The Legacy of Tilikum

Reflecting on the Death of the Blackfish Whale 

In a Nutshell

McKenna Helfenberger

February 17th, 2017

Tilikum a resident of Orlando’s SeaWorld caught the world’s attention when we heard the news of the death of one of his trainers at the SeaWorld facility. The killer whale was featured in a documentary titled “Blackfish” where they examined what lead to the attack of a senior trainer, shedding light on the treatment of killer whales in captivity.


This January a statement was released of the death of Tilikum, revealing the whale featured in “Blackfish” suffered from an infection found in natural and wild habitats. The confirmed cause of death will be released after a necropsy has been completed. The whale was kept in captivity for 25 years and was estimated to be 36 years old.


The statement released reminds us, “While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it’s important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species.”


“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,” said the president of SeaWorld, Joel Manby. Pressure from the San Diego Sea World following the release of the documentary lead to the end of the killer whale performances at their location.


Tilikum’s trainer had said in March that the orca whale had contracted an infection. The trainer believed this was the source of his eventual death. The whale was a major part of SeaWorld’s breeding program, discontinued this last year. There are still 22 orca whales contained in the Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego locations.


The documentary showed the impact on the whales well-being and psyche when removing the orca whales from their pods and natural habitat. Other abuses from other organizations were also found: Tilikum was kept in a small enclosure with two dominant females and was regularly abused by the larger female whales.


The film addressed the death of SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau. It showed instances when the whale demonstrated significant issues with mental health and aggression. Notably Tilikum has been connected to two other deaths of Keltie Byrne and P. Dukes. According to the movie, Tilikum was also responsible of two other trainer deaths. These took place earlier in 1991 and 1999.


Tilikum was involved with three deaths. Why did SeaWorld not stop using Tilikum in their training program? There were many examples of this whale being highly unstable. Marine biologist Ken Balcomb was quoted, “Tilikum is basically Psychotic.” Tilikum was taken as a young whale from his pod. His circumstances raised the question,  what mental harm came from this? What do these highly intelligent animals suffer when they are ripped from their natural habitat in the wild?


The SeaWorld company lead many people to misinformation. SeaWorld’s public imagine and behind the scenes were drastically different. The whales who are accustomed to thousands of miles of ocean are not suited to be kept in small exhibits. Many whales while captive sustained injuries by other whales, and were found with their flanks covered in marks from the teeth of the other captives.


The movie Blackfish does contain a bias slant but they brought to light the negligence of SeaWorld. The documentary showed the countless times that the trainers and patrons were put in danger, which SeaWorld ignored. The SeaWorld organization provided misinformation that mislead the public and they employees. The Blackfish documentary brought to light the atrocities that the company committed.


The legacy of Tilikum does impact the other orca shows. Sea World must look at the ramifications of keeping and breeding killer whales in captivity and taking them from their natural habitat. The effect on their mental and physical health needs to be investigated. Tilikum is only one of the instances where there was mistreatment of these creatures. The narrative of Tilikum will affect decisions of the orca program.