Tilikum, SeaWorld orca linked to 3 deaths, dies

Last Updated: Friday, January 06, 2017, 3:29 PM EST

Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca linked to the deaths of three people and was featured in a controversial documentary that raised awareness of the treatment of captive orcas, has died after a long illness, the park said Friday.

Tilikum had been suffering from a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection, SeaWorld said in its statement. Various treatment methods had been administered including anti-inflammatories, anti-bacterials and anti-nausea medications. A necropsy will be performed, the statement said.

He was estimated to be about 36 years old. SeaWorld acquired him from Canada's Sealand of the Pacific aquarium about 25 years ago.

"Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hears of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired," SeaWorld president and CEO Joel Manby said in the statement. "My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family."

Tilikum has been linked to the deaths of three people, including SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau. In February 2010, after a "Dine with Shamu" show in front of a live audience, the 22-foot, 11,800-pound orca pulled her from a platform and held her under water. Two other people died in tanks occupied by Tilikum:

  • In 1999, Daniel Dukes, an intruder who entered the orca tank after the park closed, likely died of hypothermia in the water. His body was found draped across Tilikum's back hours later, and it appeared to be bitten by the whale.
  • In 1991, Keltie Byrne, a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific, drowned in Tilikum's tank. Investigators said Tilikum and two other orcas dragged her under water.

Tilikum: An interactive timeline

(Ashley Carter, Digital Media Producer)

Six years after Brancheau's death, SeaWorld officials announced that the park would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales.

"We didn't do it from activists," Manby had said in reference to the changes. "Frankly, the activists will not be pleased with anything we do."

The decision came three years after the release of the documentary movie "Blackfish," which chronicled Tilikum's life and Brancheau's death. After the release of the movie, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld, and animal rights activists demonstrated outside the park. Attendance at SeaWorld parks dipped, and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year relationship with the company.

In March, SeaWorld CEO Manby acknowledged that the public's attitude had changed about keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca breeding program.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Tilikum swims in a SeaWorld Orlando tank in November 2015 from this YouTube video posted courtesy of Thrillgeek.com.