Infamous orca Tilikum dies in Florida

He was linked to the deaths of two people, maybe three. But Tilikum, who died Friday, was always the favourite orca at Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay.

“There was just something about him,” said Steve Huxter, Tilikum’s former Sealand trainer.

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“If any of us went down to the pool and all three [orcas] were just swimming around, Tilikum would almost always be the first one to come over and reach you.”

Tilikum died at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he had been held for 25 years. He spent eight years in Oak Bay, until involved in the 1991 drowning of a young trainer.

Officials did not give a cause of death, but said in a statement that Tilikum faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The statement said a necropsy will be performed on the orca, which weighed nearly 5,500 kilograms.

SeaWorld president Joel Manby said Tilikum was cared for by a team of people at the facility in Orlando.

“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,” he said in a statement.

SeaWorld said the 36-year-old orca “was near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales, according to independent scientific review.”

Tilikum, the focus of the 2013 film Blackfish, a documentary indictment of keeping marine mammals in captivity, was associated with the deaths of three people — two trainers and an after-hours trespasser who wanted to swim with whales.

When Huxter met him in 1984, Tilikum was a juvenile. He had been captured near Iceland, then spent about a year in a tank learning to take food from trainers, but little else. For the trip to Oak Bay, he was smeared in lanolin cream to protect his skin, then loaded on a plane.

“It struck me that this animal had been ripped out of the ocean, put in a strange environment, then after a time he was removed from the water in a sling, covered in goo and then flown to Victoria,” Huxter said. “It must have been traumatizing.”

But instead of reacting with fear or anger when approached by human trainers, the young orca was quite friendly.

“He was open, gentle and receptive, and he would interact,” said Huxter, who worked with Tilikum for eight years. “It took me by surprise and struck me that very first day.”

As the lone male and initially the smallest of the three orcas at Sealand, Tilikum was often attacked. The other whales, two females, would rake his sides bloody with their teeth and bite his fins, earning the young male sympathy from trainers.

Sympathy turned to horror on Feb. 20, 1991, when Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine biology student, slipped and fell into the pool. The three whales batted Byrne about until she drowned.

The following year, all three whales were shipped to SeaWorld. Sealand of the Pacific closed shortly afterward.

Peter Hamilton of Vancouver-based Lifeforce, which has fought against putting whales in captivity for decades, said he predicted after Byrne’s death that Tilikum would kill other people. He said his group made recommendations in response to an inquest into Byrne’s death, and advised SeaWorld against putting people in the pool with the whale.

Hamilton credited Tilikum for raising awareness of the dangers of keeping whales in captivity after the orca attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 during a live show before a horrified audience.

The whale grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail and pulled her into the water. Video footage shows the whale keeping the 40-year-old woman away from the pool side and repeatedly leaping from the water to come down on her. Her back and jaw were broken and her arms dislocated.

Huxter said he and other trainers still wonder what happened to set Tilikum off.

“We were all saying the same thing: ‘What happened to Tilikum?’ and: ‘What made him that way?’ ” he said. “He was always so gentle and so eager to interact and full of fun and playfulness.”

He said the obvious aggression in the SeaWorld incident was different from the one in Oak Bay, which he characterized as “highly excited play behaviour.”

The whale was also involved in the 1999 death of a man who snuck into the SeaWorld facility past security and jumped or was pulled into the pool. The naked body of Daniel Dukes was found draped over Tilikum’s back.

Last March, six years after Brancheau’s death and three years after the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld announced it would end its whale breeding program.

Huxter, who never again worked with marine mammals, spent a great deal of time watching Sealand’s three orcas and became convinced they all had rich inner lives and didn’t deserve to be confined.

“I realized they are highly intelligent and highly emotional creatures,” he said. “They feel fear. They feel frustration. They feel anger. They feel happiness. They feel all the things that we feel. So as time went on, I just started to think: ‘Why are we keeping animals like this in this small space in these conditions?’ ”

He never sought to reunite with Tilikum.

“I pretty much soured on the whole business,” he said. “I know how much these animals suffer, so I wasn’t going to go and watch them suffer.”

“I doubt very much if Tilikum would have even remembered who I am, anyway,” he said. “Sometimes I have liked to think otherwise, but probably not.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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