Tilikum, the killer whale linked to the deaths of three people, including a trainer in Victoria, has died at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.

The orca gained worldwide fame when it was profiled in the documentary Blackfish, which helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity.

In a statement on Friday, SeaWorld officials said Tilikum died but did not give a cause of death. The whale had suffered from serious health issues, including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection.

A necropsy will be performed, according to the statement.

"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 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 the Orlando park. He arrived there about 25 years ago.

He was estimated to be 36 years old and was noticeable for his size at more than 6.7 metres and 5,300 kilograms.

Paul Spong, founder of the OrcaLab research station on northern Vancouver Island, followed Tilikum's life.

​"In a way it comes as a relief. Tilikum has been in captivity for such a long time," he said. "His life, I would characterize it as a total misery in many ways."

Trainer killed in Victoria

Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada after being captured.

"He was kept right at the beginning in terrible circumstances in a tiny pool while his captors tried to sell him," Spong said.

While at Sealand in 1991, 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.

Documentary ended orca breeding

SeaWorld Entertainment officials announced in March 2016 that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding program and theatrical shows involving killer whales.

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.

The documentary argued that killer whales, when in captivity, become more aggressive toward humans and each other.

"It is because of Blackfish the movie that we really are in a situation today where people are understanding that it is totally inappropriate to keep orcas in captivity," Spong said.

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 dipped, the company faced falling profits and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year relationship with the theme park company.

SeaWorld CEO acknowledged that the public's attitude had changed about keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca breeding program.

"We needed to move where society was moving," Manby said in 2016.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Tilikum and two female orcas were responsible for the death of a part-time trainer in Victoria in 1992. In fact, the death occurred in 1991.
    Jan 06, 2017 3:59 PM PT