Orca kills SeaWorld trainer
'Started thrashing,' witness says; 2 earlier deaths cited
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3:16 p.m. PT, Wed., Feb. 24, 2010
The pool area where a trainer was killed by an orca is seen Wednesday shortly after the accident at SeaWorld of Orlando.
ORLANDO - A SeaWorld trainer died Wednesday when she slipped or fell into a pool and was fatally injured by an orca, a sheriff's official said. A witness, however, said it appeared the orca had actually pulled the trainer into the pool.
The same orca, or killer whale, has been tied to two deaths in 1991 and 1999, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which has campaigned to keep marine mammals out of theme parks.
Jim Solomons of the Orlando County Sheriff's Office said the trainer slipped or fell into the orca's tank. A source later identified the victim as Dawn Brancheau, 40, who was one of the park's most experienced trainers.
WKMG-TV reported that a witness, Victoria Biniak, said she saw the incident from a viewing area where the orca is housed.
"The trainer was explaining different things about the whale ... and then the trainer that was down there walked away from the window ... and then Telly (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," Biniak said.
Authorities provided few immediate details, but two witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that one of the park’s orcas 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 an orca with someone in its mouth.
The couple said they watched the orca show at the park two days earlier and came back to take pictures. But on Wednesday the whales appeared agitated before the incident occurred.
"It was terrible. It’s very difficult to see the image," Sobrinho said.
The area of the theme park where the incident happened was later closed.
A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Sentinel that the 30-year-old, 12,300-pound male orca, which is also called Tillikum, is typically kept isolated from other orcas and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his violent history.
Two earlier deaths
In 1991, the same orca, "along with two female (killer) whales, drowned a young part-time trainer named Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada," the Humane Society stated.
The orcas "weren't trying to kill Byrne, but Tillikum and his orca companions didn't know that humans can't hold their breath as long as whales," Humane Society scientist Naomi Rose said in a report on the group's Web site.
Tillikum was later shipped to SeaWorld Orlando, the Humane Society noted, and in 1999, "a man who had apparently stayed in the park after closing hours jumped into Tillikum's tank ... He was found dead the next morning, naked and draped across the whale. The man's swim trunks were found in the water, and his body was scraped up, a sign that Tillikum had dragged him around the bottom and sides of the tank."
An autopsy ruled that the man died of hypothermia in the 50-degree water. But officials also said it appeared Tillikum bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks, likely believing he was a toy to play with.
Rose, an orca biologist, told msnbc.com that SeaWorld had since "tried to keep trainers out of the water" with Tillikum "but the hazard is always there."
Some two dozen orcas are kept in captivity in the U.S., most at SeaWorld facilities, Rose said. Worldwide the number is 47.
"In the developing world, the South Pacific and Asia, it's the hot fad," she said of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Previous orca incidents at SeaWorld
"There have been numerous incidents by other killer whales," Rose said. "These animals are big, they are social, they are moody, and they can hurt you."
Last December, a whale drowned a trainer at a Spanish zoo.
Several attacks on trainers have been at SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, trainer Kenneth Peters was bitten and held underwater several times by a 7,000-pound killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. He escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot-long orca who 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.
Killer whales, or orcas, are not actually whales but the largest member of the dolphin family. The name killer whale comes from them being observed as sometimes killing whales for food.
Trainer profiled in 2006
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando’s leading trainers. It was apparently a trip to SeaWorld at 9 years old that made her want to pursue this career.
Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who died Wednesday, is seen at SeaWorld Orlando in 2005.
"I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said in the article.
Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her 12-year career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending the past 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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