Photograph by Gerardo Mora, Getty Images
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The orca Tilikum is seen performing at SeaWorld in Orlando in March 2011. The animal killed three people over the years.

Photograph by Gerardo Mora, Getty Images

Why Tilikum, SeaWorld's Killer Orca, Was Infamous

The killer whale that drowned three people inspired a movement to end captivity. He died in Orlando on Friday.

The largest, best known—and most notorious—orca held in captivity by SeaWorld died on Friday in Orlando after a long battle with illness, including a drug-resistant bacterial lung infection. The immediate cause of death is not yet known.

SeaWorld announced that Tilikum, who was thought to be 36 years old, died early in the morning surrounded by trainers and veterinarians.

As Blackfish co-writer Tim Zimmermann recently wrote for National Geographic, "His life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species."

Tilikum was caught off of Iceland in 1983 when he was two years old. He spent the rest of his life in captivity, with much of that time at SeaWorld Orlando, where he was seen by tens of thousands. (Learn about the world's oldest orca who passed away.)

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum pulled SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau into his pool and killed her. That tragic event made world news, but few people realized the orca had already been involved in two previous deaths. One was another trainer, in 1991, and one was a trespasser, in 1999.

And yet the whale's trainers were loathe to label Tilikum as a monster. Instead, many began to question the whole system of how he was raised and displayed.

"Instead of the iconic, happy killer whale celebrated by SeaWorld and its fans for five decades, Tilikum demanded the world confront his reality, Shamu’s reality, which involved separation from family, confinement, boredom, chronic disease, aggression among marine park killer whales, and aggression against trainers," Zimmermann wrote.

At 22 feet long and 12,000 pounds, Tilikum had been transformed from a wild, apex predator to an amusement for tourists. And that transformation wasn't smooth. He suffered bullying by other captive whales and stress from being separated from his wild family, according to his trainers. And he had a demanding schedule of training and performances. (See "Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas.")

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SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau (shown in 2005) was dragged underwater by Tilikum and killed in 2010.

Tilikum was part of captive breeding efforts and is thought to have sired 21 calves, 11 of which died before he did, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But Tilikum's tragic life also made a difference in the world. Because of his story, attendance at SeaWorld and whale shows slid over the past few years, protests were launched, musicians boycotted the parks, and finally the company announced that it would begin phasing out the animal-based entertainment.

SeaWorld San Diego is set to host its final orca entertainment show this Sunday, though the shows will continue until 2019 in Texas and Florida.

After Sunday, the company's San Diego park "will conduct an interim orca educational presentation in the pool that is also used for underwater viewing ... while we remove the existing theatrical moving screens and show set in the stadium and replace them with a natural backdrop that will reflect the natural world of the orca," SeaWorld San Diego spokesperson Dave Koontz told the media.

Spurring SeaWorld along, California had banned captive breeding of orcas in 2016.

In announcing the closing of the shows, 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."

"Tilikum must be the last orca to die at a SeaWorld amusement park," Lisa Lange, a senior vice president of PETA, said in a statement. "Sea World needs to release all the remaining animals from its parks—the orcas, beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, walruses, penguins, and others—and rehabilitate and return them to nature or release them into coastal sanctuaries, where they could spend the rest of their lives in as natural a setting as possible."

Tilikum, who long was billed to the ticket-buying public as another Shamu, will now likely be remembered under his own name.

Read more about orca culture in the wild.