Killer whale attacks trainer at Sea World Orlando

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Photo from Abbi Skipp via Flickr

Photo from Abi Skipp via Flickr

The news that Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando had been killed in an incident involving a killer whale had not reached many of the park’s visitors when SeaWorld San Diego announced that the killer whale shows were cancelled for Wednesday. Dave Koontz, spokesman for Sea World San Diego, stated that the shows have been cancelled for today and the park has yet to decide if shows will resume tomorrow.
Guests expressed concern that they were not notified why  “Believe: The Spectacular Shamu Show” had been cancelled because many were upset about the cancellations.
The incident that sparked these actions happened Wednesday afternoon at SeaWorld Orlando. There have been many conflicting reports about the nature of the accident. Some witnesses stated that it happened after a “Dine with Shamu” event, in which guests get a “behind the scenes” opportunity to dine poolside at the killer whale habitat. While the LA Times reports that it happened before the start of a public show. What has been confirmed by Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks, is that the killer whale named Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau as she rubbed the whale’s head from a platform and pulled her into the pool where she drowned.

Dawn Brancheau was 40 years old and was considered one of the most experienced training staff members at the park. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, about 24 people watched in horror as the whale grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail and pulled her underwater and started swimming around with her.

Witnesses have also reported that Tilikum turned the trainer over and over. A Brazilian tourist that was in the underwater viewing area when the accident happened, stated that he saw Brancheau bleeding from the face or mouth as the killer whale held her in its mouth. Paramedics later tried to revive Brancheau but she was pronounced dead at the scene at about 2 pm.

An alarm sounded and the spectators were immediately rushed out of the stadium area but the park was not fully evacuated at the time. Today the SeaWorld Orlando park is open but the Shamu show will be closed.

SeaWorld San Diego’s history has not been free of incidents involving killer whales. In 1971 SeaWorld secretary, Annette Eckis was allowed to ride the original Shamu for a publicity shoot. Suddenly the whale turned on her and tossed her into the water. She was eventually rescued and had to be treated for puncture wounds.

There were three incidents in 1984 in which whales attacked trainers, all during performances. There was one incident in 1986 when a killer whale named Kandu pinned a trainer against the wall for several seconds in front of a packed audience. In 1987, there were at least 14 SeaWorld trainers injured by killer whales. Including an accident where a 12,000 pound whale landed on top of trainer John Sillick during a show. That same year the president and two SeaWorld officials were fired. Incidents were also reported in 1999, 2002, 2006 and 2007 according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

Sea World San Diego has seven killer whales, three of which have been collected from the wild according to Dave Koontz. However, he did clarify that SeaWorld does not acquire the animals directly but from other marine parks. He also stated that Sea World has not collected any new animals for nearly 25 years. The other four whales were bred in captivity.

Tilikum, the whale at the center of this tragedy, was collected from the wild and has been involved in other deaths in the past. The 30 year old, 12,300 pound bull killer whale was one of three whales blamed for the drowning of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific park in British Columbia, Canada, back in 1991.

Tilikum was later sold to SeaWorld when Sealand closed. In 1999 SeaWorld officials in Orlando found the body of a naked man on Tilikum’s back. An investigation found that the man drowned after suffering from hypothermia in the 55 degree water. The man had snuck into the park or managed to stay inside after hours.

Dawn Brancheau had been working at SeaWorld Orlando since 1994. According to the Orlando Sentinel, she had known she had wanted to work there since she was nine years old. Brancheau’s sister told the Associated Press that the trainer “would not want anything done to the whale.” Chuck Tompkins said that he expects they will be keeping Tilikum for a very long time, according to the LA Times.

After this tragedy it is likely that many will reconsider whether it is wise to keep marine animals in captivity. PETA has long criticized Sea World’s practices and issued a statement asking the parks “to stop confining oceangoing animals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub. It is not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.”

Koontz stated that everyone at SeaWorld San Diego is very saddened by the events that took place yesterday and officials at the park are conducitng an investigation to ensure the safety of the trainers.

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