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Tilikum’s Legacy: How the Late SeaWorld Orca Changed the Park and Whale Captivity Forever

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Gerardo Mora/Getty
Gerardo Mora/Getty

On Friday morning, Tilikum the orca whale died at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, Florida.

Long before his passing, the 36-year-old killer whale made headlines for his part in the controversial documentary Blackfish, in which his behavior was profiled — and for killing SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

These events encouraged a new era at SeaWorld, where the interest shifted from breeding whales and making them perform to focusing on the animals’ natural behavior, and also bolstered the movement to end whale captivity.

In a timeline of his brief life, it is easy to see the challenging world Tilikum lived in, and how his struggle has forever changed SeaWorld and how we view captive whales.

1983: Tilikum the 2-year-old bull orca is captured from the wild in the waters near Reykjavík, Iceland, and is taken to a tank at a local zoo.

1984: After a year in Iceland, Tilikum moves to Sealand of the Pacific in South Oak Bay, British Columbia, Canada.

Here, Tilikum is put into a tank with two other older and larger female orcas, Haida II and Nootka IV, leaving the male newcomer at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Because of his standing with the group, Tilikum endures continued bullying from both of the female whales, who often forcibly herd him into a smaller medical tank.

Feb. 20, 1991: Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old marine biology student working as a part-time trainer at Sealand, slips into the pool containing Tilikum, Haida II and Nootka IV. All three whales submerge Byrne, a competitive swimmer, in the water and prevent her from surfacing. For minutes, the whales drag her around the pool and prevent her from reaching the sides or receiving help from fellow trainers. Eventually, Byrne drowns in front of guests. Several hours pass before the park can safely remove the woman’s body from the whales’ pool.

Jan. 9, 1992: Harassed by his pool mates for years and partially responsible for the death of one person, Tilikum is transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, to continue training and performances. Sealand of the Pacific closes shortly after Tilikum’s departure.

During his time at SeaWorld Orlando, sperm removed from Tilikum by trainers is used to sire 21 orca calfs, 11 of which preceded their father in death.

July 6, 1999: On this morning a dead man, 27-year-old Daniel P. Dukes, is found naked and slumped over Tilikum’s back. SeaWorld discovers later that Dukes had visited the park the previous day, hid until it closed and then snuck into Tilikum’s tank. An autopsy determined Dukes’ cause of death was drowning by Tilikum.

Feb. 24, 2010: Tilikum becomes responsible for his third death — making him responsible for three of only four recorded deaths by orca attacks on humans. After performing a ‘Dine with Shamu’ show with veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum grabs the trainer and drags her into the water, drowning her in front of guests. Tilikum is removed from performances after this incident, but remains on display at the park.

March 30, 2011: SeaWorld decides to use Tilikum in performances again, adding a few security measures to prevent further trainer injuries.

December 2011: Tilikum is removed from performances due to illness.

April 2012: SeaWorld starts using Tilikum in performances once more.

January 2013: The documentary Blackfish premieres, profiling Tilikum’s experience in captivity, arguing these unnatural conditions (tiny cages, close quarters to other whales, performance training) caused the whale mental and physical anguish, which contributed to the deaths he was involved in.

August 2014: SeaWorld starts building new, larger killer whale tanks, but states that the choice is not a response to Blackfish. Animal advocates openly argue that the changes are not enough to satisfy the intelligent creatures, who swim dozens of miles a day in the wild, and that all of SeaWorld’s orcas should stop being used for breeding and get to live out the rest of their lives in sea sanctuaries.

October 2015: Tank expansion plans in San Diego halt after California Coastal Commission rules that construction can only continue if the parks end their captive breeding program.

November 2015: Plans to phase out killer whale shows are announced. SeaWorld states that killer whale performances will cease at the San Diego park in 2017 and at other locations in 2019.

March 2016: SeaWorld reveals that Tilikum has a bacterial infection in his lungs that is resistant to treatment and is greatly affecting his overall health.

Gerardo Mora/Getty
Gerardo Mora/Getty

March 17, 2016: SeaWorld announces its plans to end its captive breeding program, which means the current orcas living in the parks will be the last killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld, unless a whale comes in as a rescue.

May 2016: The parts of the orca performances that include kissing, dancing or posing cease at SeaWorld.

Jan. 6, 2017: Tilikum dies at SeaWorld Orlando.