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By Eva Gruber
Tilikum, the famed orca whale at the center of the controversy surrounding marine park SeaWorld, and the film Blackfish, passed away this morning at the age of 36 years, after battling a long-lasting a persistent bacterial lung infection. A necropsy will be performed to help determine his exact cause of death. Here are a few facts celebrating his life and legacy.
1. Tilikum means “friends, relations, common, people, tribe” in the Chinook Jargon of the Pacific Northwest. The whale was a phenomenal ambassador for the species and for the oceans as a whole. He moved and inspired countless numbers of people who visited SeaWorld.
2. He lived at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years, having arrived in 1993. SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that he had contracted an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria that seemed to be causing lung problems, and that his health was deteriorating. In May of 2016, they reported that he seemed healthier. Friday morning, January 6, 2017, he died surrounded by trainers and veterinarians.
3. Through SeaWorld’s captive breeding program, Tilikum sired 21 calves – over half of the orcas in SeaWorld’s care are descendants of Tilikum. The captive breeding program was enacted to prevent the taking of orcas from the wild.
4. With the loss of Tilikum, there are now 22 orca whales in the care of the three SeaWorld facilities in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego. In 2016, SeaWorld announced the end of their captive breeding program, and the phasing-out of their animal-based entertainment shows. SeaWorld San Diego is set to have its last orca-based entertainment show this Sunday, although orca shows will continue in San Antonio and Orlando through 2019. SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said in a statement, “We are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals. As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it.”
They will be conducting an interim orca education program in the viewing pool, and will be removing the theatrical movie screens and show sets, replacing it with a natural background to reflect the natural home of these animals.
5. Tilikum was the largest orca whale in captivity, coming in at 22 feet long and 12,000 pounds – an impressive and healthy size and weight for a male orca whale. According to SeaWorld, he had reached the upper reaches of the average lifespan for adult male orca whales. “While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” SeaWorld said Friday.
6. Tillikum entered infamy and the public conscience with the film Blackfish, which portrayed SeaWorld in a negative light. As a result, attendance to the parks and stock shares dropped. His story changed the morality of how we view the confinement and captivity of large marine mammals and animals in general. His lasting legacy will be that – the re-imagination of how we treat large, intelligent social animals, and how we use them on display to teach the public to care for the oceans. While his life was fraught with controversy, his memory will remain in the positive changes he has inspired in SeaWorld, and in the public. Tilikum introduced countless children and adults alike to the wonder, beauty, and majesty of the oceans, and through this inspired generations of marine biologists and caretakers for the oceans. This is his greatest legacy.
In this time we ask that you share your condolences with SeaWorld and we thank you for support in advance.