SeaWorld announces passing of its largest, most famous orca

January 6, 2017, 10:31 AM · SeaWorld Orlando this morning announced that its largest and perhaps most famous orca, Tilikum, had passed away.

Tilikum was 36 years old, meaning that he had outlived the average lifespan for a male orca in the wild, according to data from the U.S. government's National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. Tilikum had been at SeaWorld for 25 years, coming to the park from Sealand of the Pacific in Canada.

SeaWorld obtained its first orca, Shamu, in 1965, one year after its original San Diego park opened, buying it from a Seattle aquarium. She died in 1971. SeaWorld's oldest orca, Corky, is 51 years old and lives at SeaWorld San Diego, where she arrived in 1987 upon the closure of Marineland of the Pacific.

By far the largest orca at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum featured prominently in the park's orca shows, including the current One Ocean, often providing the biggest splashes of the audience at the end. Tilikum first made global headlines when he was involved in the drowning of trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. He'd also been involved in the drowning of a part-time trainer who's slipped into the water at Sealand in 1991, which led to the park sending its orcas to SeaWorld.

Those deaths were sensationalized in the 2013 movie Blackfish, which used deceptive editing and information provided by a fired SeaWorld trainer who'd never worked in Orlando, or with Tilikum, to portray Tilikum — as well as other orcas in captivity — as uncontrollable killers. SeaWorld debunked many of the deceptive moments in the film, but waited months after its release to do so, and did so only in a PDF of a court document, buried on its website.

Dawn Brancheau's lead to an OSHA order that SeaWorld continue its post-accident policy that no trainers be allowed in the water with any of SeaWorld orcas during public performances. That meant the end of the chain's most iconic moment — when a trainer would fly off the nose of an orca as it breached, an image that was featured as prominently in SeaWorld's commercials as fireworks exploding over the castle is featured in Disney's.

SeaWorld Orlando's attendance peaked at 5.8 million annual visitors in 2009, the year before the accident and subsequent banishment of trainers from the water, as well as the last year that the park offered free beer to visitors. (And the year before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando.) In 2008, Belgian brewer InBev bought SeaWorld owner Anheuser-Busch, leading to the sale of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks to a private equity firm the next year. Last year, under new CEO Joel Manby, SeaWorld announced that it would no longer breed orcas, meaning that this generation of killer whales would be the chain's last.

SeaWorld announced last March that Tilikum had contracted a lung infection caused by a resistant bacterium, although the park reported that his health was improving as of May 2016.

Keeping with our past practice, we will not be approving anonymous comments on posts involving SeaWorld animals.

Replies (2)

January 7, 2017 at 6:03 PM · It is sad to see this passing, but I will say that Theme Park Insider did some of the best journalism out there on the Sea World Accident. Robert focused on the main issue at hand: a massive violation of OSHA standards.
January 10, 2017 at 3:01 PM · Very sad to hear of Tilikum's death. I'm sure the trainers at SW did their best to make him comfortable. While indeed misleading in parts, Blackfish did make some worthwhile points, foremost that it's probably not a good idea to require such a giant, intelligent animal to live its life in such a relatively small space. Sea World does great work in marine conservation and rescue, and I'm confident that they did the right thing in ceasing their Orca breeding program and shows of old. I look forward to supporting the parks as they move forward.

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