SeaWorld Orlando had sad news for orca fans today. Tilikum, who is probably the most famous killer whale of all time, has died at the estimated age of 36.
In a statement, SeaWorld said he had serious health issues, including “a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” and had been declining for months.
While Tilikum was considered to be old for a captive killer whale, animal welfare groups argue that the species is capable of surviving a lot longer in their natural habitat. Data suggests that female orcas could live well into their 80s or 90s in the wild; males until their 60s or 70s. The world’s oldest known killer whale, known as Granny, was reported missing and presumed dead this week and estimated to be over 100 years old.
The lifespan of captive killer whales was the basis of an argument put forward in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, and the subsequent public outcry was instrumental in SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding orcas in captivity.
After Tilikum became implicated in two deaths in the 1990s — a trainer who drown and a man who was found dead in his tank — and then killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 by holding her underwater until she died of drowning and blunt force trauma, many suggested that he should not return to performing, and that he should be put down.
But Blackfish claimed Tilikum wasn’t to blame, alleging that SeaWorld’s practices were harmful for orcas (as well as dangerous for trainers) and that the stress of captivity was responsible for Tilikum’s aggressive behavior. Following increased activism against SeaWorld and a drop in attendance at the park, President and CEO Joel Manby announced that the company was ending its orca breeding program.
Tilikum never made it back into the wild (SeaWorld claimed captive orcas couldn’t survive in the open water), but his legacy is clear. His experience means the current generation of killer whales will be the last at SeaWorld’s parks.
“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,” said Manby. “My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.”