Dawn Brancheau, 40, one of the most experienced trainers on SeaWorld’s books, was addressing guests at the “Dine with Shamu” poolside buffet when tragedy struck.
Initial reports were confused, stating that Brancheau had slipped or fallen into the tank before being attacked by the whale. But eyewitness reports emerged later, indicating the trainer was taken by the whale while she stood at the edge of the tank.
“The trainer was explaining different things about the whale and then the trainer that was down there walked away from the window. Then Tilly [Tilikum – the whale] took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing [her] around,” Victoria Biniak told WKMG TV.
“He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent.”
Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, later confirmed to Reuters: “She was rubbing the killer whale’s head, and [it] grabbed her and pulled her in [to the tank]”.
Brancheau died from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning” having been pulled underwater by her pony tail, Orlando County Sherrif’s Office told the Orlando Sentinel. “Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance” owing to the whale’s “aggressive nature.”
The 30-year-old bull killer whale, Tilikum, is so large and dangerous that SeaWorld Orlando trainers are instructed not to enter the tank with him. Indeed the beast has been implicated in two previous deaths.
Prior to being sold to SeaWorld, Tilikum was held at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. In February 1991, 20-year-old University of Victoria marine biology student Keltie Byrne was killed by three whales, one of them Tilikum, after she slipped and fell into their tank. SeaWorld purchased Tilikum from the Canadian facility in 1992; shortly thereafter, Sealand closed.
In 1999, the naked body of a man was found draped across Tilikum’s back at SeaWorld Orlando. Daniel Dukes had apparently slipped through security at the amusement park under cover of darkness, stripped, and had either jumped or fallen into the tank. The cause of his death was later found to be hypothermia and drowning, but Dukes’ body showed evidence he had been in the whale’s jaws.
With its sorry history of whale attacks on trainers, SeaWorld has been the subject of intense scrutiny, including mine, and the latest incident has prompted the WDCS, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Orlando Sentinel to renew calls for a moratorium on killer whale captivity.
The behaviour of these captive whales contrasts starkly with that of their wild counterparts, among whom there are no documented attacks on humans.
The contrast is most poignantly illuminated by the case of Luna, a killer whale abandoned by his pod in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The subject of a recent BBC Natural World documentary, Luna looked to humanity for companionship in the absence of his cetacean brethren.
He became totemic in a three-way struggle between the First Nations of British Coumbia, well-meaning Canadians who wished to relieve the loneliness they perceived in him, and conservation workers concerned that human contact would end in tragedy.
In the end, their worst fears were realised when Luna was killed by a tugboat propeller in March 2006.
The question now is whether Tilikum will pay a similarly heavy price for his association with humanity, an association that, unlike Luna’s, is entirely outside his control.
Update: Three options are open to SeaWorld: keep, release, or destroy Tilikum. Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, has ruled out euthanasia. When asked whether SeaWorld should release the killer whale into the wild, Tompkins answered, apparenly without irony: “I think it’s unfair to do that to an animal.”