SAN DIEGO (CN) – SeaWorld faced two losses this week in what was once the amusement park’s biggest draw: the death of Tilikum, the orca that featured prominently in the documentary "Blackfish," and weekend’s final Shamu show at the company’s San Diego park.
SeaWorld said Friday that 36-year-old Tilikum died at its Orlando park, surrounded by trainers and veterinary staff. The whale’s health had been declining for months and he had been battling a bacterial infection in his lungs. The whale was one of SeaWorld’s most prolific breeders, fathering more than 20 calves, by the park's count.
Tilikum is also credited with sparking an international ethics and animal-rights conversation about keeping massive killer whales in captivity.
The orca featured prominently in the 2013 documentary ‘Blackfish’ which focused on his capture from the wild and what the filmmakers posited as the trauma he suffered from living in captivity and performing in SeaWorld’s theatrical shows. Animal activists say Tilikum’s life in captivity contributed to aggressive behavior that left SeaWorld orca trainer dead in 2010.
Tilikum lived at SeaWorld for 23 years, having come from another park, Sealand of the Pacific, which closed in 1992.
The whale is also blamed for the deaths of two other people – another trainer who died in 1991 at Sealand and a man who, in 1999, apparently remained at SeaWorld after it closed and was found dead in Tilikum’s tank the following morning.
"Blackfish" led to a sharp decline in SeaWorld attendance, leaving the company’s leaders to try different approaches to overcome the fallout the documentary caused. The company finally announced this past March it would stop breeding orcas.
California Gov. Jerry Brown subsequently signed a revived bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, in September 2016 that bans captive-orca breeding in the state.
Bloom said in a statement Friday that Tilikum “embodied all that is wrong with having orcas in captivity.”
“He was ripped away from his mother, from his wild, natural environment when he was only two years old – a pod he would still be with today had he never been captured – lived a life of solitude, developed health problems at a young age and exhibited aggressive behavior toward other orcas and humans, ultimately leading to the deaths of three people. Sadly, his life was needed for us to realize this tragedy had to stop,” Bloom said.
Animal activists had doubled down in recent months on their call for SeaWorld to release its last generation of orcas to “seaside sanctuaries,” where they could live the remainder of their lives in the ocean. They say rather than investing in new exhibits, SeaWorld should return the animals to where they belong.
This weekend also marks the end of an era for SeaWorld’s Shamu show, which drew most of the amusement park’s attendees. The last “One Ocean” orca show will be Sunday afternoon, and will make way for SeaWorld’s new education-heavy “Orca Encounter” this summer.
Plans for the “Orca Encounter” and other renovations – including a new roller coaster the park announced earlier this week – are already underway. On Dec. 19, the city of San Diego provided notice SeaWorld has applied for permits for the large renovation project. The project will require review from the city’s planning commission as well as a final go-ahead by the City Council.
The project has already received the green light from the California Coastal Commission.
Starting Monday, SeaWorld will have an “interim orca presentation” with temporary seating set up around the underwater orca viewing pool until the new exhibit opens this summer, according to the company’s website.
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