Theme Parks

SeaWorld announces death of Tilikum, killer whale featured in documentary 'Blackfish'

In 2011 file photo orca whale Tilikum, right, watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

In 2011 file photo orca whale Tilikum, right, watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla.  (AP File Photo)

Tilikum, a killer whale that was profiled in the documentary "Blackfish" that helped sway popular opinion against keeping orcas in captivity at SeaWorld parks, has died SeaWorld officials confirmed Friday. 

Park veteranarians estimated that he was 36 years old. 

Sea World officials did not confirm cause of death but tweeted condolences at the loss of one of the park's biggest-- and most controversial-- animals.

In a statement, the officials said Tilikum had faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. A necropsy will be performed. 

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"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."

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.

H was also one of the park's biggest biggest whales at 22 feet and 11,800 pounds.

Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada after being captured. 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 March, SeaWorld Entertainment announced that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales-- a major change for the theme park brand. 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.

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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 has since dipped and Manby has indicated that several changes are on the horizon for the brand, including moving the focus away from live animal attractions to more rides and virtual experiences. 

The Asssociated Press contributed to this report.