the statement.
“Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired,” SeaWorld President & CEO Joel Manby said Friday. “My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.”
Tilikum was SeaWorld’s most prolific male orca, siring 14 calves while he was at SeaWorld Orlando. He arrived at the park about 25 years ago.
He was noticeable for his size at more than seven metres and 5,000 kilograms.
WATCH: Tilikum is moved from B.C.’s Sealand to SeaWorld Orlando in 1992
Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to Sealand of the Pacific in B.C. after being captured. While at Sealand in 1992, Tilikum and two female orcas were responsible for the death of a part-time trainer who slipped and fell into their pool and was submerged by them.
Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando a short time later, and Sealand later closed.
In 1999, a naked man who had eluded security and sneaked into SeaWorld at night was found dead the next morning draped over Tilikum in a breeding tank in the back of Shamu Stadium.
But it was the death of Brancheau that left the biggest impact on the future of orcas at SeaWorld parks.
SeaWorld Entertainment officials announced in March 2016 that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales. The decision came six years after Brancheau’s death and three years after the release of Blackfish.
The documentary argued that killer whales, when in captivity, become more aggressive toward humans and each other. After the documentary played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on CNN, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks and animal rights activists increased their demonstrations outside the parks.
Attendance at SeaWorld parks dipped, the company faced falling profits and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year relationship with the theme park company.
In March, SeaWorld CEO acknowledged that the public’s attitude had changed about keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca breeding program.
“We needed to move where society was moving,” Manby said.
Twitter users quickly started up the hashtag “#RIPTilikum,” and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wasted no time in posting its feelings on the orca’s passing. Many others attributed the success of the fight against captivity to the whale.
At least 150 killer whales have been taken into captivity from the open seas since 1961; 127 of these orcas are now dead. Of those, 45 died at SeaWorld.
A killer whale in the wild has an average lifespan of up to 50-100 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Males typically live for about 30 years but can live as long as 50-60 years, while females have longer lives, on average living about 50 years, but can live as long as 100 years.
The oldest-known southern resident killer whale, known as “Granny,” was pronounced dead last week by the Center for Whale Research. She was believed to be 105 years old.
With files from The Associated Press’ Mike Schneider