SeaWorld Orlando’s internationally famous killer whale star, Tilikum, has died, officials at the park announced on Friday. The orca became internationally famous after it was featured in the documentary, Blackfish, in 2013. Tilikum was reportedly responsible for the death of a SeaWorld trainer and combined with the negative publicity SeaWorld parks received after the release of 2013 documentary, attendance numbers dropped at SeaWorld parks and SeaWorld San Diego ended its once popular killer whale show.
CBS News San Diego reported that Tilikum killed a trainer during a 2010 show in Orlando. The trainer’s death was one of three deaths that Tilikum was responsible for causing, according to Phys.Org. In 1991, Tilikum was allegedly involved in the death of a trainer who worked part-time at Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific facility. In 1999, the killer whale also caused the death of a man after he sneaked into the closed SeaWorld park after hours to swim with the mammals.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that, though Tilikum lived in captivity and performed in shows at SeaWorld Orlando, the killer whale’s plight in handling life in captivity, performing tricks for human audiences, as depicted in Blackfish, led to the orca’s behavior and to SeaWorld San Diego giving its final killer whale performances at Shamu Stadium Pool on Sunday. That does not mean that the parks are no longer going to be featuring killer whales.
Orcas will remain at SeaWorld Orlando and the other SeaWorld parks, just with programs and shows repackaged and presented to audiences differently. Beginning this summer, SeaWorld San Diego will begin Orca Encounter, in the same pool.
Officials with the park are calling it a fun experience intended to educate people on how killer whales communicate, eat, and navigate. The killer whales will still have trainers giving them direction and cues.
Fans of the current killer whale presentations will, the SeaWorld parks hope, also enjoy the revamped presentations to come. Former orca trainer and current vice president of zoological operations Al Garver told the San Diego Union-Tribune, park visitors will still see a whale jumping out of the water.
The key difference is that the extraordinary leaping abilities of orcas will be presented as examples of the killer whales behaviors hunting in the wild and their abilities as a top predator in the sea, Garver said. He added, the shows people have witnessed at SeaWorld already demonstrated that, but this will be in a more educational format, not just for entertainment.
By 2019, SeaWorld Orlando and San Antonio will end their current shows. Orca Encounter will open in Orlando and San Antonio within two years.
According to park officials, in the meantime, beginning on Monday, the current orca show, One Ocean, will be temporarily replaced by the show Killer Whale Presentation.
PETA has been vocal in criticizing the conditions that the captive killer whales live under at the SeaWorld parks, another factor that has led to the parks reporting declining attendance figures. CDA News was one of the sources reporting on SeaWorld alleging attempting to infiltrate PETA with some of their employees.
Many critics of the conditions that Tilikum and other orcas have endured at the SeaWorld parks are not satisfied by the company’s apparent change of approach and repackaging of its killer whale presentations. For example, the director of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite said that revamped show was not designed for the animals, but with the educational emphasis, it will make the audience feel better.
The director argued that the trainers still are not safe, and the whales are not happy. She stated that the orcas are still doing manic circles around concrete swimming pools, and that could equal more fatal accidents.
Tilikum was estimated to be about 36 years old at the time of his death, and was in poor health. Tilikum had been living Seaworld Orlando for 25 years. The orca had been suffering from a complicated and persistent bacterial lung infection.
Tilikum had been fighting this infection since March. However, SeaWorld Entertainmnet stated that Tilikum’s official cause of death will be announced after the completion of a necropsy.”
PETA tweeted out a photo of Tilikum, with the message, “R.I.P. Tilikum Dead after three decades of misery.” In the Chinook Jargon language spoken among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, the word, “Tilkum,” means “friend.”
There are currently 12 SeaWorld parks worldwide. Last month, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. announced that it would help develop its first Abu Dhabi SeaWorld park without orcas. While it will be the first, it will take a while for existing parks to fully put into motion a plan to keep killer whales safe in captivity or stop bringing them into the parks. The documentary Blackfish will haunt the park for a long time.
Written By John Samuels