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Tilikum is dead. The orca made famous in the 2013 documentary Blackfish was two years old when he was seized in the open waters off Iceland in 1983 and had lived in small tanks ever since. He died today at SeaWorld Orlando, where he’d been held in captivity for the final 24 years of his life. It was last March that SeaWorld announced the orca had a drug-resistant bacterial lung infection, though the official cause of death has yet to be announced.
I researched Tilikum for my 2013 book Bleating Hearts, and in doing so I learned much about orcas. I discovered that in the wild they can live to be 100 years old or more. (Tilikum was 36 when he died.) Highly social animals, orcas are especially vulnerable when restricted to tiny spaces like aquarium tanks and pools. These are some of the largest predators on Earth, reaching up to 32 feet in length. They travel as far as 100 miles in a single day and have been known to suffer depression when deprived of their family and the stimulation of life at sea.
A clue to the toll confinement takes on killer whales can be easily seen in their dorsal fins. In nature, these sleek, black fins stand straight and high, while in captivity, the dorsal fin of all adult males and many adult females collapses, or droops over to one side—a byproduct of the orca spending a lifetime near the water’s surface, though scientists are unsure why this phenomenon occurs.
In 2010, Tilikum killed his “trainer” at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau. Dawn was not the first human death Tilikum was responsible for (he’d killed a part-time trainer while being held at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, and then a visitor who’d slipped into the pool after hours at SeaWorld Orlando in 1999), and SeaWorld should have recognized both the psychological stress Tili was under and the danger of allowing park employees to be in the water with him.
Dawn’s death eventually led to the documentary Blackfish, which focuses on Tilikum. The film was shown on CNN and Netflix, resulting in a public outcry against captivity that SeaWorld could not ignore. Attendance at the park plummeted—along with revenue—and the company was forced to make changes. Clearly, were it not for Tilikum and Blackfish, today it would be business as usual at SeaWorld. Instead, the company has agreed to phase out its orca performances and halt its orca breeding program.
There are scores of orcas in captivity worldwide, and we can do better for them than simply waiting for them to die.
What You Can Do:
Never visit a marine park or the other enterprise that keeps marine mammals (or other animals, for that matter) in captivity. Ask family and friends not to visit, either.
Join the efforts of activists who campaign against animal captivity. Groups such as CompassionWorks International and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society focus their work on animals in captivity and assist others doing the same.
Support efforts to “retire” orcas from parks like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium and release them into seaside sanctuaries. Click here for more information.
Sign the petition to make the results of Tilikum’s autopsy public. Doing so will help ensure SeaWorld is transparent about how and why Tilikum died.
Help the Southern Resident killer whale population. These endangered orcas are suffering from a lack of salmon to feed on thanks to hydro-electric dams on the Snake River in Idaho. Click here for actions you can take.
Learn more about Tilikum and other orcas in captivity. Watch Blackfish, which is available on Netflix, or purchase a copy of the film on DVD. Hold a screening for your family and friends.
I also recommend you follow advocates actively working on behalf of orcas in captivity, including Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center; former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, and Jeffrey Ventre; Paige Nelson; Dr. Ingrid Visser; and the Orca Project.