The SeaWorld staff released a statement on Friday morning announcing that Tilikum had passed away at the estimated age of 36. Though his official cause of death has not yet been determined, the SeaWorld staffers believe that Tilikum most likely died as the result of a bacterial lung infection that he was being treated for.
Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings.
Tilikum was best known for an incident back in 2010, in which he attacked SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau following a performance, resulting in her death. As Brancheau was petting Tilikum, the whale grabbed her and pulled her into the tank, drowning her. That was the third human death that Tilikum was involved in --- in the '90s, Tilikum was also responsible for the drowning of another trainer and a SeaWorld trespasser.
Following the death of Dawn Brancheau, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite set out to depict the controversy surrounding keeping orca whales in captivity in theme parks like SeaWorld, and she made Tilikum the centerpiece of the whole movie. Cowperthwaite's documentary Blackfish premiered at Sundance at the beginning of 2013, and went on to become one of the year's buzziest docs upon wide release. In the movie, marine biologists, former SeaWorld employees, and others knowledgable on the subject, attribute the aggression that some orcas exhibit in captivity to the stress of being plucked from their homes and allege that keeping orcas in captivity is an inhumane practice.
The success of Blackfish caused public controversy surrounding the issue of whether or not orcas should be kept in captivity, as many viewers and activists rallied against SeaWorld's practices, while officials at SeaWorld accused the movie of presenting a sensationalized, one-sided story that didn't include their input. However, SeaWorld did announce the end of their orca breeding program at the beginning of 2016, meaning that after the current generation of orca whales in their tanks dies out, they will no longer be keeping orcas in captivity.
Although he certainly wasn't the most well-behaved orca whale, it's clear that Tilikum had a profound influence on how we view these incredible creatures.