ORLANDO, Fla. – A veteran SeaWorld trainer was rubbing a killer whale from a poolside platform when the 12,000-pound creature reached up, grabbed her ponytail in its mouth and dragged her underwater. Despite workers rushing to help, the trainer was killed.
Horrified visitors who had stuck around after a noontime show watched the animal charge through the pool with the trainer in its jaws. Workers used nets as an alarm sounded, but it was too late. Dawn Brancheau had drowned. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.
The whale, named Tilikum, apparently grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail, according to the head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks, Chuck Tompkins. He told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that her ponytail swung out in front of the whale.
“That’s when the trainer next to him (Tilikum) said that he grabbed the hair, pulled her under water. And of course, held her under water,” Tompkins said.
SeaWorld’s Web site said the park would be open Thursday but that killer whale shows were suspended for the time being at its Orlando and San Diego parks. Its third location in San Antonio is not yet open for the season.
Brancheau’s interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first to audience member Eldon Skaggs. But then, the whale “pulled her under and started swimming around with her,” Skaggs told The Associated Press.
Some workers hustled the audience out of the stadium while the others tried to save Brancheau, 40.
Skaggs said he heard that during an earlier show the whale was not responding to directions. Others who attended the earlier show said the whale was behaving like an ornery child.
But Tompkins said the whale had performed well in the show and that Dawn was rubbing him down as a reward for doing a good job.
“There wasn’t anything to indicate to us that there was a problem,” Tompkins told the CBS “Early Show.”
Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV the whale “took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off.”
Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park’s 29 trainers worked with him. Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most. She was one of the park’s most experienced trainers overall.
“We recognized he was different,” said Tompkins. He said no decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tilikum, such as transferring him to another facility. SeaWorld has also suspended the killer whale shows at all of its parks, which also include locations in San Diego and San Antonio, to review procedures.
A SeaWorld spokesman said Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia.
Steve Huxter, who was head of Sealand’s animal care and training department then, said Wednesday he’s surprised it happened again. He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.
Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.
Brancheau’s older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer wouldn’t want anything done to the whale because she loved the animals like children. The trainer was married and didn’t have children.
“She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them,” said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. “They all had personalities, good days and bad days.”
Gross said the family viewed her sister’s death as an unfortunate accident, adding: “It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Dawn was the youngest of six children who grew up near Cedar Lake, Indiana. Her passion for marine life began at the age of nine, Gross said, on a family trip to Sea World.
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando’s leading trainers. Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending 10 years working with killer whales, the newspaper said.
She also addressed the dangers of the job.
“You can’t put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you,” Brancheau said.
Billy Hurley, chief animal officer at the Georgia Aquarium_ the world’s largest — said there are inherent dangers to working with orcas, just as there are with driving race cars or piloting jets.
“In the case of a killer whale, if they want your attention or if they’re frustrated by something or if they’re confused by something, there’s only a few ways of handling that,” he said. “If you’re right near pool’s edge and they decide they want a closer interaction during this, certainly they can grab you.”
And, he added: “At 12,000 pounds there’s not a lot of resisting you’re going to do.”
Mike Wald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency had dispatched an investigator from Tampa.
Wednesday’s death was not the first attack on whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld’s San Diego park.
The trainer, Kenneth Peters, escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot orca that attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld San Diego’s seven killer whales. She had attacked Peters two other times, in 1993 and 1999.
In 2004, another whale at the company’s San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also escaped.
Wednesday’s attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a whale and crushed his ribcage at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Park communications director Patricia Delponti said the whale, a 14-year-old named Keto, came from SeaWorld but is not a son of Tilikum.