ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - A SeaWorld killer whale snatched a trainer
from a poolside platform Wednesday in its jaws and thrashed the
woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified
audience. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in
a human death.
Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium
immediately, and the park was closed.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park's most
experienced. Her sister said Brancheau wouldn't want anything done
to the whale that killed her because she loved the animals like
Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum after a noontime show when the
12,000-pound whale grabbed her and pulled her in, said Chuck
Tompkins, head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks. It was not
clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
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.
"We recognized he was different," Tompkins said. He said no
decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tilikum, such
as transfering him to another facility.
A retired couple from Michigan told The Associated Press that
they were among some stragglers in the audience who had stayed to
watch the animals and trainers.
Eldon Skaggs, 72, said Brancheau's interaction with the whale
appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the whale
"pulled her under and started swimming around with her," he said.
Skaggs said an alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out
of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets.
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.
The couple left and didn't find out until later that the trainer
"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue
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."
Two other witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale
grabbed the woman by the upper arm and tossed her around in its
mouth while swimming rapidly around the tank. Brazilian tourist
Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho and his girlfriend were at an
underwater viewing area when they suddenly saw a whale with a
person in its mouth.
The couple said they watched the whale show at the park two days
earlier and came back to take pictures. But on Wednesday the whales
"It was terrible. It's very difficult to see the image,"
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
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
Later Wednesday, SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer
whale show. It was not clear if the killer whale show has been
suspended at SeaWorld's San Antonio location, which is closed until
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she
was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. It was a trip to
SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path.
"I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and
telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,"' she said in the
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
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.
Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer "would
not want anything done to that whale."
The trainer was married and didn't have children.
"She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of
them," said Gross, of Indiana. "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."
Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager at the Marine
Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida
Atlantic University, said the whale may have been playing, but it
is too early to tell.
"I wouldn't jump to conclusions," he said. "These are very
large powerful marine mammals. They exhibit this type of behavior
in the wild.
Tompkins, the SeaWorld head trainer, said of the whale: "We
have no idea what was going through his head."
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
In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater
several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San
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
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 officials
said the whale, a 14-year-old named Keto, made an unusual move as
the two practiced a trick in which the whale lifts the trainer and
leaps into the air.
Associated Press writers Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Laura Wides-Munoz
and David Fischer in Miami, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg and
Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)