The Death of Tilikum and 10 More of SeaWorld's Biggest Scandals

A look back at Tilikum, the orca whale who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, and the other controversies that have rocked SeaWorld over recent years

01 of 11



On Friday, Jan. 6, Tilikum, a 36-year-old orca who had lived at SeaWorld for 25 years, died in captivity.

The whale was an infamous figure at the park. In 2010, he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau by dragging her to the bottom of his pool in front of guests after a dinner show. This death along with two other incident involving Tilikum were the focus of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film argued that keeping orcas captive is unhealthy for the animal psychologically and physically, and featured several former SeaWorld trainers talking about their experience.

For animal advocates, Tilikum is a symbol of the worst that can happen when you force an animal into unnatural conditions. The response to Blackfish and Tilikum's story led to some major changes at the park, including the phasing out of their orca shows.

02 of 11



While SeaWorld announced its plans to end its breeding programs in the United States, this doesn't appear to extend to orcas they have loaned out outside of North America. Footage of one of those whales, named Morgan, was released in May 2016. The agonizing clip allegedly shows Morgan repeatedly smashing herself against her small enclosure at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. The video has led to a outcry from animal activists, demanding that SeaWorld make changes for all their whales.

03 of 11


Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Louise Murray

SeaWorld made news for a negative reason again when a 2-year-old beluga at its San Antonio park passed away unexpectedly. This was the second beluga whale born into captivity to die at the park in 2015. Sixty percent of the beluga whales born in captivity don't make it to adulthood, and those that do often don't live to 30. These are startling numbers to animal lovers, since belugas are known to live up to 60 years in the wild.

04 of 11


Brigitte Hiss/ullstein bild/Getty

In a move that many animal rights groups took as an admission of guilt, SeaWorld recently announced plans to phase out its famous orca shows from the San Diego park by 2017. The CEO said customer feedback was the main reason for the switch and that the company is now focused on providing killer whale experiences that are more in line with the animal's natural behaviors.

05 of 11


Matt Stroshane/Getty

In March 2015, SeaWorld decided to engage with its thousands of Twitter followers by prompting them to submit questions to the company through the social network with the hashtag #AskSeaWorld. Instead of getting friendly questions about its collection of animals, the account was bombarded with accusations of animal cruelty. “Why do you provide more area for us to park our cars than you give these animals to live?” and “Why are your Orca's teeth in such terrible condition?” are just two of the tough questions thrown its way.

06 of 11


Gary Gershoff/WireImage

Public relations at SeaWorld has had its fins full ever since the documentary Blackfish was released in 2013. Criticism of the chain's practices got stronger after the March 2015 release of Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, a book by former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove. The tome details Hargrove's 14-year career at SeaWorld, including his take on the devastating consequences captivity had on the animals in his care.

07 of 11


Earl Gibson III/Getty

For a company that stands by its ways, SeaWorld started to look rather suspicious in July 2015 when reports of it using a spy started to surface. According to The Dodo, SeaWorld allegedly had one of its Human Resources employees infiltrate groups protesting the chain's practices, like PETA, with a fake name and false personal information. This spy then reportedly tried to incite the animal rights groups to act aggressively and illegally in future protests.

08 of 11


Andrew Steele/Getty

Two bottlenose dolphins living at SeaWorld parks died in 2015, both at SeaWorld Orlando. The first was a 22-year-old male in March, who aburuptly died without showing any signs of illness. An 8-year-old dolphin followed, dying mysteriously in June. The cause of the young animal's death was listed as probable pneumonia, reports The Orlando Sentinel.

09 of 11



SeaWorld lost a lot of advertorial support following Blackfish, and in 2015 Barbie even bailed. Mattel announced it was discontinuing SeaWorld Trainer Barbie. While the product may still appear on shelves, the company has opted not to produce anymore due to “a number of factors,” reported NBC News.

10 of 11


David Livingston/Getty

Jackass star Steve-O put SeaWorld back in the headlines after he climbed a 100-foot crane and inflated a toy killer whale that read “SeaWorld Sucks” at the top. The stunt led to a 30-day jail sentence for Steve-O, which he happily accepted.

"Considering I've become a clean and sober, dog-rescuing vegan, I must say I'm ready to go to jail – not just because it will bring so much attention to the plight of orcas in captivity, but because it's nice to let people know I haven't lost my edge," he wrote in an Instagram post announcing his sentence.

11 of 11


Sea World Beluga Calves
Eric Gay/AP

A baby beluga born into captivity at SeaWorld Orlando died of unknown causes just moments after it was born to 17-year-old mom Whisper.

The theme park announced the death of the calf on July 7, 2017, stating in a press release that the beluga was born earlier in the week and was “unusually weak.”

“Unfortunately the unusually weak calf surfaced only briefly before sinking to the bottom of the pool. The animal care and veterinary teams reacted quickly and were able to reach the calf and begin emergency care. Despite their best efforts and expertise, we are saddened to confirm that the calf did not survive,” the Florida park said in a statement.

SeaWorld Orlando, which was eagerly awaiting the new arrival, is unsure what caused the sudden and shocking death, especially since Whisper had a full and healthy pregnancy. SeaWorld plans to perform a full post-mortem examination to hopefully get some insight into what caused the calf to perish so quickly.

Related Articles