Tilikum, an orca that killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 and was profiled in a documentary that helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld parks, has died.
Sea World officials said Friday that Tilikum died but did not give a cause of death. In a statement, the officials said Tilikum had faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. He was estimated to be 36 years old. A necropsy will be performed, according to the statement.
"Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired," SeaWorld President & CEO Joel Manby said. "My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family."
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Tilikum was SeaWorld's most prolific male orca, siring 14 calves while he was at SeaWorld Orlando. He arrived at the park about 25 years ago.
The 2013 documentary "Blackfish" chronicled Tilikum's story and suggested SeaWorld's treatment of captive orcas provoked violent behavior.
The company struggled with falling stock prices and park attendance numbers since the documentary's release and made sweeping changes on how its parks will use orcas. One of those changes will take effect at SeaWorld San Diego on Sunday when orcas will perform their last show for guests.
Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada after being captured.
He was noticeable for his size at more than 22 feet and 11,800 pounds.
While at Sealand in 1992, Tilikum and two female orcas were responsible for the death of a part-time trainer who slipped and fell into their pool and was submerged by them.
Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando a short time later, and Sealand later closed.
In 1999, a naked man who had eluded security and sneaked into SeaWorld at night was found dead the next morning draped over Tilikum in a breeding tank in the back of Shamu Stadium.
But it was the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum after a "Dine with Shamu" show that left the biggest impact on the future of orcas at SeaWorld parks.
Brancheau was interacting with Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when he pulled her from a platform by her arm and held her under the water. An autopsy report said Brancheau drowned but also suffered severe trauma, including multiple fractures.
In October 2015, the California Coastal Commission was approached by SeaWorld San Diego to approve a $100 million expansion of its orca tanks, called the Blue World Project.
While it did approve the plan, the commission added a caveat: the park must not allow their captive whales to breed.
SeaWorld Entertainment officials announced in March 2016 that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales. The decision came six years after Brancheau's death and three years after the release of the documentary, "Blackfish," which chronicled Tilikum's life and Brancheau's death.
The documentary argued that killer whales, when in captivity, become more aggressive toward humans and each other. After the documentary played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on CNN, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks and animal rights activists increased their demonstrations outside the parks.
Attendance at SeaWorld parks dipped, the company faced falling profits and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year relationship with the theme park company.
In March, SeaWorld CEO acknowledged that the public's attitude had changed about keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca breeding program.
"We needed to move where society was moving," Manby said.
On Sunday, SeaWorld San Diego staff will produce its final “One Ocean," ending a decades-old practice of including killer whales as park entertainers.
A new conservation-based exhibit, Orca Encounter, will open in summer 2017.
The company's parks in Orlando and San Antonio will end their orca shows by 2019.