Killer Whale attack at SeaWorld claims trainer

February 24, 2010, 1:33 PM · A SeaWorld killer whale attacked and killed a trainer after the Believe show (popularly known as the "Shamu" show) at SeaWorld Orlando today, according to multiple reports coming into Theme Park Insider.

The trainer was interacting with one of the whales after the show when when the attack occurred. The area was immediately evacuated and Orange County authorities called to the scene.

Please post additional details in the comments, if you were on the scene.

Update: The trainer was Dawn Brancheau, and we join with our readers and theme park fans everywhere in sending our condolences to her family. SeaWorld has closed the Believe and Dine With Shamu shows at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego, pending an investigation.

The whale, Tillikum, has been connected with two other deaths, including the drowning of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada in 1991 and the drowning of a SeaWorld trespasser in 1999. None of the trainers ever went into the water with Tillikum, given both his size and history, but that safeguard apparently was not enough to protect Dawn today.

Replies (90)

February 24, 2010 at 1:47 PM · I think seaworld's unsavoury mistreatment of wild animals is the tragedy.
The orca was playing, and probably responding to being starved into training and performing.
February 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM · Say what you will about SeaWorld and the dangers of working with live animals, but having met with the trainers in the past, the one thing you cannot say about their animals is that they are starving. The animals are very well fed and their diets constantly monitored.
February 24, 2010 at 1:56 PM · This is STUNNING!
February 24, 2010 at 1:58 PM · Sad news, but they are still wild animals at the end of the day, really surprised it hasn't happened more in past.
February 24, 2010 at 2:02 PM · This is a great tragedy, my thoughts to the family and friends of the trainer.
February 24, 2010 at 2:05 PM · Wow! this is terrible and shocking. Killer Whales are just what their name describes and maybe Sea World may start considering just staying with dolphins and sea Lions. Didn't this happen in San Antonio not too long ago? Just imagine how it must have been in the stadium when the attack started. This is just sad news.
February 24, 2010 at 2:06 PM · Unfortunately they're called Killer Whale for a reason! Such terrible news... My sympathies to her family and friends.
February 24, 2010 at 2:11 PM · Shocking news, my thoughts go out to everyone at SeaWorld and most importantly to the family of the victim.
February 24, 2010 at 2:12 PM · I'm curious to know how the attack took place. I haven't been to SWO for several years and have yet to see this incarnation of the Shamu show, but don't the trainers introduce the show from the show platform? Did the whale beach itself on the platform and claim the trainer? How terrorfying if that was the case. Not to sound morbid, but I would be curious in seeing any video as to how the events took place. I certainly would not want to go back into those waters if I was one of the remaining trainers in that show.
February 24, 2010 at 2:18 PM · Orlando Sentinel has a good piece of info on the attack. This whale has been in trouble before
February 24, 2010 at 3:01 PM · Marine biologist Naomi Rose, speaking on Orlando Channel 13 about the whale, this is the third time this whale has had a problem: "Put him in again, this is just going to happen again."
February 24, 2010 at 2:28 PM · We have just got back from Seaworld, and we were at the 12:30 show. They stopped the show half way through as the "Whales were not playing ball", but we were totally unaware that this had happened.

I think it must have happened after the main show, and we were in the park for a further hour and we heard nothing. The first that we knew was when we turned on the tv.

Totally shocked and thank the lord that we didn't see this horrible tragedy.

So so sad, poor lady.

February 24, 2010 at 3:01 PM · People at the park were reporting to Channel 13's Amanda Evans that they knew something wasn't right, that the whales were acting strange and wouldn't do tricks like splashing the crowd.
February 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM · I know it is the symbol of SeaWorld, but I think it is time to retire the Shamu show. Killer Whales were not meant to be confined to such a small area. There will inevitably be another problem in the future.

One wonders if Blackstone will initiate major changes given their history. I doubt they're pleased at such a tragedy in the infancy of their ownership.

My heartfelt condolences go to the trainer's friends and family.

February 24, 2010 at 2:43 PM · Let's make sure everyone is CLEAR about Naomi Rose's assertions. The whale did not ATTACK anyone previously (as if they were "prey". The whale was involved in a show where a trainer was taken underwater for a prolonged period resulting in drowning. The whale also happened to be around during the death of a man who had hid in the park and then, after closing, thought it was a good idea to swim in the killer whale tank. His cause of death was determined to be hypothermia and NOT due to an attack.

From me to Ms. Rose, "SHUT UP!"

As I have posted here before Merlin/Blackwell's company policies have always dictated that animals in their attractions should be DISPLAYED but not be a part of PERFORMANCE.

After the fall out of this tragedy, one hopes the company will re-think its business model.

And, frankly, while we offer our condolences to the family and friends of the trainer who was lost, our hearts go out to the surviving trainers and the animals who have created a bond in an environment that is decidedly artificial.

February 24, 2010 at 3:06 PM · UPDATE: According to a brief press conference held at 4:35 p.m. Orlando time: at around 2 p.m. a 40-year-old female trainer who was in the whale holding area slipped and fell into the tank and was "fatally injured by the whale," according to Jim Solomons of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Sea World spokesman Dan Brown called the trainer "One of our most experienced trainers."
February 24, 2010 at 2:51 PM · The whale was a 12,300-pound orca.
February 24, 2010 at 2:52 PM · I would really like to add that the whales were not acting violently during the show at all! All those people saying that you could sense something wrong is rubbish! The first we knew that the Whales were not cooperating was when the trainer presenting the show told us that part of the show was going to be dropped.

To be honest I am a little bit shocked at the way the news is being presented on the TV here in orlando. Being a brit on holiday, my take on things was always going to be a little different. But I can't get over how much the media is speculating and not giving hard truthful facts, something we do not get in the british media.

This terrible accident must have happened after the main "believe" show, and it is heartbreaking!

February 24, 2010 at 3:01 PM · You got to love the media. The first reports where that Orca jumped out of the water to grab a trainer, and shook her violently. Now the police are saying she slipped and fell in. Yes these are wild animals, but the facts are there are zero, 0, documented attacks of Orcas on humans in the wild.
February 24, 2010 at 3:03 PM · This incident is AMAZINGLY like the incident where this same whale killed the trainer at Sealand in Victoria BC, Canada. She drowned but had been thrown around like a toy. It was speculated that because her shirt was the same color as a toy ball the whales had the whale thought he WAS playing with the ball.
February 24, 2010 at 3:11 PM · Channel 13 reporting that the other incidents with this particular whale include one on Feb. 21, 1991 at British Columbia, where a trainer was dragged, repeatedly submerged and drowned. The other was July 5, 1999, when a man hid inside after the park closed, then jumped into the pool with the whale and was killed.
February 24, 2010 at 3:13 PM · My dad came home from work initially claiming "Shamu at someone today". Then he further explained that wasn't exactly the case, but that someone was killed and that's all he heard. I'll be interested to learn more about this, but it's definitely sad.
February 24, 2010 at 3:15 PM · According to Sea World's website, Believe was only scheduled for 12:30 and 6:30, so it sounds like the most recent update checks out. This is consistent with yesterday's schedule, so it's doubtful they changed the website as a preemptive form of damage control.

It sounds like the media folks may have found themselves an attention wh*re (wow, can't believe we can't use the "w" word!) to give everyone a sound bite that has little to no relation to reality. There's a vast difference in a trainer falling into the water and a whale inexplicably revving up and jumping out of the water to grab them (which sounds about as plausible as the ending of Jaws: The Revenge).

This is a sad day and I feel horrible for the trainer and her family. That said, Sea World needs to be as open as possible as quickly as possible to stop the misinformation from being spread.

And as an aside to the anonymous poster who talked about how this was to be expected because the animals are abused and starved: you're misinformed. If you've ever known any of the trainers at Sea World, you would know that most of them LOVE the animals they work with and wouldn't allow any such abuse to take place. It's a shame that some folks perpetuate these (unverified) stories that make the folks at Sea World sound like cliched mustache-twirling circus elephant trainers mercilessly brandishing their boom stick.

February 24, 2010 at 3:17 PM · There was only two shows today, I can confirm that.
February 24, 2010 at 3:18 PM · There's zero evidence the man in 1999 was "killed" by a whale. The autopsy listed the cause of death as hypothermia.
February 24, 2010 at 3:42 PM · The Orlando Sentinel reported that the name of the whale is Tillikum, nicknamed "Tilly."
February 24, 2010 at 3:48 PM · Why did and how could this happen? It is so very sad someone had to die like this.
February 24, 2010 at 3:49 PM · Was this whale directly involved in the '91 incident or did it happen to be in the tank at the time? '99 is a throw away, even if the whales killed the man, he had no place being in that tank with those enormous predatory animals. Two direct involvements in an incident is cause for concern, even if they are nearly 20 years apart.
February 24, 2010 at 3:53 PM · Channel 13 just interviewed a woman who said she had seen the show, and that "there was nothing out of the ordinary during the performance" but that when watching the whales down by the glass windows in the back area after the show, she said she saw a trainer in the water, and the whale circling around and hitting the trainer hard in the solar plexis by the whale. When the witness realized this was not ordinary, she tried to get her children, and others, away from the window, and shortly later, Sea World workers were ushering everyone out. She said this was not in the main pool.
February 24, 2010 at 3:54 PM · I live in San Diego and was there some years ago to see a trainer injured -- at that time our whale pushed him against a wall and held him there. We also lost a beautiful whale in our park in an accident where she broke her jaw leaving her fledging baby motherless. These incidents are very rare and always distressing. Sometimes the result is a change in training tactics (food levels etc.) and sometimes let's face it, the whales are just uncomfortable or downright cranky that day and there is nothing to be done. This trainer obviously loved her job and the whales or she would not have been there. It is sad but also a known risk when working with wild animals. I'm very sorry for her family and wish them comfort.
February 24, 2010 at 4:00 PM · Back in '99, it was reported that the orca in question wasn't trained (i.e., Sea World picked him up for stud services). Did that ever change? If the orca wasn't used to trainers being in the water with him, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. It seems crazy to think that they wouldn't try to train him over the course of ten years, but maybe that just wasn't his purpose.

Link to the 1999 story

February 24, 2010 at 4:03 PM · This is a terribly sad incident, and I agree with the majority of views on here. I however, dont like the fact people refer to Orcas as 'killer' whales as if the cold blooded killers, killer whales comes from killer of whales.

Back to point though, my thoughts go out to the family of the trainer and her colleagues at Seaworld...anyway you look at it this is a lose lose situation...very sad.

February 24, 2010 at 4:09 PM · The '99 story makes more sense now when piecing this all together, especially after the account of todays attack happening in the backstage area. Clearly this whales social graces amongst humans has not been as cultured as it's peers have. It doesn't make what has happened any more acceptable, but it certainly sheds like on as to why this may have happened.
February 24, 2010 at 4:13 PM · By the way, I wanted to thank my wife, Laurie, who's been posting the updates for me while I'm on the road. (She posted all the updates with my name above this one, and after the first response labeled from me in this thread - logged on as me, though.)
February 24, 2010 at 4:16 PM · I was at Seaworld Orlando just last month and the show is remarkable - the animals are revered and treated with the utmost respect and care. Believe is a wonderful show that does a wonderful job portraying orcas as majestic animals that bond with people, but at the same time, they are highly social animials. During one show while i was there there was a delay in starting the show because the orcas were not ready to go on. They came out and told the crowd that they may have to delay the show unless the animals decided that they wanted to do the show. This is a most unfortunate incident. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victim.
February 24, 2010 at 4:21 PM · So was that last post Robert or is his wife now thanking herself?
February 24, 2010 at 4:34 PM · I have to wonder if this was an "attack", as the media wants to label it, or if it was simply an accident. The whales are somewhat playful with the trainers, and yes occasionally agressive. Just speculating here, but if the trainer slipped and fell in, the the whale may have been "playing" with her roughly.
February 24, 2010 at 4:40 PM · The name of the trainer was realased: Dawn Branshew (sorry for spelling). I am concerned because she might be a friend of a friend of my grandfather.
February 24, 2010 at 4:50 PM · Grrrr! MSNBC is still reporting that the incident happened "in front of a horrified audience." Now back to curling...
February 24, 2010 at 4:43 PM · Yes, sorry for the spelling, Dawn Brancheau is right! Thanks for the correction.
February 24, 2010 at 4:47 PM · NBC Nightly News is stating the trainers name is Dawn Brancheau. Thoughts and prayers go out to those who know her, but also those who saw this happen.
February 24, 2010 at 5:03 PM · FREE TILLY The people who think it is fun to watch a lonely imprisoned animal do tricks are to blame, not Tilly.
February 24, 2010 at 5:27 PM · Last I had heard, the incident did happen in front of an audience, just not the Believe audience. The trainer was speaking to a group in a "lunch with Shamu" dining experience which is held at the small observation pool off of the main auditorium area. She lost her balance and fell off the rocky area where she was standing (and where the trainers typically stand when doing training with the whales in that pool) and Tilli was "playing" with her. This same whale has not been socialized with humans - none of the trainers swim with him for just this purpose. He has caused accidents before, once in BC when he played with a trainer too hard and killed her, and again with the crazy guy who thought he'd swim with Shamu and was found dead in the pool the next day. The reason no one swims with this particular whale is because he was not trained from birth to swim with humans. He doesn't know his own strength, or the limitations of human swimmers. The other whales in the show begin their training at an early age; trainers are in the water with them from the time they're born, and they have much better understanding of what they can and can not do when swimming with our species. Tilli did not.
February 24, 2010 at 5:30 PM · Sorry, Diane - what I mean is they (the media) show a nice wide shot of Shamu Stadium - it's presented as if it happened in front of a full stadium.
February 24, 2010 at 5:42 PM · Horrible news. =(

FWIW, my sympathies and condolences are extended to everyone involved. It would be a much better world if tragedies like this one NEVER happened.

February 24, 2010 at 6:30 PM · Very unfortunate indeed. My personal Prayers, and Condolences to her family, friends, and fellow co-workers at SeaWorld Orlando...
February 24, 2010 at 6:48 PM · Greetings everyone, Robert is back to himself and so am I!
February 24, 2010 at 6:57 PM · It was the friend of the family which I feared (actually my grandfather's friend's daughter), but I really didn't know her. Its really sad and was big news here in Chicago.

From the last that I heard, it was the "Lunch with Shamu" event that this tragedy happened.

The sickening thing is while searching for it, PETA had to rub it in on their site. Truely terrible! I can't believe they went there so fast! Likely the first no named poster was from there~

February 24, 2010 at 6:57 PM · I'm very sad to hear about that trainer; my heart goes out to her family.

Just one more correction, though. Not only are those "killer whales" more properly called "orcas," they are not actually whales. They are a type of dolphin.

As another side note, here in the Pacific Northwest where they live in the wild, the males' dorsal fins don't flop over like they do in captivity. The last I heard, nobody really knows why that happens when they live in a tank.

But, once more and to the point, this is a very sad day for all concerned.

February 24, 2010 at 7:43 PM · I am wondering what will happen to Tilly,the whale. After being involved with so many incidents is it time for them to say that she is not able to perform anymore and euthanize her ( I hope not!) or will a trusted trainer work with her to help her become less violent? Fingers crossed for option 2!
February 24, 2010 at 8:35 PM · Very sad news….
Unfortunately they will have to do something with Tilly… Sad ending for both the Trainer and Orca.. RIP…
February 24, 2010 at 8:52 PM · As tragic as it may be, and I do say this with great honesty and sympathy, I am truly sad for the trainers family; however, this is a 12,000 pound WILD animal. Wild animals have a mind of their own and I think that that is overlooked way too much. The whales may be fed and taken care of properly but that doesn't ensure their overall happiness. A whale was NEVER meant to be captivated, as with many animals that humans have manipulated into domestication. If Tilikum has killed before, why the heck wasn't he released after the first incident??? Do people not think about anything?
February 24, 2010 at 9:00 PM · People should have quit when they were ahead. Dogs should have been the last to be domesticated. It's no surprise this has happened, what's surprising is that it hasnt happened more often. Not every animal God put on the Earth is intended to be in captivity. The world is getting ridiculous.
February 24, 2010 at 9:03 PM · Seaworld confirmed that the trainer was pulled in to the water, not slipped as the police reported, and also confirmed that he (Yes, he, not she) will not be "Put down".
February 24, 2010 at 9:15 PM · As someone who worked for Seaworld in the past and had the pleasure to meet the trainer in question, Dawn, this is sad news. Dawn was one of the cool trainers who didn't look down at the operations employees and would happily talk to us.

Now for the record, trainers don't get into the water with Tilly (at least they didn't back between 96-00, I can't see that changing). He has training but due to the past problems with him in a BC park where an inexperienced trainer was killed. From the previous Shamu shows he was mainly for jumping and splashing from what I can remember.

I may not like some things about Seaworld but I can say those animals are the most spoiled, pampered things I've ever seen. In my next life, I plan to come back as a fat and pampered Sealion! Now aside from that, No people shouldn't be in the water with some of the animals but these trainers ALL know the risks and they love their animals. They accept that and happily go to work, talk with a trainer sometime.

February 24, 2010 at 10:07 PM · Thoughts and prayers to the family and friends.

I'm not a huge fan of animal tricks. Captivity for the purpose of observation and education is one thing, but to make them do back-flips while playing crappy music has never much entertained me. I'm not a PETA supporter by any means, but these shows really don't serve much of a purpose, and, frankly, aren't nearly as entertaining as some of the exhibits or rides.

On that note, I find it upsetting that this and the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Olympics are the hottest tragedies circling the news right now, yet many Haitians continue to die in the earthquake tragedies every day. Two deaths, both in fields involving voluntary dangerous activities, are seemingly more important than the deaths of regular civilians who couldn't prevent their fates.

February 24, 2010 at 10:16 PM · It is unfortunate that a trainer at Sea World past away. However, can we all try to remember that trained or not Orcas are wild animals! They are not meant to be kept in captivity! I do understand trying to save an animal from an injury. And I have seen the show in Orlando. Being that Orcas are my favorite animals, I did enjoy the show. But not one second went by where I didn't wonder how these beautiful animals would feel if they were not kept in aquariums. Also, let's remember how big and powerful these animals are. So, are we really shocked that someone was killed?
February 25, 2010 at 2:42 AM · My condolences to the family of the deceased.

Wild animals in captivity and as part of performance entertainment is always going to be a contentious issue. It comes as no great surprise that the Media are flapping in typical knee-jerk reaction to this terrible event. However, as a fellow Brit mentioned already, they need to take a step back, get all the information and then make a more considered response.

It is an extremely sensitive story and needs careful handling. We don't need lynch-mob coverage.

I'd just like to thank both Robert and Laurie Niles for presenting the story in an intelligent and sympathetic manner.

February 25, 2010 at 7:35 AM · You can tell the media has really picked up on this. I am currently in VA and saw it on the news twice last night. It is very sad and I feel for the person's family and the other trainers who now have to decide how to go forward. I doubt the whale set out to kill..... Whales don't usually come across as vicious like a crocodile or something..... but I was not there and am kind of glad as that would have been a depressing day at the park. I am curious as to what the other trainers take on this story is. Remember when the tiger got one of the guys (I forget their names.... ) and he defended the tiger after it attacked him? Obviously whether to be mad at the whale or not we all would be sad for the loss of someone's life though.
February 25, 2010 at 7:38 AM · Rob P said it best for me. Anthony, I pray that your grandfather can help this family during this horrible time. Truly a sad and scary situation.
February 25, 2010 at 8:06 AM · Yes, it does now appear as if Tilli did pull Dawn into the water, not a "slip and fall" as was previously being reported by Sea World. It's difficult in these situations to get the facts straight, and I don't fault SW for misinforming under the circumstances.

I do feel it necessary to point out one very major misconception that people seem to have about this "attack." Tilli has been in trouble before simply because he does not understand his own strength. He was not "attacking" Dawn because he was angry, or frustrated at being held in captivity, or hungry or abused, or any of the other reasons being bantered about. Tilli was playing. This is how orcas and whales play with one another in the wild. They nip at each other, bite, roll, and push each other under the water. That's why the trainers don't swim with him. He forgets that humans can't do those behaviors and survive (or he never learned that). Sea World felt that it was safe for the trainers to interact with him, as long as they stayed out of the water. It appears as if in interacting with him this time, Tilli decided that he wanted Dawn to play more aggressively and pulled her in. It is common orca behavior to breach or even jump out of the water to claim their prey, and I suspect he just got too exhuberant and grabbed Dawn. I've seen up close how affectionate the orcas are with their trainers and how the trainers feel about the orcas, and I don't doubt that this was in fact a horrible accident, and not a vicious attack by a deranged animal.

Tilli will not be put down. He's not only a protected animal, but a valuable sire to most if not all of the current offspring, and in addition, Dawn wouldn't have wanted her friend destroyed. What will most likely happen is that he'll either be placed in a tank somewhere for viewing only, or be put under observation in another facility. He will probably miss the human interactions. Orcas, being of the dolphin family, do actually enjoy the interaction.

February 25, 2010 at 8:44 AM · The Whale should be taken back to Sea.......I hate the thought of it because of the way man kills these wonderful creatures, but being cooped up in a tank is not acceptable either ............let it go , let it be free.
February 25, 2010 at 9:10 AM · It would be a terrible loss if they put the animal down. But clearly, he won't be doing anymore shows.
February 25, 2010 at 9:40 AM · My only experience with Sea World is when I took my niece there a few years ago, and the Shamu show didn't go well. The orca kept going back into her holding pen and just didn't feel like cooperating, so they eventually stopped the show and sent everyone packing. All I could feel was sad. These are living creatures with minds of their own and they shouldn't be made to "perform tricks" for our amusement multiple times a day. I'm just not an advocate for live animal entertainment. I do beleive they should be protected in the wild, but they don't understand the concept of working a 40 hour week for the benefit of food and lodging like we do. We can't just say, "They've got it better at Sea World than having to try to survive in the open sea." They don't think that way. I'm very sorry for the trainer and her family.
February 25, 2010 at 9:41 AM · My office is about two blocks away from Sea World. There are (at least) a half-dozen news trucks around the park and four helicopters hovering overhead.
February 25, 2010 at 10:42 AM · I don't think we should rule out the notion that Tilly wasn't having an "Of Mice and Men" moment. These animals are very intelligent, and have highly evolved brains. The notion that all Orcas in captivity are noble beings who happily go about there lives and want to play all the time with their trainers would be naive to say the least. I agree that this was a terrible accident, however, Tilly does have an established history of being involved with the deaths of humans he has come into contact with when in the same waters. These creatures are extremely social and are capable of emoting a broad range behavioral related displays. With all due respect to the victim, her family and friends, and people who are sensitive to this topic, my goal here is not to be provocative. Still, there seems to be no recorded instance of Orca to Human related death in the wild where these guys are Apex predators, yet in a controlled enviroment where they are trained and have relationships with humans, there have been 20 or so attacks resulting in various outcomes. I don't find it that much of a stretch to think that playtime wasn't the only motivation.
February 25, 2010 at 11:11 AM · Mr. Beaks uses the phrase: " ... there have been 20 or so attacks...”

I Respond: I don't think the word "attack" is proper. Attack implies the animal had (even if by instinct) treated the person as a target to be over-powered. And while in every case "playtime" may not have been the "motivation," I have no problem asserting that mere the proximity of human to orca may have been the cause of a sizable number of these incidents.

February 25, 2010 at 12:10 PM · In fact, both prior incidents with Tilli have pretty much been chalked up to "playful" behavior or lack of realization of the fraility of his human "plaything." In the first instance, there was speculation that the trainer who fell into the water was wearing clothing that was the same color and texture as a ball that he played with and he thought the trainer was just another plaything. In the second, the man who snuck into his tank was trying to swim with him and it was pretty commonly believed that he was trying to ride Tilli. It is speculated that Tilli's reaction was to play with the strange man in his pool, and in fact the cause of death was hyperthermia not drowning/blood loss, etc. It was pretty commonly thought that the guy died and then Tilli began to toss him around since he was no longer moving.

There have been other incidents with orcas who have drowned trainers by dragging them under or by trapping them underwater with their bodies. One recent one here in Orlando involved an orca trapping a trainer against the glass. The trainer survived and again speculation was that the orca just didn't realize that this fun game wasn't fun for the human.

As to the assertion that there have been no attacks on humans in the wild, that's probably true as there have been no documented cases that I can think of. That being said, there are also very few documented cases of humans getting into the water with orcas in the wild due to the frigid conditions in which they swim. In addition, orcas in the wild have no idea what a human is, and having determined that they're not worth bothering with, leave them alone. Humans and orcas interact very closely in research and aquarium conditions like Sea World, and that raises the odds of an accident. Still, judging by the number of orcas in captivity, and the number of times a trainer interacts or gets into the water with them, the number of deaths/accidents is still very low. It's sad that it happens even once, but to compare it to attacks in the wild is a little like comparing the number of people who get hit by trains while crossing the tracks to the number of people killed by trains on the highway.

February 25, 2010 at 12:35 PM · For the benefit of the family, why are you all speculating ? Dawn was doing what she loved. The news media in this country is a horrible waste and an injustice to society. Don't stoop to there level. The animals are treated very well and wouldn't survive in the wild. Tilli was not for show but was a breeding male. Sea world is a great place and there employees are of the best. Leave this to the experts. The family Loved Dawn beyond compare and feel blessed and happy that she got to do what she loved!

God bless you Dawn and family ! Thanks for a Life and Job well done !

February 25, 2010 at 1:27 PM · I concede that "attack" may be too strong a word. I will ammend that to "20 or so incidents, resulting in various outcomes". I also realize that constant interaction will eventually lead to these types of "incidents". Let me clarifiy that I am not against Sea World and their practices. I happen to think they do a fine job with all of their animals in whatever capacity they are featured through out the parks. I'm sure not all past Orca/Human incidents were perpetrated with the intent to harm. It does warrant examination when an animal has a recurring presence
in these types of "incidents" however. Clearly Tilly was a special case that the trainers had to deal with at the park, which is why the trainers never entered into the waters with him. The staff's treatment of the Orca reflected their apprehension of his temper and acknowledgment of the risk he posed.
February 25, 2010 at 2:05 PM · I met Dawn after a previous "Believe" show. She told us how much she loved the animals. And how much she loved her job. To think a person can die doing what they love is more than can ever be asked for. But Dawn got the pleasure.
I think it is rediculous for anyone to take this lame oportunity to point fingers at animals in captivity, when these animals are spoiled, and treated like the trainers own families. There has been very few accidents. But they never failed at every show to remind you that these animals are wild animals. So to get all worked up over this is juvenile.
Her family knew and respected her dream to work with animals. They are rejoicing in the memories they have of her, sure short changed due to accident, but as her sister stated, she loved Tilli. You can't stop loving your kids cause they play too rough sometimes. Dawn wouldn't stop loving Tilli either. The shows must go on so we can continue to love and have respect for these animals. Let the parks do thier part. Have sympathy for the family. Respect nature and continue to learn from nature. The things we have learned from the interaction with these "killer whales" is valuable. And must continue! RIP Dawn, you were an inspiration to my family!
February 25, 2010 at 3:00 PM · Latest update from Orlando Sentinel states that Dawn was pulled in by her long ponytail. I wonder if they'll make trainers cut their hair now?

My sympathy to the Dawns' family.

February 25, 2010 at 3:57 PM · A family at the Dine with Shamu experience took video, which WESH News obtained. THe video is about 5 minutes long and shows Dawn's interaction before the fateful event.
This video isn't graphic and ends before anything happened, but it shows a calm, cooperative whale.
The incident took place just moments arfter the camera was shut off.

Check out the link for the video and you can watch on full screen.

February 25, 2010 at 4:20 PM · Does anyone else, other than myself, believe that this tragedy could result in Blackwell implementing Merlin Entertainment's published policy ending the use of animals as performers at the Sea World parks?
February 25, 2010 at 4:58 PM · This would definitely qualify as an event that would fan those flames if Merlin/Blackwell did decide to implement that policy. However, these show's are Sea Worlds bread and butter. The exhibits are top notch, and the handful of rides offered are of high quality, but Shamu is synonymous with the Sea World brand and a major attraction at the parks. I think ultimately safety policies will become more stringent to better protect the trainers as well as the animals, but the shows will continue to go on.
February 26, 2010 at 9:22 AM · This is one of those sobering tragedies. People forget that while these whales are trained and "tame" for lack of a better word, they are still 6 tons. We are so used to seeing whales as performers, that we forget that they are still animals. To question the "motives of the whale", as some critics and experts are trying to do now, is an exercise in futility. They are smart and mostly benign creatures when trained, but even the most kind and gentle of animals have their moments, and when said animal is a 6 ton whale, there could be a problem when humans are involved. The bottom line is that when you get in the pool with a 12,000 pound killer whale, you are putting your life into the whale's hands. You are trusting that animal to do as it's been trained to do, and 99.999999% of the time they do it. If they don't, then there's not much you can do.

There's always going to be the chance that this can happen. It rarely does happen, but it's always possible...just like it's possible for a zoo animal to attack, or a show tiger to turn on it's tamer. This particular whale had a history with another trainer (who died the same way), and was kept isolated for a reason. It doesn't seem that he was killing her for food, rather that he was "playing".

Do I think the show should close? No I don't think it's particularly necessary. The trainers and handlers have done this for years, performing hundreds of shows per year without incident, and it doesn't seem that the trainer would have wanted that to happen. Regardless, it's still a tragedy, and my thoughts and prayers go out to the family.

February 26, 2010 at 9:50 AM · DO you people realize that these animals only get exercise by swimming during the shows?  they are meant to swim thousands of miles a day hunting.  If they close the shows, no money to pay the so called trainers and then who exercises the whales.  Blackstone is not interested in the whales safety.  only public image to protect its dirty secrets.  The secret?  Artificial insemination.  Tillikum is the fist whale they have successfully masturbated into submission, they use an electric probe stimulation and hold condom to collect sperm and sell it... Tillikum is being raped over and over again for money.  Tillikum is a playful creature like the others.  Trainers cannot teach the whale about human fragitlity and the lung capacity of people.  These whales see these people swimming around them and playing with them...they dont know the difference between grabbing someone byt the waist and swimming around with her ...and the times when they are swimming around with her....not all mammal/animals have the same control.  he was so gentle with his enormous teeth...she had no mjor lacerations and there wasnt a pool of blood. he is an enornomous gentle giant who wants to come out of his jail cell and play and swim and get some exercise...this is the saddest story i think i have ever learned and my heart is broken but i am still safely tucked in my home..tiliikum has to earn his food by being raped and exploited for his semen.  you know they say to never get on ground level with a dog it blurrs the boundaries of whats play and whats not...getting in a pool with an orca is not any different the orca are learning boundaries but one mistake can lead to a tragedy do to the difference in size of the play toys at hand.  They take chances everytime they believe that a whale is under their control, and the whale is forced like a kidnap vicitim to befriend its rapist for food. to do a trick for some dead herring after a lap around the puddle. this is sick.

blackstone is not really concerned about the shows...thats what they want you to stay focused you dont learn they really make most money from "science research"  AI  artificial insemination  and the science research is also what the trainers observe but most of what the trainers observe cannot not be released to the public.  behavior patterns of agitated whales...and when and why and how...they are not paying any attention to the communication of the whales....they are just demanding the whales participate and then something goes wrong and its a violent whale?  if the whale was violent he would have crushed all three people with his teeth, or ate him, or snappe d them in half... he played with them...he barely caused any harm...he did not know they would could he...he see them swimming around with the whales all the time...boundaries are blurred...its so obvious....please we need to PROTECT him...he is better off dead than masturbated and held in a lonely pool not allowed to play like the others...i dont want to see him die ....but it would be better than rape.

“This is a giant warning sign that society needs to rethink this question of holding large predators in captivity,” says Chris Palmer, author of “Shooting in the Wild,” a book about wild animals in captivity, who also teaches at American University. “Having a trainer killed this way can’t justify whatever benefits we get from conservation or protection.”

International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute

Protect Tillikum and other trainers

February 26, 2010 at 10:09 AM · Are you serious? Posting this on a theme park fan board is not going to get you many on your side.

Why not use your real name?

February 26, 2010 at 11:04 AM · You might might have some valid points on the "not trying to hurt her" part, but I'll stop there and TH respond to this one as he is much better at this than I would be lol...

But I will have to ask after quoting you:

Tillikum is the fist whale they have successfully masturbated into submission, they use an electric probe stimulation and hold condom to collect sperm and sell it

Condoms really?

Like Anthony pointed out, why not post with your real name? Esp, if so passionate about what you know so much on?

February 26, 2010 at 12:18 PM · Wow, and I thought I was being the wack job in this comment discussion. I would love to see any documentation to back up the rediculous claims that Sea World is able to mount a trash bag size condom onto a 1200lb Killer Whale, and then stimulate it, so as to collect it's sperm for further breeding and scientific research. Usually I spell check before posting, perhaps you should do a sanity check. I agree, that these huge animals are not meant to be held in the postage sized tanks they make their homes in, and after reviewing the video of the trainer just moments prior to the incident, I can accept the notion that Tilly may have been playing too rough. But what other agenda are you trying to accomplish here? Why haven't any of the trainers come forward about this alledged Orca rape scandal. Are they all in on the take, or does SWO have a special unit that comes in after hours to wine and dine 6 tons of baby making magic out of Tilly?

Update: Just did a little digging, and found out that Tilikum was actually trained for artificial insemination. Still, envoking a word such as rape to get a point across is in poor taste.

February 26, 2010 at 11:53 AM · You know, it's honestly making me ill to read this thread anymore. So I'll make this my last comment, people are taking a death and using it to point fingers and yell from rooftops about freeing animals that wouldn't know how to survive in the wild or have very little chance. These animals are used to people and have become dependent, you need to consider that while your yelling. I'm sorry to say it but if this kind of accident had happened anyplace else but at a theme park with a national name, it wouldn't have been giving national media news attention it's gotten.

Also, have you people who call SWO evil forgotten all the good they do? Perhaps you should go look at all the conservation projects they help out and donate too. Ever live in Central Florida and have a wild animal in trouble? SWO will take that animal and help them as best as possible where anyplace else would simply put the animal down without a second thought. I may not agree with everything SWO does or their policies, but I can tell you they do more good then bad.

Why not go point your fingers where it belongs, all the small roadside zoos and tourist traps that do mistreat their animals? Perhaps donate to an under-funded zoo in Dawn's name to improve the living condition of animals that need it? Join a rescue project that saves marine mammals? Try the Florida Manatee rescue, they are always happy for the help! Do something with your mouth and hands other then give lip service to something.

February 26, 2010 at 12:05 PM · Phil I'm sorry I still can't help laughing reading yours.. I applied to work at S.W YEARS AGO, but I really don't remember a job opening for "whale condom holder"? Asof the size of the tank, true it's not the ocean, but I remember when they were over in the Blue Horizon tank, so they have gotten a hugh up grade in space, still maybe not as much as many would hope these animals would have. But as pointed out time (AND TIME) again those whales have it made, I want to come back as a S.W. whale, or maybe a Peabody Duck.
February 26, 2010 at 3:29 PM · Okay i first read about the rape this morning and now ive finally decided to post. This has to be someone from PETA. I would like to know how you rape a 12000 lbs whale. 4 or 5 people that weigh maybe a total of 800 lbs will not be able to rape a 12000 lbs whale. Now lets look at some facts here about SW and the whales they keep. Out of 21 whales that they have only 5 are from the wild. Out of those 5 i believe at least 3 came from other parks. SW no longer captures there whales. They all have been born and raised in the parks. The ones that were from the wild came to sw when other theme parks went belly up.

Lets look at the oldest whale in a park around. Its at SWSD. Her name is Corky. All new trainers are put with this whale to begin with. Why cause she loves working with people and is like a big teddy bear ive been told. She knows limits and what she can and cant do. But i guess she is forced to do all that. Cause yes you can force a 6 ton whale to do what you want.

Now your statement that the only exercise they get is during a show?? So the whales are tied up to the side of the pool when not in a show so they cant swim around. Funny i have a season pass that gets me into all the parks. I go to SWSD at least 7 or 8 times a year and support everything they do. I always see the whales swimming and playing with each other in the pools. Jumping without anyone telling them to do. Ive been there when they do well in a show and the show goes on and they laugh it off and let the whales do what they want. When no ones is around the whales are doing whatever. As soon as they see someone they are at the side wanting to be rubbed fed or whatever.

Yes this was a tragic accident. But i can promise you this. If she had survived she would be right back in that water and close to tilly as soon as she could. Just like Mr Peters at SWSD does with the whale that has hurt him 3 times now.
You people state they should be released back into the wild. Lets take a look at the one whale that was released back into the wild. Free Willy. It died what less than a year after being released. I take it you think the pets rule show is cruel to and those animals should be released also.

I am responding with my own log in so i welcome the peta members to contact me. I am sorry this is not spell checked or grammer checked.

February 26, 2010 at 4:13 PM · Well said Brian!!!
February 26, 2010 at 4:31 PM · Nuke the whales.

You gotta nuke something.

February 26, 2010 at 5:01 PM · Else why have nukes, eh, Josh?

And, yes, well stated, Brian.

Now, I am going to release my cat into the wild for a bit. Later.

February 26, 2010 at 5:39 PM · Thank You. I promise you this i will keeping getting a season pass for My wife, Daughter, Niece and Nephew and myself. Also i promise you none of the peta pukes or animal rights pukes that have written in here will write to me because there to scared to have a conversation with someone that will out wit them.
February 26, 2010 at 10:46 PM · I totally agree with Carrie and Brian ! A lot fo these post are crazy. What planet did this PETA group come from ?
February 27, 2010 at 5:57 AM · The latest on this incident was that the trainer made a tragic mistake. She was almost lying down in the pool so that her pony tail was in the water. The whale unfortunatly thought her pony tail was a toy, and pulled on it, yanking her into the water. Then he thought he was playing a game with her in the water.
Obviously some simple precautions will be implemented, including, I imagine, banning pony tails among the trainers.
February 27, 2010 at 12:44 PM · One thing to add today. I beleive its Merlin who doesnt want animal shows or be a part of it. They are not partnered with Blackstone in the Sea World parks. I may be wrong. Robert can add to that.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Buy Tickets

Plan a Trip

Weekly Newsletter