The former Oak Bay orca Tilikum, famous for his showmanship and infamous for trainer deaths, died early this morning.
He was surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians who provided him care, SeaLand said in a statement announcing the death.
“Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings,” the statement said.
The male orca moved from Oak Bay’s Sealand of the Pacific to SeaWorld Orlando, Florida in January 1992.
“This is sad in a way, but I also feel a huge sense of relief, Tilikum is finally free,” said Tim Johnston of C-Tow Marine, who watched the whales at SeaLand from the age of 12. “My family had a boat at Oak Bay Marina, right next to Sealand. From the upper bridge of our boat the Loki, we could watch Tilikum, Haida and Nootka perform their jumps and tricks. After a while I could recite the entire show. I always recognized they didn’t belong there, but I learned to respect their intelligence and power.”
Bill Smith raised his family just blocks from Sealand and had passes for all four of his children who visited regularly.
“Over the years Haida, Tilikum and Miracle all were their friends. Their eyes and noses were just inches away everyday,” Smith said. “I will let them know Tilikum will now never be released into the Icelandic pod from where he was cruelly stolen from his mother. Perhaps now he is finally free.”
Sealand of the Pacific closed in the wake of the first trainer death attributed to Tilikum – the drowning of 21-year-old Keltie Byrne.
The late Bob Wright, who built Sealand in Oak Bay in 1980, told the Oak Bay News in 2011 he remembered Byrne as “a beautiful young lady.”
Tilikum was responsible for two more deaths at Seaworld – in 1999 a guest evaded security and stayed in the orca enclosure overnight and was found dead in the morning, and SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
“When the trainer at Sealand was killed it started the beginning of the end of orcas in captivity,” Johnston said. “Hopefully with Tilikum’s passing and the attention he brought, good or bad, we are one step closer.”
SeaWorld still has 22 orcas at its three facilities in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Estimated to be about 36 years old, Tilikum was near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales.
Tilikum, who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, profiled in the documentary Blackfish that helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity.
Blackfish also featured one of Tilikum’s early trainers, Oak Bay resident Steve Huxter, who trained the animals until the day Sealand closed.
Huxter, like most, wasn’t overly surprised by news of Tilikum’s death, given his well-publicized battle with a bacterial infection. But the news struck him as both bittersweet and sad.
“He was such a great animal, so eager to interact, he was a favourite among all the staff at Sealand,” Huxter said.
He recalled his first impression in 1984 when Tilikum arrived from Iceland by plane, was trucked across the Saanich Peninsula and dropped in a pool in the middle of the night.
“I was there with a bucket full of fish and he looked at me and just swam over. I expected fear and distrust and he just opened his mouth and said ‘thanks for the fish buddy,’” Huxter said. “It was a cathartic moment for me.”
Huxter was a new and fairly young trainer at the time, but would go on to serve as head trainer at Sealand in short order.
“It was an eye-opening experience. From that point on I started wondering ‘what are these animals all about?’” Huxter said. “I started to think about their emotions and what kind of emotions do they really have. My perceptions started to change.”
Huxter was interviewed for Blackfish after Brancheau died. He was appalled at the aggression Tilikum showed.
“It was not the Tilikum we knew; it was a completely different animal,” Huxter said. “Maybe there’s no good environment in captivity. That’s what really started me on the advocacy movement. It’s just not right. Keeping them in captivity deprives them of a life they deserve.”
Huxter has held a number of animal advocacy roles, most recently as a representative of Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society. UWSS programs include its Deer Plan Oak Bay, a bid to apply immunocontraceptives to Oak Bay does to diminish deer population.
“The story of Tilikum has changed the world of animal welfare to a huge degree. It probably even had an effect on how many people didn’t want deer killed in Oak Bay … it developed a lot of empathy for animals,” Huxter said. “We’re glad that Tilikum’s suffering has come to an end because life in captivity is so boring for animals,” he said. “Life in the wild, they’re constantly traveling, hunting and playing. In captivity, Tilikum especially, he just floats around the pool.”